2017 NJCTS Youth Scholarship Award Essay: “That’s Life”

This is the essay I submitted to the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome & Associated Disorders (NJCTS) for their 2017 Youth Scholarship Award contest.

TommyL

When I was twelve years old, I was sitting in the lunch room, and in an instant, the school went into lockdown. For most students this is not a serious issue. They stay quiet and out of sight. For me, lockdowns are a challenge because I have Tourette Syndrome (TS), a disorder characterized by involuntary movements and sounds called tics. While the rest of the cafeteria was quiet, I couldn’t help but involuntarily yelp and twitch my neck. It felt as though the eyes of the world were glaring at me with their ears wide open to the noises I was making. I was not expecting the comment that would hurt worse than the constant staring and whispers from that school year. This unlikely offender was a quiet, but kind person who sat in front of me and asked, “Why are you doing that? What’s wrong with you? Someone should put you in a cage or something!” It was at that moment that I knew that I had to speak out about Tourette Syndrome and advocate for myself.

About a month later, a person from the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome and
Associated Disorders, Inc., came to my school and educated my peers about TS. During both presentations I stood up and stated that I had TS and I deserved respect. Through speaking out at the presentation, I became more confident and unafraid to say I have TS. In a span of six months, I went from being bullied, and afraid to feeling confident and free to be me. I learned through that entire experience that I wanted to be the one up in front of a crowd helping kids with TS come out of their shells. I later became a National Youth Ambassador and Patient Educator for Tourette Syndrome. I continued on to speak at schools, hospitals, and universities. My most rewarding experiences were when I spoke to children with TS and their peers.

Out of the adversity I have faced, I have learned to be resilient. I have developed thick
skin that has made every comment and stare bounce right off. I have learned to get back up after each defeat and push through to every victory. Throughout every tough event in life, I have turned to music to get through them. It is a known phenomenon that people with TS don’t tic while performing. Music is the reason that I wake up at 5:00 every morning to be at my before school choir class. Throughout my life I have had two passions: music and Tourette Syndrome. It is my hope to combine them into a career in music therapy. I hope to do research to figure out the correlation between the reprieve from tics and music in Tourette Syndrome patients. Hopefully, one day I will come up with a viable way to treat people with TS through music.

Through my past experiences I have learned to see each challenge as a gift. If I didn’t go through what I have in life, I wouldn’t be me or have done half the things I’ve accomplished over the years. My past experiences are what made me who I am today, and I wouldn’t change any part of them. They are what gave me the drive to be successful and create a positive change in the world. I will meet each new challenge and goal with the same intensity. I will continue to be resilient, because no matter what I do in life there will be staring, comments, and people who say I won’t succeed. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that people say many things, but they aren’t always right. Someday I will be living proof that nothing, and no one, will stop me from accomplishing my goals in life.

2017 NJCTS Youth Scholarship Award Essay: “Tourette Syndrome will always be a part of me”

This is the essay I submitted to the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome & Associated Disorders (NJCTS) for their 2017 Youth Scholarship Award contest.

Trevor S.

At ten years old, I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and it has had an impact on my life at first. Being so young, I did not really understand what Tourette Syndrome was, or what I was diagnosed with. It made it a little difficult to communicate with friends and let them know exactly what I was doing or why I ticced. One of the things that I wanted to do when I grew up was to learn more about Tourette Syndrome so I would learn more about me as a person. I moved to New Jersey two days before the start of my freshmen year. At the start of junior year, my mom found out about the [NJCTS Tim Howard Leadership] academy and it was an awesome experience. It helped me learned more about myself as I learned a lot more about TS than I previously had. The time I had at the academy left me feeling great that I finally understood who I was and I could explain to people about TS. I explained what TS was to my friends who were curious and I ended up becoming a youth advocate for TS. During the first couple months of school, I attended a presentation and answered questions for the students about TS. I have also attended two TS walks. I have recently been accepted to the academy again and look forward to attending it. Tourette Syndrome has had such an impact on my life that I do not believe I can imagine my life any other way. My letter for college was about Tourette Syndrome and how it had affected my life. I have been accepted into all but one of my colleges and have received the presidential scholarship at every university. Tourette Syndrome is, and will always be a part of me. It does make certain things interesting such as school and sports but it invites me to see new things. In school, I do well and I get to have extra times on my tests when it is needed. While there are some negatives, the positives outweigh the few negatives by a lot. I have made many new friends through the academy and other places and my knowledge in general has increased.

2017 NJCTS Youth Scholarship Award Essay: “Life’s a Twitch”

This is the essay I submitted to the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome & Associated Disorders (NJCTS) for their 2017 Youth Scholarship Award contest.

Anna B.

One of my all time favorite quotes is by Scott Hamilton, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” From my own experience, I can honestly say this is very true. Life with Tourette is very unpredictable and sometimes you just have to learn to roll with the punches. I am not always the best at this, according to my parents my attitude is, “less than awesome.” At least it used to be, with age and acceptance it has improved tremendously.  

As a twelve year old who’s tics were becoming more obvious by the day, I decided to make a difference. I wasn’t going to let my so called ‘disability’ hold me back. I knew without explaining myself the kids at school were going to make fun of me because they didn’t understand. That’s why I did research and wrote my own speech to present. If the kids are uneducated and pick on me it’s just because they don’t understand, but if they understand and still are unwilling to accept me then that’s their problem. I gave my very first speech to my class in the sixth grade which coincidentally was also the day I got my diagnoses. All the positive reactions empowered me. During my research I came across the National Tourette Syndrome Association’s Youth Ambassador Training program in Washington, DC, and the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome (NJCTS). I was trained to be an advocate for TS and given a presentation to use in schools. I began presenting professionally to small classrooms but it wasn’t until I became involved with NJCTS that I really began making a difference. I attended the first patient center education training and another training on how to present in classrooms. My sophomore year of high school I spoke to around 50 doctors and other medical professionals about Tourette. Every presentation I did gave me a little boost of confidence, which for a shy kid was life changing.

Though my transition through it all seemed like smooth sailing was far from it. To put it gently, freshman year I was a hot mess. I had developed coprolalia and let it get the better of me. My bad attitude really was crippling. I focused on what was going wrong instead of focusing on how I could use it to my advantage. [NJCTS Family Retreat Weekend at] Camp Bernie changed that for me. I made amazing friends who I am actually talking to as a write this four years later. Hearing their experiences and sharing coping techniques was huge for me. Being in a place where my differences were not only accepted, but embraced as well, was utterly life changing. Steven, a teacher who also struggles with coprolalia, made me realize that even if I didn’t improve I could still be successful and teach special education as well. Once I was able to come to terms with my Tourette I was able to help others do the same.  

Now I am a happy, successful, eighteen year old pursuing my dreams and doing my best to empower those around me to do the same. My favorite example of this was a presentation I did a few years back. A third boy was being bullied for his TS so I did a presentation at his school. After the presentation, he came up to me and said, “Thank you, I think I’m going to have friends now.” It all starts with a good attitude and self acceptance.

2017 NJCTS Youth Scholarship Award Essay: “Growing Up with Tourette”

This is the essay I submitted to the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome & Associated Disorders (NJCTS) for their 2017 Youth Scholarship Award contest.

Tess K.

Eleven years ago: I sit, legs crossed, looking down at the brightly colored shapes and
letters covering the carpet below me. I’m in my kindergarten classroom. The teacher walks through the door and abruptly stops. “Tess, are you crying again?” I squeeze my eyes shut and desperately attempt to stop the tears. My teacher stares at me. She’s disappointed, I can tell. “Do I need to call your parents again to take you home?” I nod and get up to follow her out of my classroom.

Getting home always felt good, like I was finally in a place where I could be me. My six year old self never questioned why I felt so out of place; I would just cry in my room because something felt fundamentally wrong. Five months after kindergarten began, I finally realized why. I began to hear countless adults tell me, “You have Tourette Syndrome which means you will experience some movements and sounds that you won’t be able to control, but don’t worry, you’re ok.” However, no matter how many times I heard these words and saw the encouraging smiles that so often came with that sentence, I was still scared. I wondered why I couldn’t finish a sentence without uncontrollably sniffing, or why I couldn’t stop blinking. I didn’t want to do these things, and I hated that I wasn’t in control of my body. I barely understood what I had been diagnosed with, and the unknown terrified me.

For six years, I hid my Tourette. I only told my closest friends and family, and I relied on my parents to explain my situation to anyone else. My coping mechanisms were successful, but nevertheless untruthful. I would lie about my Tourette, telling people I just had a cold or there was something in my eye. Every time I made another excuse I felt guilty about hiding who I really was. My life was good, but I still lacked the necessary skills to advocate for myself and others with Tourette.

Five years ago: I stand in my synagogue, pacing back and forth, holding a speech, my speech, tightly in my hands. I see people file into the room. I start to shake, doubting myself and the decision I have made. Hello everyone, my name is Tess. I’m in 7th grade, and I’m here to talk to you today about a neurological condition I have, called Tourette Syndrome. I think to myself: Can I really say these words and can I say them with confidence? I walk up to the front of the room. I take a deep breath, calming my body and mind. I smile and begin. I hear my voice, a strong powerful voice I barely recognize. I think: Is this really me? Am I really doing this? I am.

Present Day: I sometimes recall memories of when I gave my first talk. It’s hard to even
remember that scared little girl I used to be. From the moment I finished that speech I knew I was not that child anymore. Now I proudly advocate for my disorder and I am not embarrassed about who I am. I want to become a voice for kids who haven’t found theirs yet. I present in classrooms to students with Tourette so they don’t feel the need to hide their disorder in school. I present in hospitals to doctors to share my personal struggles and story. I am finally comfortable in my own skin.

The Future: Educating others and explaining how important it is to accept one another is something I will always be passionate about. I’ve made it my goal to publicly speak about Tourette whenever I can. I want to continue doing this throughout my life. I will always make it my mission to share as much knowledge about Tourette as I possibly can, because then hopefully someday others will too.

I have this thing…

Do you know that feeling when you have something to say but you don’t know how to say it? It’s like you know the thoughts and you can feel the emotions, but you don’t know the words.

Every morning you wake up, brush your teeth, put some clothes on, eat some food, go to school or work, meet people, eat food in between, come home, do more work, eat more food, wrap up, and go to sleep only to repeat it all over again the next day, and the day after that, and so on.

And each day when you go through your routine, you think:

Nothing’s wrong

Because the fact is, you can’t put into words exactly what is wrong. It’s like you’re forgetting something.

No, not some ‘thing’, some ‘thought’

And not ‘forgetting’, more like ‘needing to know’

You don’t know what it is you’re supposed to think but it’s there in your brain. It’s an abstract, mind boggling idea churning through you like you’re in the middle of a giant city and you just. Don’t. Know.

You don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing

Or where you are supposed to be going

Or even who you’re supposed to be.

All you know is:

Where you are now.

There is something that has been plaguing me for 9 years. 9 and a half actually. It’s very real, it’s very alive, it’s something that I can’t change. And it’s taken me this long to come to terms with it.

I have this thing, which causes me to be awkward in public—not in what I say, but more in what I do.

I have this thing, which causes people to look at me weirdly—not that I’m disgusting but more like I’m crazy and mental, and not in a good way.

I have this thing which causes me to be so self conscious but at the same time in the heat of the moment I forget I have that thing until someone reminds me with just one look, one laugh, one smirk.

I have this thing…

I have tics.

No, not ticks like from deer that make you break out into rashes and look like a tomato.

According the Merriam Webster a tic is:

Full:

“Local and habitual spasmodic motion of particular muscles especially of the face. A frequent usually unconscious quirk of behavior or speech <”you know” is a verbal tic>”

Simple:

“A small repeated movement of a muscle especially in the face that cannot be controlled. A word or phrase that someone frequently says or an action that someone frequently does without intending to.”

Cannot be controlled. Without intending to. Unconscious.

People don’t see that. All people see are the spasms and the repeated movements and the frequent words or actions. All they see is what annoys them and not what the person is going through—they see the funny weird things that they don’t know about and they laugh, they imitate, they take someone’s weakness and exploit it.

Because that’s all it is…

A thing.

A thing with no cure, a thing that doesn’t go away, a thing I am stuck with for the rest of my life.

I can’t even have a conversation with someone without getting stared at. I know in the other person’s head they’re thinking, “What is that? What is she doing?” because it’s written all over their face.

What am I doing?

I want you to open your eyes, right now, and keep them open…

Still keep them open.

And open

Did you blink yet? Eventually, you will because after some time you will blink naturally. This is how I feel every day. The unexplainable need to go through with the action is, to me, as automatic as blinking is to you.

But what are these actions?

Tics are either motor or vocal. Motor tics consist of nose twitching, hair fixing, obsessive touching, face grimacing, hand stressing, and more. Vocal tics involve grunting, humming, blowing, or saying actual words, like curses. They worsen when under stressful conditions, but are also temporary until the next need arises.

Around 200,000 people in the U.S have the condition, however there is no exact number because many people are not diagnosed. Symptoms typically show in adolescent years and over time, most people improve. This condition isn’t something I just picked up from someone sneezing, its genetic, passed down through many ways but to me specifically, from my aunt.

Treatments include taking drugs that make you feel like you’re drunk.

Sometimes I want to feel like I’m drunk. When I’m all alone in my bedroom on a Friday night because no one wants to be associated with the mental girl. When I’m on my way back from the bathroom and I overhear my cousins laughing at what I was doing, imitating me.  When my parents are yelling at me to stop because they don’t understand that I can’t stop, that I don’t know how to stop. And I don’t know how to tell them, any of them, about what I have.

How do you tell someone that you have a disorder?

Sometimes I feel like I’m gay and I’m coming out of the closet, except I’m not gay and there is no actual closet… I want to scream at the world that I am in fact not crazy, that what I do is not uncommon, that just because I do weird things on the outside doesn’t mean I’m a bad person on the inside. I wish that I could make people understand what I have.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I miss the me that I was back then. Years ago, when we were all friends—laughing and smiling. Not worried about impressing anyone or our looks or being the best. When we were just. Us.

Now, we worry. We worry about who is dressed the best and who has the most followers on Instagram, and likes, and pictures. We worry about making that shot in basketball to impress a girl or worrying about not tripping over our heels while we are already tripping over our words to impress a guy. We worry and we worry and we worry, about being like everyone else, about fitting in, about being liked and loved, about having friends and being popular. But never do we actually take the time to think about ourselves.

Life is made up of moments. Hard fast and blinding moments and when they pass they pass only to make room for more moments. And those moments make you, You. I have a moment, a hard fast and blinding moment, where I realized I have a thing—a thing that makes me, Me.

Hillsdale Teen Inspires his Community to Tackle Tourette Syndrome

NJCTS Youth Advocate Mike Hayden and T3 co-organizer Meghan McIntyre welcome NJCTS Education Outreach Coordinator Gina Maria Jones at the Teens Tackle Tourette's walk on May 22, 2016.

NJCTS Youth Advocate Mike Hayden and T3 co-organizer Meghan McIntyre welcome NJCTS Education Outreach Coordinator Gina Maria Jones at the Teens Tackle Tourette’s walk.

Mike Hayden is taking his Tourette Syndrome advocacy efforts to the next level.

Tourette Syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary movements or sounds known as tics and is frequently accompanied by other neurological or mental health disorders. 1 in 100 school-age children lives with TS and many report feelings of isolation and have been bullied because of their disorder.

Hayden, now 16-years-old, was diagnosed with TS in fourth grade although he started showing symptoms in kindergarten. In 2012, he decided that he wasn’t going to let his diagnosis hold him back so he stepped up to become a Youth Advocate for the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome and Associated Disorders, Inc. (NJCTS).

NJCTS Youth Advocates lead presentations about TS in schools and community groups to raise awareness, promote understanding and tolerance, and deliver a strong anti-bullying message. They also present with NJCTS-partner doctors at hospitals to educate medical professionals about TS.

When it was time for Hayden’s honors English class at Pascack Valley High School to choose an issue to which to bring attention for their final project, Hayden shared his personal journey with TS and the class was instantly inspired. They organized the group “Teens Tackle Tourette’s” and spent the school year organizing, promoting, and producing a fundraising walk.

“It was an incredible feeling to know that my class truly cared about this cause,” said Hayden. “They knew it was close to my heart and I had many people tell me that there was no question in their mind that this is the cause they wanted to support. It is amazing that they would support me in raising awareness for this issue that many people are incorrectly educated on.”

Hayden recalled that when his family needed help after he received his TS diagnosis they called NJCTS for education and support. To better educate his classmates, he decided to partner with NJCTS Education Outreach Coordinator Gina Maria Jones and Executive Director Faith Rice for a series of in-class presentations about Tourette Syndrome and associated disorders.

“I figured that if we were going to learn about TS, we might as well get the experts in to help teach us,” said Hayden on reaching out to NJCTS for guidance. “I have had many years of experience with NJCTS, so I know that they are truly the best of the best when it comes to education and outreach.”

The Teens Tackle Tourette’s T3 walk took place on May 22 at the Pascack Valley High School Campus and raised more than $1,120 which was donated to NJCTS. During the walk, there were several guest speakers as well as food, games, and giveaways.

“NJCTS is proud to work with young people who take the initiative to raise awareness,” said Education Outreach Coordinator Gina Maria Jones. “It is because of Youth Advocates like Mike that our Youth Development programs are so successful and we hope that all kids living with TS will follow in his footsteps.”

Soon after hosting the Teens Tackle Tourette’s walk, Hayden led a Youth Advocate presentation to 150 fifth graders at Fairmount School in Hackensack on May 24 and delivered the keynote address at the Dare to Dream Student Leadership Conference at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ on May 25.

“Youth Advocates like Mike Hayden live out the mission of NJCTS and advance public perception, understanding and acceptance of people with TS and associated disorders,” said NJCTS Executive Director Faith Rice. “We are so proud of everything Mike has accomplished.

BRTV Morning Show interviews Girl Scouts about their efforts to raise awareness of TS

Ilina, Jaclyn, and Cami from Girl Scout Troop 60808 were interviewed by the Bridgewater Raritan High School’s morning news show about their effort to raise awareness for Tourette Syndrome. They want everyone to wear blue on Friday in recognition of Tourette Syndrome Awareness Day in New Jersey on June 4th. Way to go, girls!

Teens tackle Tourette’s with fundraising walk

NJCTS Youth Advocate Mike Hayden inspired his high school English class to organize, promote, and host a TS awareness event with “Teens Tackle Tourette’s.” They recently held their main event by hosting an awareness walk on their HS campus. Over the past few months, NJCTS and Mike have educated his class about Tourette Syndrome and answered questions about the misunderstood disorder. The T3 students are a passionate group and we are so proud of all they have accomplished. Check back soon for more pictures and details.

A group of students enjoy the Teens Tackle Tourette's (T3) walk, held at Pascack Hills High School on Sunday, May 22. The class raised more than $1,120 for the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome. Pascack Hills student Michael Hayden poses with Dr. David Levesque, of Westwood. The two have Tourette syndrome and have made it their mission to spread the word about the disease.

A group of students enjoy the Teens Tackle Tourette’s (T3) walk, held at Pascack Hills High School on Sunday, May 22. The class raised more than $1,120 for the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome. Pascack Hills student Michael Hayden poses with Dr. David Levesque, of Westwood. The two have Tourette syndrome and have made it their mission to spread the word about the disease.

Read the story in Pascack Valley Community Life.

Watch NJCTS Youth Advocate Tess Kowalski’s interview on ABC’ NJ Viewpoint

We are so proud of NJCTS Youth Advocate Tess Kowalski and Tim Kowalski who were interviewed by ABC’s Ken Rosato for NJ Viewpoint. Thank you for representing NJCTS and for all you continue to do to raise Tourette Syndrome awareness! If you missed the segment that aired on Sunday you can watch it here. Bravo!

Watch for One of The GreaTS on ABC’s NJ Viewpoint

We are so proud of NJCTS Youth Advocate Tess Kowalski and Tim Kowalski who were recently interviewed by ABC’s Ken Rosato for NJ Viewpoint. Thank you for representing NJCTS and for all you continue to do to raise Tourette Syndrome awareness! Tune in to ABC on May 29 at 5:30am. And in case you miss it, we’ll be sharing the clip here too. #StandWithTheGreaTS

ABC Host Ken Rosato interviewed NJCTS Youth Advocate Tess Kowalski and Tim Kowalski for an upcoming episode of NJ Viewpoint.

ABC Host Ken Rosato interviewed NJCTS Youth Advocate Tess Kowalski and Tim Kowalski for an upcoming episode of NJ Viewpoint.

ABC Host Ken Rosato sits down with Tim and Tess Kowalski and John Miller of the Tourette Association of America to discuss TS advocacy in the region.

ABC Host Ken Rosato sits down with Tim and Tess Kowalski of NJCTS and John Miller of the Tourette Association of America to discuss TS advocacy in the region.