In high school, my brain decided it was of cosmic importance that I tap every corner within reach of my palm. For months, I tapped everything with an edge. Kitchen counters, tables, door handles, knife blades — somehow I never ended up with stitches — and human shoulders.
If the urge struck, I couldn’t stop tap-tapping until I found and tapped the right point on my hand. When I finally hit the elusive spot, I felt at peace: a silence after nails grinding down a chalkboard in my head. I would sigh and move on with my life, at least for a few moments.
I was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome in third grade, so each tap was a tic. TS is a genetic disorder that most experts believe is caused by nerve cells in the brain improperly releasing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. In every human brain, dopamine is a chemical messenger that nerve cells use to communicate with each other. With TS, scientists know something goes wrong when nerve cells release dopamine, but they still don’t know exactly what it is.
The disorder leads to an ever-changing set of involuntary motor and vocal tics that, in my life, has ranged from tapping to hooting like an owl to kicking my heels together while walking down the street. During the tapping era, I told my friend Todd that TS responds to the power of suggestion. When I talk about tics, I need to tic. When I see tics in a movie or reenacted on stage, then I also tic. Todd, a 17-year-old jokester, latched onto the shoulder tapping and began imitating it. I tapped him on the shoulder periodically, and in faux revenge, he tapped me back. This made me do it back again, as if I were a robot. He found no end of amusement with this game, and I had no choice but to comply.
I had to admit it was funny, at first anyway. But other people found out about the game, and every time I walked into biotech class, I was greeted with taps on each shoulder and expectant grins. Eventually it became aggravating, but I knew Todd didn’t intend to be obnoxious. He was just fascinated by TS. A lot of people, including my family and best friends, often are.
According to the Tourette Association of America, approximately 200,000 Americans have TS. A lot of people only know about it from “South Park,” MTV’s “True Life” or myriad lowbrow comedians as that funny condition that makes you scream swear-words. Ironically, most people with TS don’t have that tic.
On the bus, I sniffle hard and wheeze, and people stare or ask if I need Kleenex. When I do a jerky hop across the kitchen at work, I’ll tell a bemused coworker I’m excited that it’s finally warm outside.
There are good months and bad months, but overall my TS is relatively mild. It mostly requires patience and a healthy willingness to laugh at myself. Sometimes I wish I could extract the tics from my body and nuke them into oblivion. I feel that way when it takes five minutes to type a simple sentence because I can’t stop mashing my fingers into the computer keyboard. In March, TS led to the death of my Delete and Control keys.
Living with TS helped me develop some of the most important parts of who I am. I give TS a lot of credit for making me a more sensitive, empathetic person. Dealing with such a publicly visible struggle allows me to be more conscientious of how other people’s hidden troubles influence their outward actions.
The random nature of TS bestows the rest of my life with a spontaneous, roll-with-it mentality that affects everything from where I eat lunch to deciding to spend a semester in Scotland during college. Once I see past the self-consciousness, frustration, and inconvenience TS causes, it’s hard not to feel amazed at the inconceivable complexity of my brain, even when the disorder makes it function improperly and throws its little chunks of chaos at me every day.
My malfunctioning nerve cells actually create a short circuit in my brain that not only makes me tic but unlocks a more creative, spontaneous part of myself.
I cannot imagine life without the endlessly unexpected, inconvenient, and, of course, amusing intrusions TS makes into my life. If I had the chance to completely eradicate it, I’m not positive that I would. Everything would become so simple, so easy, so boring. I don’t know who I would be without it.