When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.
Two thoughts arose in alarming succession.
First: I wouldn't mind being deaf.
My mind scrambled to compensate for this reckless thought. But think of all that you would miss:
The chirping of birds, for God's sake!
Then, elbowing the first thought out of frame and grinning wide for the camera: No -- I want to be deaf.
Because here is a list of all that I would not miss:
The chirping of birds (especially the chirping of birds)
A girl sits -- no, cowers -- in a bathroom stall, fighting back tears and screams and all the other qualities of a full-blown kiddie temper tantrum. The only problem is that this girl is 23 years old.
The catalyst? A series of coughs.
You see, to understand our -- hero? Villain? Quirky sidekick? -- you must understand that which cannot be understood. Not by family, not by friends, not by doctors, not even by this panic-stricken girl herself. You must understand the unfathomable world of misophonia.
Until this moment, it had been nearly a decade of ever-increasing frustration. The simplest noise, from the rustle of a plastic bag to the clicking of a pen to the aforementioned coughs, would set me off. Around the age of 17, family dinners fell by the wayside. I could barely make it through a single minute without shooting daggers at my father, whose chewing made me feel like I was being electrocuted. When I began college in 2008, I would dread exam days with a dense weight in my stomach that can only be likened to someone being led to the gallows. It was a disproportionate reaction for an A-average student; my mind wouldn't be swimming with facts and figures, but with the potential of sniffling and chair creaking and pencil scratching and toe tapping and...
It was like going through all the stages of grief at once. Denial: It's something you can get over, right? Anger: More like rage, an irrepressibly hot fever that crashes over me like a radioactive disease, leaving me short of breath. Bargaining: Dear universe, if you let me get into a subway car that doesn't contain a gum snapper, I will be forever grateful. Depression: A stage to which I kept telling myself I would not succumb, when there were distinct signs that I had already begun.
All except, of course, the last and most important, acceptance.
But it was this moment, nearly a year after my college graduation and months into my administrative post at a local university, when it turned from frustration to fear. What was wrong with me? It was a desperate thought that was never far from my mind, but running to the bathroom to hide my filling eyes from my coworkers was the final straw. I work in a cubicle surrounded by people who I cannot possibly expect to understand.
I felt as if I was living on a constant precipice. Every event was analyzed for impending trigger sounds. My social life was practically nonexistent, as even going to the movies became one of the most improbably stressful situations. I had stopped writing, something which before had always brought me joy. I had nearly constant headaches. I either couldn't or didn't want to fall asleep -- lying in bed was the only valid excuse for isolation and silence. The longer I slept, the sooner it was over.
I had learned ways of coping with this still nameless thing. (Thing - perhaps the most generic, pathetic word in the English language, and yet it was the only word I had). I slept with both a white noise machine and earplugs. I listened to music about ten hours a day, attempting to block out nearby noises at work and on my daily subway commute.
Only my immediate family and a precious few close friends knew about my issues. But that's as far as the descriptions went. My "issues." My "eccentricities." The most common response was, "Well, everyone has noises that bother them." I nodded along, when all I wanted to do was scream.
I had tried finding an explanation, but could barely figure out where to begin. If I can't explain it to myself, how could I explain it to a doctor? Or even to Google? I typed in long, excessively complicated searches and got nothing. It wasn't until this day, walking with trembling legs back to my desk, that, desperate, I typed in three simple words that changed my life: Annoyed By Noise.
The very first result was misophonia. I rolled it around in my head - mee-so-phonia or my-so-phonia? (For the record, it's the former). Of course this complicated "thing" had an equally complicated name. But it had a name, and it seemed synonymous with euphoria. The longer I searched, the more I found. Websites! Forums! Support groups! Finally, the three most exhilarating words I could ever definitively say -- I'm not crazy.
But immediately after that glorious exhale came a sharp inhale, and a stark realization -- This is never going away. I discovered very quickly that misophonia is not something that is cured by medication or therapy. It's classified under the equivocal heading of neurological disorders and isn't formally recognized by the medical community.
And it was that moment, more so than discovering it wasn't just me, it wasn't my imagination, and yes, I wasn't actually crazy, that made me realize I needed to make some changes. Misophonia (nￃﾩe "this thing") isn't going to adapt to fit my needs; I need to adapt to fit misophonia. It's still an issue that not many people will understand.
So I began writing again. Part of me wanted to write the word "misophonia" over and over again, just to roll the word around in my head, hear its long vowels, and revel in its sudden existence in my life. I wrote stories with actual villains, forcing me to realize that word applied to neither me nor my triggers. The feeling of writing a simple, wonderful paragraph began to negate any stress that my trigger noises cause during the day. I'm still working up to speaking candidly with my coworkers about misophonia, and writing about it helps me get the words right.
Living with misophonia is not a choice; instead, I choose to not let it run my life. It's a choice I have to make every day, as the effect these noises have on me remains unchanged. But coughers will cough. Whistlers will whistle. And best of all, birds will most certainly continue to chirp.
Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in this series.