Superhero Girlfriend's Kryptonite
January 31, 2006 12:24 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend pretty much has a breakdown and freaks out whenever she hears someone swallow.

It doesnt even have to be someone swallowing loudly or making gross noises (as I admit, that bothers me too). It seems sometimes, that just seeing someone eating or (especially) drinking something near her will make her have one of these episodes. Most mouth noises bother her a lot, but swallowing really pushes her over the edge.
She'll yell and hit herself and look entirely crazy to anyone who doesnt know whats going on.
She cannot function in social settings, as almost all activities in our society revolve around food and eating/drinking. She goes to family dinners with damp tissues stuffed in her ears and with me she uses her fingers to plug her ears and I have to show her the glass or chip or whatever, before I put it in my mouth.
This has obviously led to a lot of frustration for everyone. Her family is rather insensetive about it. My family doesnt know, nor do any of our friends so they just get confused at why she cant hold any conversation at dinners, and often needs people to repeat what they've said. She is frustrated because she cant live normally, and never feels calm, because at any minute someone could pop a mint into their mouth.
Oh ya, she HATES to talk about it. She gets really angry, and if anyone pushes it she breaksdown crying. I feel terrible and we go back to pretending it doesnt exist...
I think it might be that she has some sort of superhero senses or something. She has had SERIOUSLY bad vision since she was a young child. Her sense of smell is truly FANTASTIC (better than anyone I've ever seen at smelling things on clothing thats been washed, etc). Could she have adopted AMAZING smell receptors and CRIPPLING hearing from her years of not seeing much of anything in focus? She has glasses/lenses and sees fine now.
Please help us. This is one major stress issue that our relationship could definately do without, or do with better management.What I really want is to hear from someone who knows anyone with this problem, as she feels very alone, and that there is no hope for her. Any ideas or other advice is welcome.
Sorry this is such a long read. Thank You.
posted by kevin_2864212 to Health & Fitness (49 answers total)
Therapy. Some kind of desensitization process. Nobody should have to go through life with a problem like this. It's not her fault. Do her a favor and find a therapist with some experience with stuff like this, and convince her to give it a try.
posted by beagle at 12:31 PM on January 31, 2006

Response by poster: We've talked about it a couple of times, but she doesnt believe that any therapist would have any experience with this kind of thing, let alone be able to help.
I have looked for a long time, and have yet to find any other instances of this condition...
posted by kevin_2864212 at 12:33 PM on January 31, 2006

IANAPsychiatrist, but this seem to have an OCD component to it... particularly her reactions. Yeah, therapy is really the only way to go, and it seems that with a little Google-fu you might be able to find some online support groups that would make her realize that she is not alone. Maybe talking to people with similar issues through the (relative) anonymity of the internet could help her become more comfortable with the idea.
posted by kimdog at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2006

Here is a thread about people who can't stand the sound of others eating. Oh, and an earlier thread.

Here is a site that indicates blind people don't develop their other senses to a greater degree than other people. (So neither would nearsighted people.) (Not the most authoritative site, but I'm sure you can find more out there if you need it.)

Based on the number of people in those two threads who said they were driven to distraction by eating sounds, I would say that it's common enough that you could find a therapist who has dealt with it before.

This sounds like a really lousy situation, and you sound like you've been dealing with it heroically. Sorry I can't be more helpful. Here's hoping ikkyu2 chimes in for ya.
posted by agropyron at 12:39 PM on January 31, 2006

Best answer: I'm not a doctor but it sounds something like hyperacusis. There are professionals who are used to dealing with this sort of thing. She can try going through her GP for a referral.
posted by Alison at 12:40 PM on January 31, 2006

but she doesnt believe that any therapist would have any experience with this kind of thing, let alone be able to help.

That's a case of assuming that the worst possible outcome is the most likely. Which is usually not true, but it is an easy way to talk your way out of things you don't want to do.
posted by smackfu at 12:40 PM on January 31, 2006

I think the chances that this is a psychological issue that can be addressed with a therapist are much greater than the chances that she has superhero hearing. Do any other noises make her break down, or just swallowing? If it's only swallowing, then it seems very unlikely that it's her hearing. If it was her hearing, then I'd imagine a thousand different kinds of noises would be bothering her.
posted by amro at 12:40 PM on January 31, 2006

Despite my b.s. meter going off at full force here, I've been googling a whole bunch of combinations of anxiety + swallowingk, panic + swallowing noises, etc etc and can't find anything off the bat. I would say dedicate a good two or three hours to googling as much as you can to try to find some instance of this happening to other people. If she sees that she's not the only one on earth burdened with this nightmare, it may help her a great deal and ease her into therapy. Perhaps a call to some kind of National Phobia Center or something might help as well.

I still desparately want to call b.s. on this though. Good luck, though. It's very fascinating, although certainly tragic.
posted by spicynuts at 12:41 PM on January 31, 2006

I suggest she see a psychiatrist for some meds and also trying "talk therapy." Even if the psychiatrist and therapist don't have experience with her specific issue, they will have experience with severe anxiety disorders (which seems like what she has).
posted by necessitas at 12:41 PM on January 31, 2006

Well, Nikola Tesla claimed to have such extraordinary senses, but verification is quite difficult.

Your girlfriend needs help, and she's not going to find it through her boyfriend on MetaFilter. A good therapist will be able to ascertain the extent of her issues and if he/she doesn't have direct experience in this, perhaps locate someone who does. Her refusal to seek -potential- treatments likely means she's not ever going to get well, or even get better than she is now.

In short, get her to see a therapist. It's likely the only way yo save her quality of life and your own sanity.
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:41 PM on January 31, 2006

I realize that I trot out this book with every thread that has someone who might benefit from Cognitive Therapy, but David Burns' "Feeling Good Handbook" really is a lifesaver.

Perhaps if she won't talk to someone about it, she might be open to bibliotherapy.

Hang in there.
posted by willmize at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2006

This is absolutely an issue for therapy. She will have a much better life, and the two of you will have a much better relationship. A psychologist will almost certainly be able to recommend ways to make her feel better. At the very least, he/she will help both of you understand the nature of the problem.

There is no reason to feel self-conscious about psychotherapy. I've gone individually and with my wife to a number of therapists over the years, for far less significant problems than your GF's. It's been useful and constructive in every case.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2006

It would help, quite a bit.

I actually have problems with hearing people chew and swallow too. For me it is simply obnoxious. For her there very well might be a traumatic event connected with it. Her resistance to therapy could be linked with that possibility.
posted by konolia at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2006

If she's not willing to see an actual therapist, then you're going to end up being the therapist. It's that simple.

I am very much speaking from personal experience.
posted by Jairus at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2006

Ok, given the other posts, clearly there is precedent, so I apologize for the insensitivity of my suspicion.
posted by spicynuts at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2006

(..and for the record, my personal experience involves pretty-much-superhuman hearing. She could literally hear me blink across a darkened room.)
posted by Jairus at 12:44 PM on January 31, 2006

She needs to see a therapist. They might not know anything about her problem, but they will know something about overcoming issues regardless of what the issue is.

Additionally, and not to be snarky at all, she should look into possible jobs that require some insane smelling ability. Maybe a lab or a scientific company, I'd think people that could do the job of a $100,000 machine would be well sought after.
posted by pwb503 at 12:46 PM on January 31, 2006

Could this be neurological, maybe something like Tourettes? Your girlfriend's story sounds to me like something out of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.
posted by lychee at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2006

She'll yell and hit herself

I'm sure you know that this isn't behavior normal, but any reaction that causes her to hit herself is a sign that there is something very wrong -- possibly something more than a simple phobia or aversion. My (uneducated) guess would be some kind of OCD.

She needs a therapist, and probably (short term) medication as well. Please do everything in your power to help her go and help her choose one. I notice you're in Canada -- any fellow Mefites out there who can provide Kevin with some resources to help find a really good, reputable therapist?
posted by anastasiav at 1:13 PM on January 31, 2006

I have a neurological disorder and one of its effects on me is insane anxiety and fear of certain smells and foods. Ketchup is the main offender in my life. I definitely can't eat it but more importantly I can't have it in my house, I can't smell it, and I cannot touch a ketchup bottle.

I've been known to scream, cry, run away, go mute, get angry when faced with it. How embarrassing is that, right? Like, I can't even behave like a damn adult. That's why it's hard to talk about. And that's why she really really needs to see a professional. It's imperative.
posted by birdie birdington at 1:19 PM on January 31, 2006

IANAPsychiatrist, but this seem to have an OCD component to it... particularly her reactions.

IANAPsychiatrist either, but my personal experience with similar types of people -- people that fly off the handle over sensor things like throat-clearing -- indicates that it's virtually always a psychological issue (such as OCD) that is totally unrelated to the triggering issue itself. They're crying out for attention -- the throat-clearing is just a convenience.

Some people have crazybatshitinsane hangups for reasons that are totally unapparent upon initial investigation. One of my friends claims to become intensely, violently, physically ill at the merest whiff of second-hand smoke. Another would turn into a raving, castrating bitch when her "blood sugar got too low." Yet another couldn't handle any spicy food stronger than ketchup and would become so psyched up over it she would start to retch.

Moreover, said people aren't often willing to seek and accept therapy, because they don't think they have a problem.
posted by frogan at 1:19 PM on January 31, 2006

She needs to see a doctor. It's something psychological, not super-human-hearing related, I'm sure. But here's what I would do:

Do what you can to cause her to believe it's hearing related. Then tell her to go to her doc and describe her problem and ask for a hearing specialist, or an ENT doc who can check her out.

Surely she believes hearing specialists and ENT docs exist -- and that it's about swalling won't matter in the case of a hearing doc, since what she'll need is someone who can deal with acute hearing (if it's clinking that bothers other people (God, I hate clinking!) or nails hitting keyboards, or blinking, the underlying problem is acute hearing, not sensitivity to swallowing, so surely they're acute hearing experience is relevant even if she's the only person on earth sensitive to swallowing).

Ok, so hopefully she makes an appointment to get her hearing checked...Now call her doc and explain the situation in detail. Have the doc do some research ahead of time and find the appropriate (probably psychiatric) specialist for her who has experience in something as similar as possible. That way, when you're girlfriend goes in to the doc, the doc can say "Ok, well here's the hearing specialist that fits what you're looking for, and you should go have your hearing checked, but you know, I really think this sounds like a problem I've heard about/seen in other people and if that's right, the best way to treat it would be in some kind of counselling. I know a doctor who specializes in just this sort of thing...."

So there's her "Nobody's ever heard of this before" problem solved.

In the meantime. She should not shove wet kleenex in her ears. (Isn't this obvious?) Go out and buy some proper earplugs.
posted by duck at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2006

Sounds like OCD to me!
posted by shoepal at 1:33 PM on January 31, 2006

A person like this clearly has some serious mental issues and can only resolve them under the care of some qualified medical professional. There's no other way, certainly not random answers on a website.
posted by xmutex at 1:50 PM on January 31, 2006

I feel terrible and we go back to pretending it doesnt exist...

If you're ok with the way things are between you and your girlfriend, denial is a terrific strategy, and probably the only one that will make it possible for you to be with this person.

Since you're posting here, we can only assume that (unless spicynuts is right), though you love this person, the way things are is NOT ok with you. And I think most everyone here would agree that this is not ok - it's causing a lot of suffering for you girlfriend and for everyone around her, including you!

That being the case, stop feeling terrible and pretending it doesn't exist! Something is quite seriously wrong with the way your girlfriend is behaving, AND it's quite possible that she'll be able to get help with it from a medical or mental health specialist.

It's a challenge to tell a loved one that they need help, but what could possibly be more loving than to insist that your girlfriend deal with a painful problem? Break the news to her in a gentle, supportive, but firm way - the way she suffers around food really makes your heart ache, and you feel confident that she could get some help with it.

Certainly she'll be nervous about reaching out. Give her some time to think about it, be gentle and supportive, push her a bit, and so on. But if she ultimately refuses to follow through on getting help, be prepared to make your own decision about how you want to live your life.
posted by jasper411 at 1:55 PM on January 31, 2006

Here's a Google Answers page on this very subject. With a long and very good $15 answer (free). And a bunch of examples of, and comments from, fellow-sufferers. Some with strategy suggestions.
posted by beagle at 1:55 PM on January 31, 2006

Irregardless of whether your girlfriend seeks therapy or not, you should seek therapy. This has got to be taking its emotional toll, so some help for you might be good.

Consider also whether you should be in this relationship.

Either way, hope you guys can find help.
posted by anonpeon at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2006

David Burns' "Feeling Good Handbook" really is a lifesaver

Seconded. I wish someone had told me about it years ago (I found out from my shrink, when I finally went to one after years of depression that I thought was normal). Great book.
posted by mrbill at 1:58 PM on January 31, 2006

Any decent specialist in treating phobias is going to be able to help her with this. Seriously, she could be free of the problem in a matter of days or weeks, just go and get the help already.
posted by teleskiving at 1:59 PM on January 31, 2006

Unless she wishes to address the issue, it cannot be addressed or resolved. The answer is simple, if intensive -- therapy -- but therapy requires complicty on the part of the patient.

If it's a big enough problem for you (that is, a relationship-threatening problem), tell her, and make some demands. If she rejects them then leave her, as insensitive as the suggestions sounds. It might be the wake-up call she needs -- I had an ex-girlfriend who refused to even admit that she suffered debilitating depression until I broke up with her, and her depression made any sort of healthy relationship impossible. Since our breakup, she has taken steps to address her depression, and we have a much stronger friendship that the strained romance we previously shared.

However, if the problem is not so significant that it is worth breaking up over, then learn to live with it. Until she is at a point where she can't stand living this way anymore, or until the results of her mental illness become serious enough, she may refuse to address them. From the sound of your post, that sounds to be her plan.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:05 PM on January 31, 2006

Response by poster: WOW. I really am impressed.

If it's only swallowing, then it seems very unlikely that it's her hearing.
-I agree amro, that is why I never believed it to be hyperacusis related. Only the swallowing and mouth noises bother her, not other common noises.

I still desparately want to call b.s. on this though. Good luck, though. It's very fascinating, although certainly tragic
-Trust me spicynuts, my BS meter's needle almost broke off the first time she told me. I thought that she just wanted some extra attention or something. I quickly changed my tune.

I actually have problems with hearing people chew and swallow too. For me it is simply obnoxious. For her there very well might be a traumatic event connected with it. Her resistance to therapy could be linked with that possibility.
-Thank you for posting.

Interesting plan, duck. The last thing I want is to feel I'm conspiring against her. Her sister had thought of taking an intervention type approach, as this really is crippling her, and she NEEDS help.
I agree that this must have an OCD component to it. Perhaps all stemming from one bad experience. As you can tell, IA(also)NPsychologist.

If anyone can put me in touch with a good therapist (that may have some experience with this) in Toronto or somewhere in Ontario, Quebec, the NorthEastern USA, or Western Hemisphere, please, I would be forever grateful.
posted by kevin_2864212 at 2:10 PM on January 31, 2006

"she doesnt believe that any therapist would have any experience with this kind of thing"
This probably means one of two things or both:
  1. I don't want to believe I have an issue
  2. I don't want to fix it
I think of it this way: a good therapist should be like the Car Guys. They don't know everything about fixing cars in all situations, but they've fixed enough to (a) identify something new and adapt or (b) consult with someone who does know and (c) laugh at themselves
posted by plinth at 2:21 PM on January 31, 2006

Here's a page on the official classification of this kind of phobia/aversion, just to indicate that indeed, therapists have seen it, understand it, know what it is, and can treat it. Desensitization therapy is cited as effective in 75% of cases. If it works for fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of driving in a car, it'll work for your GF. See also. "Systematic desensitization in a variety of forms has been commonly used to treat specific phobias and, in some cases, can be achieved in a single therapeutic session "
posted by beagle at 2:22 PM on January 31, 2006

There are many different kinds of therapists, so you should probably narrow it down. For this particular problem, it seems like one with a cognitive-behavioral orientation might be the best place to start.

(If Googling, try "behaviour(al)" as well since you're in Canada...)

It looks like there's a "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Associates of Toronto" but their site seems to be down. Here's a referral service in Toronto.
posted by staggernation at 2:23 PM on January 31, 2006

If anyone can put me in touch with a good therapist (that may have some experience with this) in Toronto...

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)

That link will bring you to their Mood and Anxiety Program page, which deals with OCD (and other things). They have four sites in Toronto. Here's how to contact them.
posted by heatherann at 4:31 PM on January 31, 2006

Best answer: Wait... why can't it be hyperacusis? A little Googling turns up soft sound sensitivity, which sounds exactly like what your girlfriend has (mouth noises are excruciating sounds, like "fingernails on a million blackboards"). There are yahoo groups and other online resources, most of which mention pink noise as a tool for desensitization therapy.

Patients seem to have depression and anxiety that is caused by the hyperacusis, not the other way around, so antidepressants and such will only deal with the side-effects of the hyperacusis. I'm thinking your girlfriend needs someone who specializes in this problem, not just a therapist.
posted by stefanie at 4:39 PM on January 31, 2006

...she doesnt believe that any therapist would have any experience with this kind of thing, let alone be able to help.

The first step to getting help is admitting that one can use help.

I suspect she hasn't made that first step.

Presenting that fact to her, however, may serve to help her understand that ultimately she must be willing to be helped.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:47 PM on January 31, 2006

Best answer: Some of the sites I saw also mentioned Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, which can apparently be used for hyperacusis. There are a few places in Toronto that offer it.
posted by stefanie at 4:57 PM on January 31, 2006

Just another data point: your description reminds me of several kids I've known who've been diagnosed with sensory integration disorder. Admittedly it's one of those hot new diagnoses (and the symptoms are usually treated with forms of CBT, as mentioned above), but, at least among the younger set, this kind of behavior is being seen as something deeper than a phobia.

Especially if this is not a recent problem (you say her family's been insensitive? since childhood?), it may be helpful to frame this as a syndrome that's just been identified as a way to encourage her to seek out diagnosis and treament.
posted by ellanea at 6:15 PM on January 31, 2006

This is mental illness. Your girlfriend needs a psychiatrist. I'm giving you blanket license to ignore everything posted above this that doesn't also say, "see a psychiatrist."
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:33 PM on January 31, 2006

Not sure how handy this will be, but if you're looking for a doctor in Toronto/Ontario, this is the resource I used:

Doctor Search
via The College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario.

You might want to try the advanced search and look for your neighbourhood and the precise type of doctor you want.
posted by dazed_one at 7:21 PM on January 31, 2006


Could she have adopted AMAZING smell receptors and CRIPPLING hearing from her years of not seeing much of anything in focus?

posted by delmoi at 7:32 PM on January 31, 2006

by the way, hormone imbalances can actualy cause super-smelling. There's a drug that causes this something or other, someone asked about it here, and it turns out to be very bad if you take lots of it.
posted by delmoi at 7:37 PM on January 31, 2006

OCD - which this very much sounds like - is definitely treatable without drugs using only therapy. Generally the therapy revolves around a combination of the reward system and resolving to limit your reactions to the offending stimuli. For instance, she will NOT let herself hit herself when she hears you swallow the first time, but the second time she can hit herself three times as a reward.

You continue down this route gradually increasing the length of time she can't react and the types of reactions prohibited while reducing the rewards for success. It takes time and effort but it does work - this method is how a relative of mine managed to gain control over their own OCD. PLEASE see a therapist about this, one referred to you by your GP with knowledge in this area, as they can help you set this up correctly.
posted by Ryvar at 9:05 PM on January 31, 2006

Ancillary note: by time and effort I'm referring to something on the order of six very grueling months. Good luck.
posted by Ryvar at 9:06 PM on January 31, 2006

I'm so totally flagging this thread as fantastic. Everyone who posted in this thread rocks for being so helpful. Good on all of you!
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:57 PM on January 31, 2006

Response by poster: I'm so totally flagging this thread as fantastic. Everyone who posted in this thread rocks for being so helpful. Good on all of you!
- -I agree, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you all. Your advice and understanding truly mean a lot to me. A special thanks to everyone who posted advice from their own experiences and those who have posted places to find help in Ontario.
I think that this thread was as much about looking for help as it was just to talk about it with someone. I've only ever been able to talk to three or four people about this since we started seeing each other years ago, and its quite a relief for me to talk to so many about it all at once like this. Thanks again, for listening.
I have decided that whether or not she is willing to get help after I've found her all this research and programs in Toronto, I myself will be taking anonpeon's advice and begin seeing a therapist myself.
I love my gf more than anything, and I hope and pray that all of this will lead to something amazing for her.
If anyone has anything more to post, I will never stop checking this thread until they disable comments on it, if even then.
Again, THANK YOU all. You have all made a REAL impact on my life for the better. I dont know what else to say, THANK YOU.
posted by kevin_2864212 at 5:36 AM on February 1, 2006

I personally cannot stand the sound of other people chewing and swishing in their mouth. (But swallowing, c'mon that's just weird ;^)

A few things I have noticed about myself:

This has been going on for as long as i can recall.

This drives me crazier when I am stressed out from a long day, tired, etc. When I am in a great mood I might not even notice it, but when it drives me nuts, I can never get out of the room quick enough. If I can't leave I'll shuffle papers, drum on the table, tap my feet, and try to squeeze my eyes shut so hard that my head hums so that I don't have to listen.

I know that I am causing undue hardship on my wife, who is the only person i have ever told about this anomaly in my personality, because she will go to another room to eat a bowl of cereal, she feels guilty for snacking on celery and dinners together can be pretty rough. [This is probably my main point, having typed it I realize how unfair I am being to her which is more impetus to fix it than for my own sake...might your GF feel the same way towards you?]

When in restaurants, I cannot pay attention to my companions. They are annoying demons taunting me, not the friends I walked in with.

My dogs cannot sleep in our bedroom because I can't sleep with their intemittent yawn-slurp and licking themselves.

Unfortunately I don't have any problem-solving suggestions, but i am chiming in here just to say, she's not alone (and now i find that neither am I). Feel free (yourself or her) to email (in profile) me. I thank you for asking this question and now i am going to follow some of the above links myself.
posted by iurodivii at 8:29 AM on February 1, 2006

Response by poster: UPDATE:

Best answer that she has found and agreed with is at this link. Called Hyperacusis.

Thanks again everyone
posted by kevin_2864212 at 8:19 AM on March 16, 2006

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