These days, concealing the physical tics wracking my body is involuntary. When my neck tic begins, I bite my lip to flex my throat in an attempt to mask the sudden contraction of my muscles. My shoulder blades want to be stretched, so I rearrange myself in my seat. My vocal chords yearn to hit a certain note, so I take a deep breath until the air against my throat satisfies the urge.
In I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), by Brené Brown, she argues that body image is defined too narrowly, and that women lament being betrayed by their bodies for a variety of reasons beyond just dissatisfaction with their physical appearance. “When we begin to blame and hate our bodies for failing to live up to our expectations,” Brown writes, “we start splitting ourselves in parts and move away from our wholeness—our authentic selves.”
What’s authentically me, what’s part of the “stuff” I carry around, are these motor and vocal compulsions. If I suppress them, they build until I can’t breathe. The only relief comes through performing them. Exacerbated by stress and anxiety, these compulsions have interfered with my career as a journalist. I remember one particularly stressful week in the newsroom when I kept excusing myself to the bathroom to “tic it out.” After a Swell Season concert at the gorgeous Ryman Auditorium, rolling my shoulder blades into the wooden pews so frequently that I was left with quarter-sized bruises on my back, I finally visited a neurologist. He confirmed these weird quirks were a real neurological disorder that I couldn’t control. Then, he put me on a medication that made my job in news impossible by dulling my reaction time. I soon went off the foggy medication, my neurologist moved away, and a therapist later expressed surprise that I’d ever been given an antipsychotic.
Tourette Syndrome is our common understanding of tic disorders, though most sufferers don’t shout swear words as movies and TV shows would have you believe. My tic disorder started as a child when, before I’d shoot from the free throw line, I’d put the basketball between my knees and scratch all the places that suddenly itched: the spot on top of my head, at the back of my neck, my chin, between my breasts, on both thumbs, above either knee and both big toes. Then I could shoot the ball.
It’s a tic I still have today, along with eye blinking, shoulder rolling and neck grimacing. Tics emerge and fade away—sometimes only existing for a year or so—and their ebb and flow is a mystery. A couple weeks ago, I had the worst compulsion yet: there’s a meaningless phrase I’ve silently repeated for years, and without warning, it filled my brain with such domination I couldn’t hold a conversation or read a book without the phrase running the show. It felt as though a wad of words rested on the back of my tongue and pulling “it” out with my fingers every 30 seconds was the only relief. I’d reach into my mouth toward the back of my tongue and tug out the phantom wad with my thumb and forefinger, imagining a membrane of the phrase being removed from my tongue and the sides of my mouth. After five days, as mysteriously as that tic had arrived, it vanished.
I don’t tic while writing, playing the piano or doing yoga; working from home eases my tics somewhat, too, since there are no co-workers to pass judgment about these compulsions. There’ve only been a few times in my 30 years that someone has mentioned my many faces, and oh, how I’ve let those comments shame me and make me feel “other”. By trying to deny my tics, I realized I was doing the same thing, but worse, since I was doing it to myself.
Maybe you know the metaphor of the swan? Graceful above the water and paddling furiously out of sight. When you think about the story we tell the world and the story inside us, we’ve all got our “stuff” hidden under water. Yet we can’t connect as a community unless we let people know our whole, authentic selves: from graceful necks to anxious feet.