Fiction: The Chew
By Jim Towns
Griffin was a Board-approved counselor, so this wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for him—yet the subtlety and speed with which the condition had manifested itself and taken him over was still surprising.
After all, pop culture had practically made “misophonia” into a punchline: a social media joke of the week. After all, no one really enjoyed the sound of other people eating, did they? Yet in all his professional experience, Griffin had never met anyone who actually suffered from the phobia. But then during the lockdown—when the schools had been closed and he’d had much more time on his hands than normal—he began to find these normal, everyday noises getting on his nerves: the fan that went on when he switched on his bathroom light. The dink dink sound of his car’s turn signal while sitting at the stoplight. Ice clinking in his drink. At first he gave it little thought. When it persisted, he wrote it off as a side effect of cabin fever: after all he’d been cooped up inside for months, now. But eventually it reached a point where Griffin had to confront the truth that something was wrong: these innocuous noises were dramatically magnified in his ears—amplified and pitched up to the point that they became shrieking hot needles lancing through the soft mass of his brain. He couldn’t pinpoint when it had begun, but it had now reached a point where Griffin knew he needed help.
He’d quickly sought that help. Mental health was his profession, after all, and this is what one did. But several obstacles rose up in his way. Firstly, the pandemic made it impossible to see anyone in person, so he’d been forced to schedule a virtual appointment with the doctor. Second: the drastic uptick of people seeking therapy due to the present circumstances meant that he had to wait almost four weeks before his video interview. During that time, Griffin all-but stopped driving his car. Beyond the turn signal, the sound of his car’s air conditioner running, the low growl of tires rolling over pavement, and even the soft whoosh of cars passing by made it almost unbearable for him. And grocery stores—with their PA systems and rattling shopping carts—were now an anathema. So by-and-large he began staying indoors, ordering the majority of his groceries online and getting many meals delivered. He saved and washed the plastic utensils that came with his deliveries, as the clinking sound of the metal flatware in his drawers was akin to electricity shooting through his skull. He hung heavy blankets over the windows of his house to block the myriad unwelcome outside sounds of sirens and lawn work and planes overhead.
It was during this time that Griffin realized the sound of his own chewing was becoming a problem.
The day finally came and he had his meeting with a woman named Dr. Parminger. It was a disappointing session. The therapist seemed distracted by something, and kept glancing down below screen (at her notes? Her phone? Another computer? It was impossible to tell). Griffin had the strong impression that Parminger had made a snap diagnoses based on what he’d told the scheduler, and was now only half-listening to what he was saying. She prescribed him Ativan, and scheduled a follow up for two-weeks’ time. The whole session lasted barely ten minutes.
Getting the drugs meant going out to the pharmacy, which luckily was just a few blocks away from his house, so Griffin could walk there. He waited until evening, when the traffic would be less, and still it was an intense experience. Partway there he passed a woman with a little girl who was asking repeated questions about something, and the pitch of the child’s voice nearly forced Griffin to stop in his tracks and hold his ears. The mother gave him a worried look, and hurried her kid along.
He bought a bottle of water at the pharmacy and tossed two of the pills down before he even left the place. He prayed they’d start working soon, but by the time he got back up the hill to his house they still weren’t helping quiet the encroaching sounds all around him. He tried to sit and listen to some music on headphones—which oddly he’d found didn’t bother his misophonia—but after a full hour he was still acutely aware of the soft fleshy tap sound of his own blinking, and he knew this was not going to be the solution he’d been hoping for.
The chewing issue was becoming more and more of a problem.
By now Griffin had ceased ordering any kind of food that required serious mastication: that removed most meat from his diet, along with vegetables like carrots or celery, unless they were already well cooked. He found anything glutinous like bread or thick pastas required a lot of chewing so that went as well, so his meal options became limited mostly to soup. He couldn’t stand using the microwave because the shrill beep of the buttons and the ding at the end made his head throb, so he heated everything on the stove, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. Within a few days Griffin found even the soft vegetable bits and mushy noodles of the soups took too much chewing, so he switched to just pure broth. He was losing weight rapidly, he could tell. None of his pants fit him anymore, and once-snug shirts hung off his bony frame.
The third and final obstacle came a week after his first appointment, when Griffin received an email that his position as a counselor at Trinity Senior High School had been terminated due to necessary cutbacks. There was a possibility he’d be hired back if and when things returned to normal, but in the meantime his insurance was cancelled, which meant his follow up appointment with Dr. Parminger wasn’t going to happen. There would be no help coming. Concerned friends and relatives had been calling, but he’d long-since shut off the ringer on his phone.
And now even his own swallowing was making him crazy. Griffin could only drink water, as the hissing of the teapot for coffee or tea was unbearable—but just like chewing, the sound of his throat muscles contracting was amplified inside his own head, and was deafening. He couldn’t fall asleep, because every time he swallowed it started him awake.
So he stopped. He stopped eating broth, and he stopped drinking liquids as much as he could. His stomach hurt for a day or two, and then gradually the pain lessened. His throat burned and that lasted for a few days, but at least the awful sound of fluid going down into his belly mercifully stopped. He no longer needed to use the toilet, which was a blessing as the racket of flushing was altogether intolerable.
On the Friday evening after being terminated, Griffin spent some time staring at his cadaverous face in his bathroom mirror, noticing how the bones around his eyes now showed yellow through the skin—how the white of those eyes were now yellowed themselves and bloodshot, and his once-blue irises had faded to a dull grey. After a little while he retreated to his bedroom. He knew he’d likely never leave it alive.
He kept the lights off day and night. He’d never heard of photosensitivity as a side effect of misophonia, but at this stage any bright light was painful.
Very quickly, time became strange. Hours seemed to go by, only for him to realize it had only been a moment—but then in a blink he’d realize he’d lost an entire Sunday. It wasn’t long before Griffin found he couldn’t summon the strength to get up out of bed.
As he lay there, increasingly insensate, the room and the wider world beyond it retreated into a grey haze as his eyesight failed. He was no longer hungry or thirsty. His thoughts were an abstract blur, which gradually, mercifully, finally faded into shadow.
But at least it was quiet.
Jim Towns is an award-winning filmmaker, artist and writer. His short fiction has been published in print and online by Burial Day, Switchblade Magazine, FunDead Publications, Castle of Horror, Hellhound Magazine, and many more. His first nonfictionbook American Cryptic was released in 2020 by Anubis Press, and his debut novella Bloodsucker City is available through Castle Bridge Media. 2022 will see the publication of his follow up to American Cryptic, American Boogeywoman. He lives in San Pedro, CA with his wife and several mysterious cats.