No, You Don’t Have Tourette’s

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Sharon Osbourne, a 66-year-old TV personality has reportedly said “Sometimes I think I have Tourette’s without too much swearing.”

I have never met Sharon Osbourne, but I am willing to bet she doesn’t have Tourette’s.

First things first, you don’t have to swear to have Tourette’s. Most people – between 75 and 90 percent of people with Tourette’s – don’t experience coprolalia.

Secondly, Sharon Osborne doesn’t have Tourette’s. What she has is a condition called “verbal diarrhoea” – an affliction that causes people to talk utter crap.

Thirdly, everyone needs to stop using Tourette’s as an excuse for bad language.

Bad language and Tourette’s are not synonymous.

I have had numerous people tell me they think they or their boyfriend/partner/cat has Tourette’s because they swear so much. But swearing is a small part of an incredibly complicated condition – a condition which can be the source of physical pain, isolation, and unemployment, a condition which causes much more motor tics than it does vocal, a condition which has been ridiculed by celebrities and non-celebrities for far too long.

It’s time to stop using Tourette’s as an excuse for poor behaviour. If you really think you have Tourette’s – if your body and voice are doing things out of your control – then see your GP. If you think you swear a bit too much, then maybe just chill out.

Tic Attacks

Tic attacks, tic fits, tic status, whatever you want to call it, they suck in a serious way. Imagine being unable to control your body or voice for hours on end. Imagine hitting your head against the wall, grunting, throwing objects, breaking stuff, jerking your arms, constantly writhing and shaking, falling to the floor when you try to walk, not being able to string a sentence together without your Tourette’s interrupting it with all sorts of random expletives.

I’m in week three of a job at an advertising agency. I love the place. They couldn’t be more supportive of my Tourette’s. They let me go home early if my tics are too disabling. They send me in a taxi if the Tube is too hard to handle. They let me take more frequent breaks. They have let everyone in the building I know about my condition so no one is alarmed or surprised when I suddenly let out a profanity.

The problem is my Tourette’s is bad at this job. I’ve had three tic attacks in three weeks which is unheard of for me. The problem is I don’t want to be seen as the sick, disabled employee who can’t handle a 9 to 5 workday like everyone else. I want to be well, to work consistently, to knuckle down like everyone else. The problem is I don’t want to have Tourette’s, and yet I do, there’s no cure, the treatments I have had have only alleviated some of my symptoms but by no means all of them.

It’s a big problem – one that, as of yet, can’t be resolved. All I can do now is be thankful that my employers are so understanding, be grateful that I have regular access to a neurologist, and be happy that my friends and family are supporting me through my Tourette’s – whatever it brings.

The Funniest Tics, The Least Funny Tics

Some of the Funniest Tics I’ve Had:

  1. I am at Christmas party in the presence of my boss’ boss’ boss – an elegantly dressed American millionaire – and tell her that she is, in no uncertain terms, “a low-calorie bitch”.
  2. I am on a Tinder date and stroke the face of the other person before I have a chance to introduce myself.
  3. It’s my first day of work, and I say to my manager, “I’m going to fucking kill you, you little bitch”.
  4. I am closing down the bar, as the last customers leave, say: “You’re all dead inside and drink to fill the void.”
  5. “You’re a bitch,” I tic to my three-year-old niece. “I’m not a bitch,” she replies, quite rightly too.

Some of the Least Funny Tics I’ve Had: 

  1. It’s snowing in London. The pavements are icy and I have to walk from the bus stop to my flat. It’s now that my Tourette’s decides now to stop me walking. My knees buckle and my legs jerk. It’s a miracle I don’t fall and hurt myself. I creep my way back home, clinging on to walls, too stubborn to take a taxi. The ten-minute journey takes half an hour.
  2. I am at work behind the till. I take a sharp intake of breath, then another, then another. I vaguely wonder if this is a panic attack. But it’s not. This is just my Tourette’s deciding that I’m not going to breathe that day.
  3. I am in hospital and my whole body is shaking. “Is she having a seizure?” a nurse asks.
  4. I am in my flat, relaxing. Suddenly, my fist clenches and punches the wall. In the days that follow, I punch the wall innumerable times. In the months that follow, I break three windows.
  5. “N*****!”

How to be a Student with Tourette’s

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As of a few weeks ago, I am again a student. This time, though, instead of studying modern languages, I am studying a law conversion course – an intense nine months which essentially condenses a three-year law degree into just one academic year.

Challenges abound. It’s a new campus, a new subject matter and a new cohort of classmates. It’s also an entirely new experience for me, because, as I developed Tourette’s at the age of twenty-one (at the very end of my undergraduate degree) I’ve never really been a student with Tourette’s.

Consequently, I’m starting to find out what I had always supposed: being a student with Tourette’s is tough. There are three main problematic areas:

  • Concentration (or a lack thereof). Knuckling down is what the course is all about. You’re given tonnes of new information to digest each week, and each week, you are required to read, understand, write an awful lot. Alas, as reading, understanding and writing take up a lot of brain power, this often proves difficult, especially when you’re trying with all your might to suppress your tics in class.
  • An inability to sit still. How people sit down for eight hours a day is beyond me. I am a fidget, even when I’m not ticcing. I like to move, stretch, pace. What’s more, my Tourette’s demands it.
  • An inability to stay quiet. There are few things that make me want to tic more than perfect silence. This is especially problematic in libraries and exams – in other words, the stomping ground of students.

On top of this, there is the stress of an unrelenting workload, the anxiety that a near constant barrage of exams brings, and the awkwardness of coming out as having Tourette’s to a bunch of new people,

There are a few things I’ve done to make things better though:

  • Suppressing, suppressing, suppressing. It’s hard to explain what suppressing feels like, but I would liken it to being a can of fizzy drink that’s just been shaken. It also feels a bit like holding your breath. For a release, in between classes I make sure to walk around the nearby square so I can let it all out.
  • Coming out as having Tourette’s as soon as possible to all my classmates. I did this via a group WhatsApp chat, so I wouldn’t have to tell everyone individually. I explained the reason I was twitching and making random noises in class was that I had Tourette’s Syndrome. I said I hoped it wasn’t too annoying or distracting, and mentioned that although I try to suppress as much as I can, I can’t hold them all in. Finally, I warned them that my tics are especially offensive these days.
    The support I got back from my classmates was slightly overwhelming. They told me they admired my courage for telling them, and urged me to ask them if I needed anything. This was very sweet of them, but it didn’t take much courage to tell them. It was just necessary.
  • Coming out as having Tourette’s I came out as having Tourette’s as soon as possible to all my tutors. I actually asked my personal tutor to do this so I wouldn’t have to.
  • On top of this, I use all the tricks I mentioned in my previous post: switching an offensive word half-way through to something else – i.e. switching “shit” to “sugar”; changing the offensive word to something that rhymes – i.e. switching “fuck” to “duck”, and turning vocal tics into “mental tics”.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting nine months. But as to how I am going to be a lawyer with Tourette’s, well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I Hate Mindfulness

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The early twentieth century gave us psychoanalysis, the late twentieth century gave us cognitive behavioural therapy, and then came mindfulness. Stemming from the meditative practices of Buddhist monks – a demographic who experience very little depression or anxiety – mindfulness has been lauded as a treatment for myriad conditions, including but not limited to: depression, anxiety, insomnia, ADHD, chronic pain, and yes, Tourette’s.

As someone who’s prone to mental health wobblies, professionals have been advising me to take up mindfulness for years, initially with my depression in mind.

Please believe me when I say I tried. I downloaded the apps and even paid for subscriptions. I put up with Headspace’s Andrew telling me to have a “nice soft gaze” for the umpteenth time. I sat down at the same time every day, trying to be aware as possible of my breathing.

Through it all, my friends, dizzied by their recent mindfulness epiphanies, raved about the benefits to me: mindfulness increases concentration and focus, decreases stress, eliminates anxiety.

And I’m sure they’re right. I sure they did feel more focused, less stressed and less anxious, because there is concrete evidence that mindfulness is the way forward for treating depression, anxiety and its related symptoms.

But whatever it is, mindfulness isn’t a panacea. As someone with Tourette’s, it is so hard it’s basically impossible. After all, a requirement of the practice is sitting still and shutting up: a challenge for someone with a condition that makes you speak and move randomly.

Much to my dismay, when I did try mindfulness, I actually found that meditating actually exacerbated my tics instead of alleviating them. I would writhe, twitch and yell when I was supposed to be quiet and still.

Thankfully, I have found plenty of things which have helped my depression which aren’t mindfulness, and a couple of things which have even helped my Tourette’s too.

Things that have helped my depression which aren’t mindfulness:

  • A gentle jog or leisurely walk
  • Sitting in the sun, even if it’s for five minutes, and even if it’s cold out
  • Cooking a healthy meal and then eating it
  • Having a good old chin wag with a friend and a glass of wine
  • Being creative: writing a little story, blog post, drawing a picture, colouring in
  • Taking a bath
  • Dressing smartly even if I’m not leaving the house
  • Getting a haircut
  • Sleeping well
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Time

Things that have helped my Tourette’s which aren’t mindfulness:

  • Aripiprazole
  • Clonazepam

Of course, none of these things have cured my depression or Tourette’s, but that said, they have helped a bit, which is more than I can say for mindfulness. I think the truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to treating these conditions. After all, each person’s brain is different, and just like some people respond to certain medications but not others, it’s only logical that some people are going to respond to some therapies and not others. And that, I would suggest, is quite alright.