At five years old, English teacher Nicaela Eaks recalls sitting in a playhouse, dubbed a “prison,” as she watched her kindergarten teacher help the other students through a window screen. Her teacher found her disruptive, so Eaks was constantly placed in timeout throughout the school year, despite not realizing what got her in trouble.
However, what Eaks and her school did not know was that she had Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder involving involuntary repetitive movements or sounds known as tics.
“Everyone just thought I was clumsy and weird,” Eaks said. “But my whole life, I knew something was wrong and different about me.”
As Eaks got older, the incidents began to add up and confirm her suspicions when people continued to treat her differently. Often, her tics would trap her in uncomfortable situations, subjecting her to others’ ignorance.
“When I was 12, my friends and I were trying to catch a bus and the bus driver stopped to let us on,” Eaks said. “There was this grown woman who complained, ‘You’re making me late because we had to wait for you.’ And I just blankly stared at her, [which is] a tic. And she was like, ‘Hey, why are you staring at me, girl?’”
When the bus arrived at the next stop, according to Eaks’s friends, she told the woman she was the ugliest person she had ever seen. The infuriated woman then dragged her by the hair and started to beat her up without warning.
“I had no idea what just happened or what I did,” Eaks said. “My friends screamed, ‘Something’s wrong with her; it’s not her fault!’ and I remember thinking that if my friends think something is wrong with me, what do other people think?”
After many confusing interactions that continued to occur, Eaks began to wonder if she had Tourette’s syndrome. At a birthday party, she chose to confide in her friend about her suspicions. Her friend was not surprised.
“She said ‘Oh, you don’t remember Mr. Miller always calling you TG?’ It stood for Tourette Girl,” Eaks said. “It was those kinds of small things that made me question myself.”
Eventually, Eaks’s mother revealed to her that she had been diagnosed with Tourette’s when she was ten. Her mother did not tell her sooner because she thought Eaks would have taken advantage of the knowledge.
“I honestly don’t know if I wish my mother had told me sooner,” Eaks said. “I don’t think I had the coping skills then as I do now. If I had known then, I would’ve fallen back on it as a cushion. Instead, I had to learn how to act [appropriately].”
At age 42, Eaks visited a doctor following her mother’s confession and received a second diagnosis that confirmed her disorder. Since then, her tics have intensified with age, even though most people outgrow their Tourette’s.
“There are some tics I feel coming and I can stop them,” Eaks said. “But there are some big ones [where] I cannot. [For example], during meetings, I hold my hands together tightly to prevent myself from doing something hardcore.”
Despite stress from teaching, especially during distance learning which has caused her to tic more, having Tourette’s does not heavily interfere with her life. Growing up with it made her humorous and light-hearted, shaping her into the person she is now.
“I have grown used to having Tourette’s and the large amount of space it takes [up] in my life,” Eaks said. “[And] people these days are more understanding about [it]. People’s personal attitudes towards their own Tourette’s affect how other people feel about it. I think it’s funny and it makes people feel more comfortable. I wouldn’t be who I am without it.”