Of Sound Mind
How a self-taught artist is combating selective sound sensitivity syndrome... and using the products of his therapy– his paintings– to explore the consequences of alienation in modern society.
I’d cringe and feel what I can only describe as a “chill” run up my back every time I heard it: my baby sister– a toddler at the time– engaging in some open-lipped, audible smacking of whatever food she’d put into her little mouth.
I, being merely 6 years old, didn’t have a clue as to why it was so disturbing to me; I just knew either it needed to stop, or I had to get the heck away from our dining-room table. It was so strange because, at the time, there were no other noises that bothered me like that one did.
“Mom! Tell her to close her mouth,” I’d implore, time and time again. My mother seemed to sympathize with me, but, ultimately, she really couldn’t do much to get a 1-year-old to keep her lips shut when she chewed.
I guess my complaints were vocal– and annoying– enough that eventually my sis did indeed get better about her eating style, and that extreme anxiety I experienced subsided.
It wasn’t until years later that I started noticing other folks– usually friends or classmates of mine– “smacking” their food, and then that fight-or-flight state would kick in again. I certainly would not characterize myself as a violent person. However, speaking frankly, whenever I’d encounter someone gnawing away at a saliva-covered bolus with wide-open mouth, I’d feel a sudden urge to punch them in the face. I never did though; instead, I would just find a way out of the situation. Rather than fight them, I’d flee.
And, as it became clear that there were several other “trigger” sounds that caused this anxiety in me (doors slamming, people screaming, dogs barking, cars that go “boom”), that is what I ended up doing– avoiding.
But then, despite my being a very social person, that avoidance soon evolved into alienation, and I found myself spending more and more time alone. I can’t tell you how many breakfast, lunch and dinner invitations I’ve turned down– only because I didn’t want to be subjected to more smacking and slurping while I attempted, unsuccessfully, to enjoy my own meal.
What was wrong with me? I just couldn’t understand. I’d talk to friends or family about it, and they’d pretty much all say the same thing: “Just tune it out.”
But I couldn’t! No matter how hard I tried. And, believe me, I wanted so badly to not let those sounds bother me.
Then I began hearing about something called “misophonia,” or selective sound sensitivity syndrome. People from around the world were joining online support groups and making documentaries and being interviewed by news programs about how they could not stand being around certain noises. It was actually very comforting for me to find out that I’m not the only one in the world who gets overcome with stress when someone eats like a feral animal.
Interestingly, many of these people actually seemed much worse off than I, and the nature of their condition presented differently. One woman in a chat group explained how she wanted to take a knife and slit her beloved husband’s throat... just because she could hear him breathing. An otherwise well adjusted teen with misophonia could not tolerate the sound of his own parents’ voices, and so he now lives in a backyard shed that has been converted into habitable living quarters.
After learning more about misophonia, I decided to do two things: educate everyone in my life about it so they better understand the condition and can perhaps make some minor, but necessary, adjustments (or, of course, they could choose not to); and, after “accidentally” discovering the therapeutic value of painting, escape into a world of art-making that would liberate me and provide a universe over which I had complete control.
Making art has become the therapy I needed for decades but couldn’t find.
When I paint, I almost always have headphones on, to listen to music that inspires me– but mostly to block out those trigger sounds.
What I’ve noticed is that a particular theme has subconsciously arisen in my art– alienation.
And it comes as no surprise: I fully understand the feeling of not belonging in this often chaotic world.
Because that feeling of disconnection from society is so accessible to me, I am able to empathize with others who also find it difficult to fit in. Therefore, my art explores the state of life of those who exist on the fringes. In one mixed-media piece, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio starkly separates the poor who live in favelas from the wealthy who inhabit the coastal high-rises. In another piece, a transgender person is draped in a weatherworn American flag, in a fragile, complicated patriotism. In an oil-acrylic painting, a plump woman rides with abandon on the back of a dragonfly, with her identity concealed because there’s still some shame to overcome.
These aren’t the types of folks being used to sell lip gloss and sexy luxury cars; they’re the ones who are being body-shamed on social media and denied the opportunity to serve our country despite their willingness to put themselves on the line.
The ones on the fringes are my muses. Their courage and perseverance inspire me, and I want to share their stories.
And, if they can overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and live to tell about them, I can get a grip on this strange little condition called misophonia.