What Are You Laughing At?

laughing

The other day – I had a catch up with someone I used to know. We hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. During our meeting. I told him about what I’d been up to, the jobs I’d been working, and the books I’d been reading. I also told him about the months where my Tourette’s had been pretty bad.

“I even had trouble walking,” I said.

“How?” he asked.

“I would just keep falling over,” I said.

My former friend then took this opportunity to laugh as if not being able to walk were the funniest thing in the world.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “It’s just so funny.”

I was little bit confused. I didn’t remember not being able walk as being funny at all. It was, at the time, incredibly frustrating not being able to get from A to B without staggering all over the place.

But the encounter, and my acquaintance’s reaction, got me thinking. Is Tourette’s funny? In my experience, people certainly seem to think so. Sometimes, I only have to tell people I have Tourette’s and they laugh.

This can be annoying, especially when my Tourette’s is playing up. I have had, in no particular order, tics in my legs which have impaired my walking, tics in my eyes which have impaired my sight, tics in my lungs which have impaired my breathing, tics in my arms which have made me punch walls, tics in my arms which have made me punch windows, tics in my arms which have made me punch mirrors, and tics in my arms which have made me punch my face. None of these have been particularly humorous.

Most of the time, though, people don’t think of these kinds of tics when they think of Tourette’s. When they think of Tourette’s, they think of one thing: coprolalia – the compulsion to utter expletives and other socially inappropriate phrases, something which affects only 10 to 25 percent of people with Tourette’s.

Admittedly, a condition which makes you do something bizarre as swear compulsively does sound quite funny. The problem is, though, that is although it sometimes has a humorous side, coprolalia is more often than not embarrassing, isolating, and downright awkward. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most of coprolalia isn’t funny at all.

Despite all the un-funny tics Tourette’s can throw at you, despite the fact that the condition can be a cause of social isolation, unemployment, bullying, and embarrassment, if you listen out for them, you’ll hear many jokes where Tourette’s is a punchline. For some reason, it is socially acceptable to mock Tourette’s in a way that it isn’t with other disabilities.

Although laughter might be an excellent medicine, the culture of poking fun at Tourette’s has had many negative effects on those with the condition. Thanks to the innumerable Tourette’s jokes out there, the struggles people with Tourette’s go through are laughed off to such an extent that some even go so far as to say they wish they had the condition.

Ultimately, the comedy surrounding Tourette’s is due to a lack of understanding, and it’s this lack of understanding which makes having the condition far more isolating than it needs to be.

 

 

Pros and Cons of Having Tourette’s

Pros:

  • Sometimes, it’s funny.

Cons:

  • It hurts.
  • It’s embarrassing.
  • It’s exhausting to be ticcing all the time.
  • It can be harder to get or keep a job.
  • You probably have another condition like OCD, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety, or all five. All of these comorbid conditions can make life harder to live.
  • People laugh at people with Tourette’s.
  • People stare at people with Tourette’s.
  • People don’t really know what Tourette’s is, meaning that those with the condition have to constantly explain what it is.
  • People think Tourette’s is just about swearing, so if you’re one of the 75 – 90 percent of people with Tourette’s who don’t swear, people accuse you of not having the condition.
  • Tics which are rude or offensive can put you in danger of angering or offending someone.
  • People think people with Tourette’s are just pretending, that they are just saying what they want to say and then acting as though it was a tic.
  • People with Tourette’s have to put up with being the centre of attention.
  • Tourette’s is an incurable, chronic condition.

Things Not To Say To People With Tourette’s

A few weeks ago, I participated in the BBC3 short video “Things Not To Say to People With Tourette’s”. The whole series is excellent. Other episodes deal similarly well with other misunderstood conditions such as dyslexia, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Taking part was an excellent opportunity to debunk some common misconceptions about the condition (i.e. that people with Tourette’s swear all the time), but also to meet someone else with the condition (I’ve only met one other person with Tourette’s before). Please do check out the video, and the other ones in the series too.

 

I Talk Shit

profanity

I am part of a very elite group. No, I do not have an American Express platinum card, nor have I ever been part of the Bullingdon Club, or a member the House of Lords. Instead, I am one of the people with Tourette’s that actually swear.

And this is quite an exclusive group. Estimates vary, but anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of those with the condition experience coprolalia – the jargon term for the compulsion to say socially inappropriate phrases which pleasingly translates as “talking shit”.

“You have all the symptoms,” my consultant once told me. “All of them.”

The consultant was right. In addition to experiencing coprolalia, I have echolalia (the compulsion to repeat what others have said), echopraxia (the compulsion to imitate the gestures of others), palilalia (the compulsion to repeat what I’ve just said), and klazomania (the compulsion to shout).

And although all of these tics can be, in their own special way, a complete pain in the arse, it’s the coprolalia that does rather take the piss.

However, the phenomenon is widely misunderstood. Often, for me at least, coprolalia doesn’t even entail any cursing. Often, it’s just about being goddam rude.

For example, I regularly inform the people of the London Underground that they’re walking too slowly, and tell them to “come on” or “hurry up”. Loud people, on the other hand, will inevitably get a “shhh!” from me, and people who randomly stop at the top of escalators will be sure to receive a “MOVE!”.

Unsurprisingly, these tics can and do get me into pickles. Disgruntlement follows me wherever I go. Sometimes, people get so cross they say something. In these situations, my heart pounds. Sometimes, I leg it with my head down. Other times, I try to explain.

It’s these tics – the tics which make me tell strangers that they’re too noisy, too slow, too clumsy, or too much of a nuisance, that are far more awkward than any of the run of the mill, everyday swearing that comes out of my mouth. For example, if I randomly yell “SHIT” in a coffee shop, the general public will assume I’m a) mental, b) have Tourette’s, or c) have become very loudly and suddenly distressed. However, if I tell a dad pushing a pram to “HURRY UP” (which, mortifyingly, I did yesterday), the general public will assume I am a) goddam rude, b) goddam rude, or c) goddam rude.

These tics are also a bit awkward in the way that, unlike any of my other tics, they are actually indicative of what I’m thinking. If I let out a “bastard”, a “lemon” or a “pasta”, I am not actually thinking of bastards, lemons or pasta. However, if you just stop randomly at the top of the escalator with a queue of people behind you, and I tic at you “MOVE!”, I really do want you to move. Because it just doesn’t make sense to stop at the top of an escalator. You’re in everyone’s way.