Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I’m always a little taken aback when I tell someone that I have Tourette Syndrome, and in response receive a sentence full of condoling words or apologetic body language. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sympathy or sensitivity or where it’s coming from, but more so that it just doesn’t agree with the way I see my situation. I truly believe that, despite the struggles, Tourette Syndrome has made me a better person, and is an overall positive factor in my life.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Tourette Syndrome is a Neurological condition that causes vocal and motor tics and is often associated with anxiety. For me, it meant excessive and largely uncontrollable blinking, nodding, throat clearing, face clenching, and waves of anxiousness. These symptoms set in around the second grade, peaked around the seventh grade, and have been on a slow decline ever since.
My symptoms were hardly welcomed. I put a tremendous amount of energy during years eight through fourteen of my life looking into solutions that would reduce the social, physical, and emotional discomfort that I was experiencing. This period of experimenting, exploring, learning, failing, and pushing forward had an immense impact on the person I am today.
Tourette Syndrome, although generally an inherited condition, can often be exacerbated by environmental agitators. These were the factors I attempted to control. I found that exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and eating selectively hugely reduced my propensity to blink, nod, and move my body in otherwise unnecessary ways. Foods that were artificially flavored or colored, I eventually realized, were the biggest culprits. So I cut them completely out of my diet. Pretty soon, I was aware of everything I allowed to enter my body, and made sure I stayed active everyday. As for the tics that didn’t go away? Well, being physically nourished certainly didn’t have a negative impact on my mood or attitude during the struggle.
The anxiety issue, though certainly a burden, offered me an opportunity to better gain control of my life. I discovered that, for a variety of reasons, the diligent use of an academic planner hugely reduced stress. Subsequently, I rarely missed deadlines (unconsciously), and had a place from which to draw compiled thoughts when I wanted to discuss or write about them later. There was also a period of time where I was terrified of being alone. I spent so many hours trying to convince myself I would be okay and would enjoy the isolation that I couldn’t help but to eventually grow to love solitary adventures. Even though I am still stricken once and a while with the same anxiousness that I used to experience on the daily, I have built so many reassuring and encouraging tapes in my head that I have come to reflexively place an extremely high degree of confidence in my emotional capacities. I’ve also been pleased to find that the skills I’ve developed while confronting anxiety issues have extend themselves easily to dealing with related challenges such as stress and grief.
Further, Tourette Syndrome has taught me from a young age to be compassionate about other’s situations. It helped me to observe social dynamics and appreciate life in ways I wouldn’t have, otherwise. I created habits and embraced some important values in those most difficult years that continue to serve me, today.
My point in writing all this is not to celebrate, but to touch on the topic of perspective. Looking at a condition as an opportunity to grow, stepping momentarily out of a “victim” mindset, and acknowledging the progress made can be hugely empowering. Step by step, and year by year, coping strategies flourish and defuse to all other areas of life. Pretty soon, what was once a “disorder” becomes a blessing.
At least this has been true for me.