I can’t remember when I developed my first tic or, for that matter, what qualified as my first official “tic”. As early as first grade, I made a habit of repeatedly bringing my tongue to my nose. In third grade, a chronic case of itchy eyes made me blink violently like a camera shutter every few minutes. The blinking lasted at least a couple years, periodically waxing and waning in its intensity.
In middle school, the itch traveled to my throat and ears. I cleared my throat repeatedly to scratch it. I tried to do it softly so it wasn’t too intrusive. Still, I am certain it was agitating to anyone close enough to hear the recurring sounds of air scraping against gravely throat tissue.
By the time I got to high school, the bodily urges became a facet of everyday life. I had cycled through them all — sniffling, grunting, throat clearing, burping, nose twitching, neck stretching, head jerking, belly spasming, shoulder shrugging.
Though these habits were constant companions, I never gave them a name and I didn’t acknowledge them as tics. They weren’t exactly reflexive, but they weren’t voluntary either. They helped me get by. Similar to the urge I’d feel to yawn or stretch or sneeze or scratch an itch, tics were motions that I felt compelled to carry out. They dispelled the discomfort I constantly felt throughout my body.
My mannerisms became real to me as “tics” when people started noticing them — and then even more real when people started associating me with my tics.
Around middle school, I became hyper-aware of how others perceived me. For a while, my dominant tic was to sharply contract my stomach over and over. Every time I tightened my stomach, I’d let out a short, sudden burst of air. I guess it sounded like I was quietly chuckling to myself, because on more than one occasion the person next to me looked over and asked what was so funny. My tics began to make me feel self-conscious.
I remember the first time I was made to feel ashamed of my tics. A boy named Isaiah called out to me in passing, “Hey, I heard you have Tourette’s!” I immediately felt small, transported back to childhood when my mother scolded me for licking the spot between my nose and upper lip raw, or when she demanded my doctors tell her first what was wrong with my eyes, then throat, then belly.
Isaiah was one of those kids in high school who derived their popularity from putting other kids down. Like a puffer fish, he expanded himself to appear larger than he actually was. As a kid, I always let puffer fish intimidate me with their spines and toxins. It was only later that I’d learn that puffer fish actually have a lot to compensate for — they’re relatively small and extremely slow, which can make them an easy target of predation. Though today I’d write off an Isaiah character in my life with relative ease, at the time his words lodged like shrapnel in my mind.
I had never heard of Tourette’s, but I knew, based on the way Isaiah had said it, that it was something undesirable, or laughable. I looked it up on-line — a neuropsychiatric disorder of uncertain etiology. In other words, its exact causes are unknown. And there’s no simple way to fix it.
I’ve been a spaz for most of my life. Easily stressed and easily excitable, my emotional pendulum swings readily between extreme states of high energy.
When I brought up my tics to my mom, she attributed them to an excess amount of “internal heat”, an idea that comes from traditional Chinese medicine. Internal heat was also the reason why I was prone to canker sores, acne and nosebleeds — and beyond those, impulsivity, worry and a quick temper.
The thought expanded in me like a hot-air balloon. I accepted that I was filled with internal heat; that the molecules in my body vibrated at a higher frequency. I equated it with passion, vigor and fieriness. I seized the idea that I contained some overabundance of energy, and that this excess energy leaked — leapt, rather — out of my body in the form of tics.
I wanted to sync myself with these high frequency vibrations and use up every ounce of energy I could. Maybe, if I could harness and use the energy, less of it would escape in unwanted twitches and convulsions.
I started to approach life with the goal of using as much raw energy as possible. I made sure to take the hardest classes and took on leadership roles in too many extracurricular activities. I trained in taekwondo, tried to teach myself new instruments, made ambitious art projects and started many an unfinished novel. I was cruising down the fast lane, trying to fit in as many sights and experiences as possible.
In my late teens, I traveled to Mexico, where a Mayan gave me an astrology reading based on the date and year of my birth and told me that I was born on a day of “double energy.” When I asked him if this had anything to do with my tics, he explained that the tics were a manifestation of this double energy. I simply hadn’t learned how to balance the extra energy inside me yet.
The explanation made me feel mystical. Whereas my mother’s explanation of “internal heat” made me feel like I was pathologically unbalanced, the astrologer’s explanation made me feel extraordinary. Here was a man telling me that I was born on a day so auspicious that I was bestowed with twice the amount of energy that everyone else received. I didn’t mind believing that my tics held some sort of cosmic magic. I felt like I had a secret to keep.
Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about the science behind tics. Clinically, there’s a lot that’s unknown about them. I know that, at any given time, I have both motor and phonic tics — motor tics involving movements, and phonic tics involving sounds through the nose, mouth or throat. I also know that I have simple tics — any combination of sudden, brief movements or sounds — as opposed to complex tics, which are more coordinated and longer lasting, such as pulling at clothes, touching objects or repeating words.
I classify as having Tourette’s syndrome, which entails having multiple motor tics and at least one phonic tic at the same time. Although people commonly associate Tourette’s with the yelling of inappropriate words or comments, this symptom is actually only present in a handful of people with Tourette’s. There is no effective treatment for all cases of Tourette’s, but tics can indicate the presence of other conditions, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Recently, I was video chatting with my family when my mom suddenly interrupted the conversation to ask us all to please stop twitching. “It’s really distracting,” she said.
At first, I was confused. What did she mean, we were “all twitching?” I was the only one that twitched.
It dawned on me, only then, that for as long as I can remember, my brother and dad have had tics too. I just never recognized them for what they were. My dad’s tendencies to repeatedly clear his throat and raise his eyebrows have always just been part of who he is. My brother’s constant nostril flaring and thumb fidgeting were just funny habits he had picked up as a kid.
It wasn’t until my mom pointed it out that I realized she is the only one among us to not have some sort of strange, repetitive body motion to act out. It was a relief to realize that I wasn’t the only one. Knowing that we were a family of tics, I felt less alienated.
At the same time, I felt pangs of disappointment. I had been attributing a higher cosmic significance to my tics without considering the simple possibility that they’re written out in my DNA. Perhaps my body has just been acting out my genes’ instructions.
Nobody knows exactly why tics happen, but they are likely due to some combination of hereditary and environmental causes. I may be genetically predisposed to my tics, and I may also have picked up some behaviors from my dad. Either explanation is, frankly, more boring than internal heat or astrological karma.
Over the years though, I’ve realized that my tics are supernatural in their own way. I’ve learned to read my tics and think of them as messengers between my body and brain. I can tell if I’m at ease with someone by how often I have to strain the muscles in my neck. I twitch more when I haven’t slept enough. If I’m trying to accomplish something and my shoulder is starting to cramp up from twitching too much, it’s usually a sign that I should give it a break. Stop and breathe, go for a walk or take a nap. Take a step back before I get lost in the heat of the moment — or, by my mother’s paradigm, the heat coursing through my body.
Most recently, my tics have revealed how uncomfortable I am having free time to myself. In the rare moments when I have down time on my own and decide to read a book or watch a movie, I start twitching violently and frequently. My mind wanders, and my body feels the need to act out all of the non sequiturs racing through my mind.
Then there are the moments, glorious and rare, when I am so wholly entranced or absorbed by something that I forget to twitch altogether. This may happen when I am dancing, cooking, hiking, making art, taking an exam, doing fieldwork, driving to a good podcast or playlist, exercising or hitting a good stride in writing. I am, for once, comfortable with the energy in my body.
In those instances of complete fixation, everything goes still and quiet. It’s a moment of silence after nothing but television static, or a spell of smooth sailing after constant assault by sea spray. It’s standing in a loud and crowded space, feeling claustrophobic, when suddenly a flock of birds spirals through, and everyone stops to observe in collective awe.
For the most part though, my tics are always there. I twitch almost constantly, particularly during moments when I’m excited or stressed, as I’m prone to be. I am figuring out how to listen to my tics so I can be kinder to my body and mind. But I no longer feel the need to view my tics as a roadmap for how to live life. I no longer feel like I am missing some perfect balance of energy that would magically eliminate my tics.
Given the choice to eliminate them, I don’t think I would. There are moments, when my stomach hurts from all the contractions or my shoulder blades are sore from so much shrugging, when I crave stillness and wish my body would just take a break. But I remember that my tics connect me to my family, and that they keep me in tune with what I’m feeling when I engage with a person, situation or activity. My tics are as much a part of my physical self as my gait or posture. Many friends express that they’ve grown fond of my tics — “they’re part of you,” they say, “I can’t imagine you without them.”
In some ways, I can’t imagine not having them either. There is security in knowing that they are there. I feel that I am always occupied — even if it’s just with the task of not staying still.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to be a slightly tighter-strung person. I’ve learned that I’ll have times in my life when I feel compelled to live fast and furiously, and other times when I need to take it easy so I don’t get burnt out. Perhaps my tics are not a bestowment of luck from the Mayan gods. But I think I’m okay with making my own luck.