A bad case of desk-sickness

I once worked with Ginny, a middle-aged woman with a thick Long Island accent and pack-a-day smoking habit whose personal motto seemed to be “Why talk when you can yell?”

Ginny liked to listen to the radio at her desk, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that she didn’t use headphones… and often chewed ice while she was doing it.

How do you not hear that?!” I asked my co-worker one day as Ginny tested her cell phone’s ringtone options at maximum volume.

“I can hear it,” he shrugged. “But it doesn’t bother me that much.”

“Well it bothers me,” I complained. “If I get my hands on that phone, I swear I’ll throw it in the ocean!”

For effect, I pantomimed taking a free throw shot in the direction of a photocopier.

“You’re crazy,” my co-worker replied as he returned to work.

Turns out, I sort of am. A few years later, I learned that there was a name for my problem: Misophonia. It’s a disorder characterized by “intense, angry reactions to everyday sounds like chewing, lip-smacking, sniffing, and pen-clicking.”

Guilty as charged.

As far as psychiatric disorders go, misophonia is hardly the worst one to have. But for me, working through the unwanted noise that Ginny produced every day was a real struggle. When she was around, I felt like I had ten angry flies buzzing around my head; I couldn’t concentrate until they left – which luckily for me turned out to be around 3:30 p.m., give or take.

For a while, I hoped the issue would disappear once I parted ways with Ginny. But things only got worse. My next several roles involved sharing a workspace with an incessant hummer, a nonstop gum chewer and – my personal favorite – a girl who used our cubicle as the stage for her one-woman show.

I officially gave up on the idea of a peaceful work environment when I accepted a position halfway around the world and found myself sitting next to yet another person who was blessed with the gift of song. I might have left New York, but I still had to face the music. (If you’re an email subscriber, view the video here.)

But then something interesting happened in Nigeria. I stopped caring about the noise. Practically speaking, I found it difficult to get worked up about audible yawning and sloppy chewing when there were real issues at work to deal with – like a small electrical fire on the third floor and the absence of a formal evacuation plan. (That story, here.)

For a while, I thought I might be cured – that I finally learned how to ignore all the everyday cracks and clicks and crunches that no one else seemed to notice in the first place.

But sadly, that was not the case. When I returned to New York, so did my intolerance. And eventually, I just couldn’t take it.

I needed space. Doors. Walls. A desk that was not attached to another desk that was not occupied by a temp who thought that I was an accountant and kept asking me questions about tax preparation.

So I went home. And I stayed there.

“Sounds like you’re finally addressing the root problem,” a friend said. “Instead of just masking the symptoms.”

That’s a fair point. If misophonia is, in fact, what I have, maybe working from home – away from all the noise and distractions – is the best thing to do. It’s certainly more effective than wearing noise-canceling headphones and feeding my colleagues a steady diet of dirty looks as they eat lunch.



Either way, ditching the office feels good… so good that I might just have to sing about it.

  1. Some days I wish I could ditch the office environment, but I actually like the buzz of activity going on around me. I wonder if there’s a name for MY disorder. :-)

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