A Glaring Problem

Scrutinizing the start of the syndrome

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To know me is to be aware of my very many quirks and mannerisms. With these, I lump in tics resulting from my struggle with Tourette syndrome and OCD. Given its conspicuity, I often write or speak about my malady. No matter the medium, I welcome any opportunity to shed light on something so maligned and mischaracterized.

What follows is a lively reflection on the outset of my affliction. Equal parts humorous and true, it’s a lighthearted treatment of the very visceral burden that I contend with every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

A Glaring Problem

It all started in the third grade. As a young, inquisitive, precocious eight-year-old bundle of energy, I was already a great deal of fun to have in the classroom for my poor, innocent teacher Sister Angela. The caricature of a strict Irish nun, she was the benevolent tyrant of the classroom—quick to reward those lucky students who correctly traced the alphabet in cursive and even quicker to verbally shellack any delinquent who dared upset her carefully guarded reign. Thus, as a sharp eight-year-old, I was seen as a potential saboteur capable of leading a veritable coup d’état against the torture of means, multiplication, and mathematics in general and the nuisance of learning cursive (which often led to cursing, mind you). When my Tourette came into the picture, a potential saboteur became a full-fledged, buck-toothed felon in the sharp, wizened eyes of good old Sister Angela. 

Above: The buck-toothed felon, himself

Now what you have to understand about Tourette syndrome is that it is remarkably peculiar and irritatingly persistent. Tics, as its manifestations are called, can be motor or vocal, hardly noticeable or the equivalent of a fire siren in a library. To ask an individual to restrain a tic is tantamount to requesting that someone stop blinking or breathing; the neurological assault is relentless and overpowering. In order to get that rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine (the chemical responsible for the rewarding feelings of exuberance and pleasure that follow any enjoyable action), individuals with Tourette syndrome need to go the extra mile. Instead of getting that addictive squirt of neurological delight from sipping a beer or relaxing on the beach, they follow the lead of some sick, demented, cerebral impulse that instructs the afflicted to sniff, slap, scream, or spit in order to satisfy this cranial itch. It is both odd and frustrating and to date the medical community has had tremendous difficulty understanding its root cause.

Anyway, the very first thing that I remember my unruly, misfiring brain directing my calm, innocent body to do was both blink and gawk. In other words, my first tics exclusively involved my eyes. Throwing a few winks to the left and casting a beautifully awkward glare to the right, I soon confused dear old Sister Angela. While she was reviewing the intricacies of long division, I would calmly sit in my seat and effectively attack her with my eyes. Blinking as though I had just put in eye drops and glaring as though I was ready to mug my frail, seventy-something-year-old teacher, I stood out like a kid with Tourette in a third grade classroom. Although I had no idea what was happening at the time, that’s exactly what I was.

After a while, Sister Angela began to notice my prying eyes. She returned my blinking in a ferocious manner and glared at me just as I did at her. These exchanges were almost romantic—as romantic as those between a third grader and an ancient Irish nun could be, of course. Dancing with our respective eyes, she would parry my sensual wink with a glare fit for a condemned murderer, my furrowed eyebrows and confused eyes with a look that emanated absolute certainty. And so we danced together, old Sister Angela and young Thomas Joseph White.

One day, she politely asked me, “What the hell is going on Tommy?”

In my naturally suave manner, I deftly replied, “What?”

Thinking that this was a game to me, Sister Angela pressed me for answers: “Don’t play dumb, young man. What are you doing with your eyes? Blinking, winking, glaring, grimacing, what are you doing?”

Remarkably, up to that point, I had no idea that I was doing anything out of the ordinary. So strong were the urges and so automatic my facial responses, I did not know that I was ticcing at all. After a nice little verbal joust, Sister Angela vindicated this would-be saboteur and decided it prudent to get my parents involved. Explaining the situation to them, my parents remarked that they too had noticed these quirky mannerisms and had scheduled an appointment with my big, scary, Italian pediatrician at that time: Doctor D’Arienzo. 

I blinked, winked, and gazed my way up the path to the doctor’s office. All I remember from this confusing visit was the bewilderment emanating from Doctor D’Arienzo as he assessed a wild-eyed boy who glared when he reached for his stethoscope and winked as he prodded with his tongue depressor. At the end of the visit, I vividly remember the doctor telling my parents that I may have Tourette syndrome. I really didn’t think much of it at the time. Back then, it seemed an innocuous French phrase, but it has since quite literally touched every part of my life. It is something that I oxymoronically detest and appreciate, a diagnosis that I would change in a heartbeat but one that I couldn’t imagine my zany, beautiful life without.

As I walked back into the office’s reception area, my eyes continued to flitter up and down, left and right until they landed upon the crooked nose of an elderly woman. The evil voice inside of my head told me to touch it with abandon. Inclined to scratch this uncomfortable mental itch, I wriggled free of my mom’s tight grip and I proceeded to waddle over to the shriveled old woman, ironically winking all the while, and boop; I poked her nose. Ducking below the blows of her knotted, wooden cane, my family and I quickly apologized and ran out of the office.

Another day, another tic I suppose.

For more on Tourette: