When I was ten years old my family moved from Long Island, New York, to Mexico City. By then, I’d been ticcing and swearing (coprolalia) for maybe five years. We moved into a modern concrete-and-glass house in a neighborhood called Las Lomas de Chapultepec. What a beautiful, strange place to live. I’d been briefly in Latin America before—Guatemala and Brazil—but in Mexico I stayed three years. This gave me time to absorb the country and its people. I sank into the colors and smells and sounds and tastes and loved it all. Everywhere I looked was something new, always fascinating, sometimes bewildering, occasionally frightening.
I was lucky enough to be admitted to a small British school called Greengates. English schools were so much more rigorous than the U.S. system that they made me repeat my previous school year. And a good thing too. Fourth grade, or Fourth Form, soon had me wrestling with English, Spanish, French, Latin, Ancient History, Modern History, Maths, Algebra, Plane Geometry, and learning this strange game called football (right… soccer). The school environment was competitive, strict, and sometimes Dickensian. One of my teachers would take his seat, light a cigarette and, as we readied to review homework, glare at us and say, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them.”
I was bewildered by the strangeness around me and shackled to isolation by my physical and vocal tics. See the class picture? I’m back row, all the way to the right. Look at those ears!
My eyes went bad (perhaps I didn’t want to see what was happening) so I was fitted with glasses for the first time. And according to 1958 best practices in dental technology, an orthodontist pounded braces onto each of my teeth. It’s no wonder I kept my face in a book.
I found shelter with my family until I could find my legs. After the initial shocks I did find kindred spirits, made friends, and eventually came to love my little life in Mexico. I began to excel at school and gained a splendid education. I belonged to a young, international community and had Irish and Japanese and Spanish friends; I had playmates from England, Switzerland, and Sweden. I learned practical skills like using my school tie as a sling to hurl a rock a mile—or so it seemed. After-school snack was a corn tortilla cooked over a gas flame, then buttered and lightly salted. For me still, the only way to eat a hot dog is wrapped in a corn tortilla.
My parents had long ago introduced me to classical music and jazz, and I found rock’n’roll all by myself. But Mexican music was the new thing that caught me. I loved to stand in front of a Mariachi band to hear the horns and violins, and watch those bright costumes glitter in the sun. What power in those horns, softened by the strings, always just enough out of tune. The singer fronting the band in a dramatic stance, one foot firmly planted in front of the other, smiling under his enormous hat. And then he’d cry out! El grito—the anguish of lost love or a leap of joy—that was one of the first things I learned to imitate. Aieeeeeeeee–yai !!!!!
This music (and all music) was escape for me, a respite from my Tourette’s, and I sank deeply into it. It calmed me and calmed my tics too. That was a valuable lesson: to find something I loved and lose myself, and often my tics, in it. This is what the mariachis taught me. To follow what I loved wherever it took me because that was joy. And joy was good for me.
In the chapter of my book Worldview, Stephen (57 years old) is a musician who says, “One of the important things I’ve proved to myself is that engaging in something you love, that’s constructive and creative, is utterly important to how you work with Tourette’s.”
This is one of the deepest lessons from the book—follow your bliss, as mythologist Joseph Campbell says. Follow your bliss. Find it and follow it. See how it helps your Tourette’s. See if concentrating some something you love affects your stress level (it’ll go down) and your incidence of tics (it will lessen).
So let’s all give a grito for what we love. Aieeeeeeee-yai !!!!!