In the 2015 New York Times article “Please Stop Making That Noise,” Barron H. Lerner calls misophonia, literally hatred of sound, a “selective sound sensitivity syndrome.” It can be triggered by anything from gum chewing to loud, sudden noises. Per WebMD, a trigger can make a person feel anxious, uncomfortable, and/or give them the urge to flee. A more severe reaction can inspire rage, hatred, panic, fear, emotional distress, a desire to kill or stop whatever is making the noise, skin crawling, and/or suicidal thoughts. In other words, this anxiety disorder represents a serious quality of life issue depending on one’s ability to circumvent triggers.
I have misophonia, and while I have never experienced suicidal thoughts, I’ve most certainly entertained temporary (entertaining) homicidal thoughts when someone triggers me. I’ve also wanted to crawl out of my skin probably hundreds of times over the years. Coincidentally, that skin has a lot to do with my condition.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes misophonia, but it’s not a problem with your ears. They think it’s part mental, part physical. — WebMD
Noise triggers are easier to avoid in some places (say, a rural farm). I grew up in apartment buildings in Queens. This means I grew up suspended hundreds of feet in the air with only sheetrock and thin concrete separating me from the upstairs, downstairs, and next-door neighbors. Sheetrock separating me from their video workouts, their arguments, their drum practices, and their 2 AM wall mountings. But, as a child, noise never bothered me. I was so impermeable to disruption that I famously slept through the celebration happening inside my house, and virtually everywhere within a 100-mile radius, the night the Mets won the World Series in October of 1986. I actually slept through illegal fireworks going off everywhere, my dad hysterically crying, my mom and our neighbors banging pots and pans, and the phone ringing off the hook all through the night. I was nine years old and had a strict 8:30 PM bedtime that my parents wouldn’t let up on, even considering the rarity of the event. This indifference to noise was the norm all throughout my childhood and early adulthood.
It wasn’t just that noise didn’t bother me. I had a mutant-like ability to distinguish between the noises that should capture my attention, and the ones I could and should tune out. As an undergraduate, I lived in a sorority and could sleep through my roommates’ sex-capades and differentiate between morning alarms without a problem. But something happened to me in my early-twenties that rewired my brain.
I don’t ever wanna feel like I did that day. — Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge”
Just a few years out of college I’d secured my dream job as an entertainment journalist. It was always music and writing for me, so there was no backup plan. A week after starting, I was taken into the bathroom by a white co-worker, who I thought was a new friend, and told the only reason I was hired was because the company needed more Black employees. In under twenty seconds I saw my dream of becoming the next Cameron Crowe, spending my youth on a tour bus scrutinizing Dante with Anthony Kiedis and Flea, silently collapse into a red-hot, irate and laughing head, expelling sharp shards of duh, what were you thinking, you’re so not Cameron Crowe into every pore of my hopeful being.
Once my horror-turned-depression dissipated, I was spitting mad. I’d hustled so hard to get that job, without any connections or helping hands (actually walking my resume up to magazine offices and cold-calling a few top-level receptionists so often that helping me became easier than ignoring me). Once I’d had the right editors’ attention, I was granted interviews based on my writing, not the color of my skin, as no one at the magazines knew who I was or what I looked like (ah, the pre-online-stalking world). I lived and breathed music and deserved a fair shake, yet it was clear as day, in that urine-stained moment, I was never going to be seen as an equal to a vast chunk of the population. I’d faced some gnarly racists before, but never had this realization been so painful and infuriating.
Misophonia seems to occur more frequently in a person with a higher level of anxiety, stress, or compulsive behaviour. The reaction often develops first … where the person has a high level of anxiety or distress (physiological state of distress) and they repeatedly hear the sound. It also seems to happen when a person cannot escape from the sound, such as at the dinner table, in a car, or even laying in bed. – Carolyne B. Atangaza, “Misophonia: The Sound Sensitivity Syndrome,” Daily Monitor
As a first-generation college student, whose parents had never worked in or had to navigate corporate America, I had no good way of dealing with this situation or any mentors to help guide me through. I naively went to Human Resources and told all the wrong people about all the wrongs going on under their comfortable watch. The inevitable reckoning and blackballing made work, and all I’d worked for up until that point, a source of incredible stress and anxiety. One day, in confidence and frustration, one of my editors admitted that although I had “all the potential” of the other young writers being handed big-time assignments and being flown around the country to the big music festivals I had to sit out, I was simply never given the chance.
Unsurprisingly, in the middle of all of this, I noticed I was having a hard time sleeping. I’d toss and turn at night thinking about everything in the world I was powerless to change, everything that was always going to be different for me no matter how hard I tried or how good I was. When I’d finally doze off around 4 AM I was routinely jostled awake by my parents’ upstairs neighbors of fifteen-plus years. I was living at home at the time because, unlike a lot of my co-workers, I didn’t have a trust fund, connections for a rent-controlled apartment (those almost criminally cheap spaces that people of my parents’ hue were historically barred from in NYC), or a desire to spend $1,000 a month sleeping on a cold floor in SoHo, hugging three other people. Although I’d grown up with this family living above us, it only registered to me then that someone up there liked to vacuum at 5 AM every morning, in the room right above my own. I routinely envisioned their bloody death.
How could people be so inconsiderate? So entitled? Did these monsters stop to consider the people around them and their schedules before turning on the vacuum? Why was there not a safe place in the world where I could just rest? How could I stop my heart rate from racing with every sudden and unpredictable thump against the floors and walls? Why did the walls feel nonexistent? When would the vacuum stop? Why did this unpredictable and uncontrollable noise feel like such an intrusion? Why did I feel so exposed? Why were my hands shaking? Why did it feel, and sound, like I was under constant attack?
I recently saw a man whose sleep is interrupted nightly by what he believes is someone moving furniture in the apartment above his. He can rarely fall asleep again, in part because of his anger. – Dr. Barron H. Lerner, “Please Stop Making That Noise,” The New York Times
I hated corporate America, it hated me, and a line of subsequent jobs produced similar missteps and outrages. I eventually transitioned to the more lucrative field of copywriting, which allowed me to support myself in NYC. By 2004 I’d saved up enough money to buy my first apartment. I moved out of my parents’ place to a pre-war co-op in Long Island City. It was the cutest top-floor starter apartment with a view of the Manhattan skyline, old-school fire escapes… and a vampire next door whose kitchen walls touched my bedroom wall.
I couldn’t account for the sudden and alarming banging, and often imagined him desperately pillaging for blood-red SpaghettiOs at 3 AM on the other side of my shaking walls. Although I knew the precipitous noises didn’t represent actual physical danger, I couldn’t convince my rapidly beating heart that I wasn’t under attack. It was if something short-circuited in my nervous system, igniting my unconscious fight or flight response with every thump. The dread is similar to flying through bad turbulence. I know a plane (most likely) won’t fall out of the sky the way I knew my neighbor probably wouldn’t breach the walls. I also rationally knew that any neighbor’s fight or unending bongo practice likely wouldn’t escalate into a homicide or a week-long Burning Man festival above me. But during the disturbance I just want out of the suspended death trap and need the grounding and sure footing of silence.
This particular neighbor’s late-night escapades went on for few years despite my attempts to make nice and try to get him to understand that I was on a diurnal schedule. He would often preempt anything I had to say with tales of what it was like for him back in Eastern Europe, where the walls and people’s skin were thicker. I invested hundreds of dollars on fancy white-noise machines and earplugs, but nothing could block out the vibration and thudding that rattled the walls and my nerves.
Things got so bad I eventually complained to the co-op board who referred me to the sponsor of Dracula’s apartment (turns out he was a rent-controlled tenant) who was eager to also kick him out so that he could sell the place. We ended up in court where I learned the scar on his forehead, that his terrible comb-over meant to hide, came from a rock that his former downstairs neighbor threw at him for similar disturbances. I actually “won” the court case. In fact, I was so persuasive and descriptive of my torment on the stand that the judge came out to look at the wall separating our apartments (this really happened) and ordered the sponsor to add more sheetrock (oops, egg on the sponsor’s face). Unfortunately, the additional sheetrock did little to silence what sounded like vampiric Olympic floor routines.
We were also clear enemies at this point, and my heightened disdain for him further exacerbated my intolerance of any noise he made. I started to notice this rang true in other situations. Like when people chewed with their mouths open, I began to realize I cared a little less about the indiscretion if I liked the person. If I didn’t like the offender I would actually start to visualize them as a cow, chewing its cud, and its subsequent journey to the butcher. Needless to say, I soon put my apartment up for sale.
My next place was a new-construction, corner-apartment condo in Park Slope with 24-hour doormen, a gym, and pot-smoking, porn-watching neighbors adjacent to me. There was also a family of three, with what I can only assume was a very active and very angry 300-pound toddler, squeezing into the one-bedroom above me. I dreaded going home and would stay at work late so that I could have a quiet office to myself to think. My palms would sweat on cue whenever I thought of being home in my apartment alone, offering myself up for sensory slaughter. The fear kept me trim as going to the gym was my only reprieve, but since I couldn’t move my bed, my desk, or my dining room in between the treadmills, that apartment didn’t work out either.
A lot of other things weren’t working out for me at the time. I’d just broken up with the love of my life and hit a figure-out-what’s-wrong-or-else crisis. I had no idea what I should be doing and what would make me happy. Besides some of the bigoted people I worked with, my career in journalism (the field I always thought I belonged in) was unfulfilling. But I wasn’t entirely convinced my compass directed me there without reason. Writing felt right, just not the type of schmaltzy writing I was doing, and cities didn’t all make me crazy (if places like Auckland and Strasbourg are cities and not heaven), just the one I was born in. I was done with NYC and needed a change.
I had to run away high, so I wouldn’t come home low. — Motley Crüe, “Home Sweet Home”
I decided to apply to grad school in journalism to see if that flame had permanently burned out (it did), took a Black poetry elective in said program that shook me to the core, used all of my credit card points and miles to travel around the world, decided to apply to yet another graduate program to explore my newfound passion for creative writing, and eventually found my way to an MFA program in San Francisco. In retrospect, all signs pointed towards me pursuing a career in creative writing: the hyper-sensitivity, the obsession with lyric-driven music, the flair for dramatics. But not coming from an academic or artistic background, my unimaginative teachers always told me to pursue journalism, the pragmatic writing option (ha!). Starting over was a risky move for a woman in her mid-thirties, but my hunger for more from life drowned out the reasonable voices. I was taking a shot at finding peace and creative happiness… it just happened to be in the only city arguably more expensive than New York.
It wasn’t an easy decision. In deciding which MFA program to attend it came down to studying with (Black) poets whose work I knew and admired in Kentucky—a place I also assumed I’d have a fairly decent shot at finding quiet, affordable housing—and a program and faculty I was less familiar with in San Francisco, where it would be undoubtedly harder to find a quiet place to live. Although San Francisco was always my favorite American city, it was 3,000 miles away from my family, which was a big consideration as they have always been my real shelter in the world. Ultimately the Bay Area won, because although I knew it would take a lot of my earnings, I also knew making money there would be easier than anywhere else, including New York. All of the sweat and mental-health equity I’d put into working in corporate America meant something, namely that the big Silicon Valley companies were going to eat up all the big-name New York companies and publications I had on my resume. Being the only breadwinner in my household of one, I knew I had to bite the bullet and move to another dense city.
Get regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and manage your stress. Set up quiet areas or safe spots in your home where no one will make the noises that bother you. – (A very condescending) WebMD
When I first moved to the Bay Area I was only interested in apartments in the East Bay because I figured San Francisco would only bring more cramped-spaced, thin-walled havoc. I initially moved into an affordable ($890 a month!) studio in a four-unit house in Emeryville my first semester of school. The small space wouldn’t have been a problem in and of itself, but my next-door neighbor was a plucky Berkeley graduate student who enjoyed screaming Disney show tunes in between four-minute orgasms (I still have horrible, inappropriate associations whenever I hear “Let it Go”). I’m sure I’d endured worse, fifteen years earlier in college, but I was long past this being an acceptable living situation. I was also long past the days of not needing a respite, a calm place where I could rest my head and shut out the world. My fourth-grade self and my early-college self may not have needed it as much, but this incarnation of me was barely holding on without it.
I didn’t want to move because I knew I had a rare and wonderful setup for the ultra-competitive Bay Area market. Beyond the cheap rent, I had a landlord who adored me. He was a wiry white man in his early-nineties who loved me at first glance. I was one of the few Black applicants who turned up to compete for the apartment and his affections during the bustling open house. He took to me immediately, spending a half an hour discussing poetry with me. He even Googled me and my poems as I was filling out the application (an application I’m pretty sure he never read). He called me an hour after I left the open house to tell me the place was mine for the taking.
Once I moved in he’d take me shopping to buy new appliances (of my choosing), he’d have me over for tea in his art-filled, Berkeley Hills mansion where we’d discuss the poetry of Robert Hass (an associate of his while teaching at Berkeley), and he’d take me on tours of my new neighborhood, which was just blocks away from the South Berkeley neighborhood he grew up in. Although he never came out and said it, I knew from the way he talked about the golden age of South Berkeley and its rich African-American history and art that he saw me as a way of bringing back what he was heartbroken to see forced out. In some ways letting me into his space was a sort of housing and art Affirmative Action—reparations to try and stave off the effects of a gentrification battle that was long lost. For once, being in my skin was working in my favor, but I couldn’t suddenly release all of the anxiety my body was already housing, which meant I couldn’t work around my neighbor’s noise, no matter how hard I tried.
And I tried. I would routinely take hour-plus drives to beach towns like Pacifica in search of quiet cafés to sit in and be overstimulated by strangers in a controlled setting, instead of intermittently jostled into horror by my neighbor’s antics. Not only was this fleeing for a bit of sanity time consuming, the money spent on greasy café food and fancy coffee made me wonder just how affordable my apartment really was. I’d also accepted work in the South Bay (easily an hour commute each way), so staying in the apartment was becoming less and less feasible. I begrudgingly asked my landlord if he’d let me out of my lease a few months early, which he did, but only after he made me promise to not give up on my art.
I guess that this must be the place. – Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place”
My first place outside of the Emeryville sex den was an adorable and spacious one-bedroom apartment in Foster City that cost $2,100 a month to rent. Although I was mainly moving to that area for work, I wondered if the ‘burbs were the answer to my problems. I found a Three’s Company-like, 70’s-style complex complete with pool and palm trees. I was only looking at top-floor, corner apartments at the time (I’d previously had top-floor or corner, but never both), thinking this was the way and the light. There was carpeting (noise absorber!), stucco on the sealing (possibly another barrier to noise and at very least another speckled layer of insulation), and so many walls and hallways (separation of space!). In the age of the open-floor plan and hardwood floors, I’d managed to find a place as out of sync as I was.
But as can be expected in suburbia, the one-bedroom below me was housing a small family and their pre-school-aged daughter who’d constantly invite all the other children in the complex over for what sounded like who-can-run-headfirst-into-walls-the-fastest-and-scream-the-loudest contests. These contests routinely began at 6 AM. I tried to reason with them about the noise, but this only led me to eventually getting flipped off by the little girl. Luckily, I was about to leave my job in Mountain View, which meant I could finally leave the aggressively family-friendly Peninsula and look for cottages back where most of my friends were, the East Bay.
Leaving Foster City meant paying to move, in addition to paying out the end of my lease, which cost me thousands of dollars I didn’t really have. This was the second time in a year I’d left a lease early, but I thought I’d lucked out and finally found my dream place when I moved into my cozy “Tahoe-style cottage” (as it was advertised on Craigslist) on a beautiful cul-de-sac street back in Emeryville. The houses were all pink and lilac and my neighbors were Black, beige, brown and white. This had not been the case in Foster City, where people were pretty much either white or Asian. I always stuck out like a sore thumb in every neighborhood I’d lived in except Emeryville, which is part of what drew me back. And although I was disheartened by the U-Haul vans I’d routinely see moving long-time Black residents out for white and Asian couples with their small dogs and small children, I still felt more comfortable there than in most places. For about a week, anyway.
The pathophysiology of misophonia is unknown. It is known that the characteristics of sound can contribute to its potential to be aversive, and knowledge of the origin of a sound can also influence the extent to which it is aversive. – George Bruxner, “‘Mastication rage’: a review of misophonia – an under-recognised symptom of psychiatric relevance?,” Australasian Psychiatry
Turned out my cottage (coming in under $2,000 a month), which by definition should mean four freestanding walls, wasn’t as private as I had hoped. My next-door neighbors had a storage unit attached to the ground-floor level of my space that they seemed to use as their own pantry, loudly, about twice a day. The storage room was located right above my bedroom, which overlooked their backyard, which housed their three dogs (including a pit bull as seemingly anxious as I was about the situation, as he would lunge and bark at me anytime I went downstairs to use my laundry room). They also had a cat they allowed to spend most of its time outdoors, casually peeing on my front steps—all the homey things you can’t quite envision until you’ve moved into a place.
But their affronts went beyond noise and fur. My neighbors had ways of letting me know that this was “their land,” “their turf,” so to speak. They would routinely use and move the garbage bins I was paying for, for their own purposes, even after I asked them nicely not to. They’d also block me out of my carport spot with their SUV when they needed to unload groceries or animals, which was daily. I’d learned over the years that there was little remedy for these types of neighborly transgressions, as tattling to the landlord did very little unless he could be there every day to scold them.
Although these offenses were borderline illegal, per my lease and my disposal agreement with the city of Emeryville, what could I do? I tried talking to them but got back shock and disbelief that I wouldn’t want to share my garbage bins with them. The shock quickly turned into condescension (“We wondered why you didn’t seem so friendly”). I was exhausted by the drama. And what could I do if things escalated, call the cops as a Black woman reporting her white neighbors in this day and age? Of course not, and on some level I’m sure my neighbors knew this, which kept them bold and hateful. Nine months into this hellish lease I accepted work in San Francisco and decided to look for a cottage there to avoid the Bay Bridge and the nasty East Bay colonization that I saw my neighbors representing. Yes, I was leaving the East Bay’s gentrification for San Francisco, that’s how bad it had gotten.
I’ll work and I’ll fight ‘til I find a place of my own. – Madonna, “Jump”
I wasn’t sure how much luck I’d have with rental applications this time around, particularly references, as I was becoming the runaway lessee. And leaving yet another lease early meant that my landlords would use the opportunity to update the apartment and be picky about selecting replacement tenants while I paid double rent, but my choice had to be sanity over savings. This was also San Francisco I was apartment hunting in, the unofficial world capital of inflation. But, against all odds, I found an accommodating real estate agent (who I quite frankly didn’t trust at first because she was so fair, honest, and genuine) and a real cottage in the Inner Richmond (or Balboa Hollow as the new city maps call it, and who am I to stand in the way of progress). I knew I had to have it at first sight.
The cottage is so private you can’t even see it from the street: you must journey through the street door which opens to a slinking walkway that eventually leads to a house of calming beige and blue, with a red door to match the intense flowers blooming on the surrounding bottlebrush trees and bushes. Having only lived in apartments and fake cottages, this is the first time I’ve lived in a real house, complete with steps and a basement—actual levels to live in. Finally, a room of my own in the middle of the city!
A decently sized room, at that, a block and a half from Golden Gate Park and, more importantly, at least 200 feet away from anyone else’s walls! It’s almost $1,000 a month more than any place I’ve ever rented, but it’s a place where I can avoid having to know anything about my neighbors and their quirks. I have things like a washer, a dryer, and a treadmill at my private disposal, meaning I can stay indoors and avoid people for weeks if need be. There’s also a half-room that I can use as an office, or an extra bedroom for the people I can stand to be around for extended periods of time (who know better than to chew with their mouths open). I can sit and write poetry as friendly bats and hummingbirds rejoice and flutter outside my window. I still can’t believe it’s real, and often wake up to the click of the heat coming on expecting that it’s a drunk neighbor kicking my door, or a runaway toddler, but so far so good. Good, but not perfect.
I have to work to keep this expensive oasis over my head. This means I’m not getting everything out of school, the reason I moved to the Bay Area in the first place. It means I often rush through assignments and don’t always have the time to hang out with classmates and truly immerse myself in literature. And working means things like sharing an office with a twitchy gum-chewer, sitting in completely unproductive, business-talky meetings all day instead of reading Proust, and often coming home too mentally spent to focus on anything but Vanderpump Rules. But I now have the space and quiet to write about it all. I mean, I was able to write this essay without paying to have a half-burnt, overheated, chai latte in a sticky coffee shop. Instead I burned my tongue at home, taking breaks to read vaguely racist posts on Nextdoor about suspicious activity in our San Francisco oasis (a San Francisco that is now less than 3% Black). But since I rarely see my neighbors and they rarely see me, c’est la vie.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines neurological disorders as physical diseases of the nervous system and psychiatric illnesses as disorders that manifest as abnormalities of thought, feeling, or behaviour. In fact, however, there are longstanding unresolved debates on the exact relationship between neurology and psychiatry, including whether there can be any clear division between the two fields. — Hayley Price, “Neurology vs. Psychiatry: The Social Production of Knowledge, Sociological Images,” The Society Pages
This house also gave me the quiet space to explore the singular thinking I had around my aversion to noise. About 57 feet in front of my cottage is the back of an apartment building mainly inhabited by undergraduates. College students make great neighbors in that they care even less about me and my life as I do theirs, but they can also be loud, incredibly immature, and irresponsible. These particular young adults have occasionally thrown bonfire parties allowing both smoke and loud, inane conversations to enter my walls (Tinder does terrible things to people). They’ve also dumped their rubbish into my recycling, and their excess trash into my compost bins, which has led to letters from the city warning me to properly recycle, or else.
But with these neighbors I’m pretty sure it’s not personal as much as it’s just childish inconsideration. They seem to only care about taking up the immediate space they are in, as opposed to targeting mine for consumption, which is a relief. And because I don’t share any physical walls with them, I can easily brush off their antics as infrequent inconveniences; they don’t feel like a daily assault of the senses. Plus, the coeds regularly place mail on my front steps when it’s misdelivered to them—leaps and bounds homier than cat urine. I even, uncharacteristically, initiate a nod and smile when we (rarely) bump into each other, prompting blushing, darting eyes, and mumbled, awkward, teenaged-boy replies back.
My reaction to them has shown me that while I definitely have some level of misophonia, I more distinctly have a strong case of entitlement-phobia. People who feel like they have the right to infringe upon my space, my quiet, my accomplishments, and my sanity make me nuts, absolutely skin-crawling crazy. But seemingly innocuous, unaware, preoccupied people who, for example, can never remember my name even though they get my mail, or who just trip over themselves with their lack of social graces, I can live with and around. They represent occupied, but not necessarily mean-spirited, fried and frazzled brains I know a little something about.
Kimberly Reyes’s nonfiction has appeared in the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, Time.com, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Alternative Press, ESPN the Magazine, Jane, Honey, NY1 News, and The Best American Poetry blog, among other places. Because she didn’t give up on her art, her poetry appears widely online and in journals, including The Academy of American Poets, The Feminist Wire, The Acentos Review, RHINO, Columbia Journal, Yemassee, and New American Writing. Her book, Running to Stand Still, is forthcoming from Omnidawn.