Do you whistle in public? Do you noisily suck your fingers after eating?
Strange questions, I know – but these are activities which seem perfectly ordinary and acceptable to people with a normal hearing range.
So what about people who don't have a normal hearing range?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered with a condition which nobody seems to know about, or even believe in its existence. I have Hyperacusis.
Hyperacusis is a hearing problem which makes noises within a certain frequency seem excessively loud (and even painful to hear). This means that 'normal' sounds, like finger-sucking, whistling, chewing, crunching and clicking may feel like a screw-driver being driven through the head for the average Hyperacusis sufferer. At school a boy called Gareth actually made me cry after I repeatedly begged him to stop whistling (and he carried on because he thought it was funny).
Another unfortunate symptom is difficulty with speech discrimination. The minor (and supposedly quiet) noises are amplified, but random words in a conversation may drop out entirely. Despite being able to hear tiny background noises, I often have to ask people to repeat what they have just said.
It's not an easy condition to live with, and explaining Hyperacusis to the people around you isn't much fun either. You attempt to subtly plug your ears and ride it out – but when the noise continues and the pain becomes unbearable, sometimes you just have to leave the room. When asked to explain the reason for your discomfort, the answer is often met with anger and contempt – as if you’re insulting them or suggesting that they have done something wrong. I used to get told off a lot when I was a teenager whenever I bolted out of the room or covered my ears. Maybe they just thought it was moody teenage behaviour?
I often wonder why I have to apologise to other people for my Hyperacusis, when you wouldn’t consider asking a deaf person to apologise to you for asking you to speak more slowly.
I wouldn't demand that people stop doing what they want to do – it's my problem and I've found a way to live with it without inconveniencing other people too much – I just turn my iPod up as a distraction and move away from the noise if absolutely necessary. Many people never even mention that they suffer from Hyperacusis, because it's usually easy to hide it from others – and scuttling away to another room is easier than trying to explain it.
Of course there are some noises which aren't necessary or even pleasure-giving to the person making them, but they carry on because they just don't realise (or have forgotten) that it may cause discomfort to other people.
Sucking noises to a Hyperacusis sufferer are like bright lights to a person with sensitive eyes, loud noise to a small baby, or body odour to a Vulcan. It’s easy to offend the people around you, because you’re unlikely to make allowances for conditions which you don’t suffer from yourself.
All I ask, is that next time you suck your fingers after eating a bag of crisps, could you consider whether the noise is really necessary to your enjoyment?