Riding the bus with Gary Winslow: Tourette syndrome

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This was a tough one, ya’ll. Feeling groggy, just barely out of bed, I got on the 53 Woodward bus around 9 a.m. like I usually do and paid my fare. I don’t remember whether it was the last or second-to-last quarter I put in the machine, but right around that time I heard this loud unfamiliar noise.

I looked around to see if there was somewhere to sit, but the bus was pretty full, so I moseyed my way toward the back door. When I got there, I stood there, holding onto one of the safety bars as the bus took off, quietly cussing to myself ’cause I damn sure didn’t feel like standing. At that point, I heard the noise again: “Unghunghungh!” combined with a barrage of loud clapping. It was the same noise I had heard earlier, and I finally figured out that it was a person creating this puzzling sound, and so I looked in the direction I heard it to investigate why.

To my shock, I saw a young man, probably in his late teens, blurting out this sort of loud hum, rocking violently back and forth, and maniacally clapping much too loud for anyone’s comfort. He did this strange seated dance like he was trying to touch his ankles with his ears then suddenly stopped, paused for a while, then resumed the episode at what seemed to be 30-second to 45-second intervals.

Looking back, I would have to say that before I had an idea of what was going on, my initial reaction to this situation was one of both shock and a little laughter. I thought to myself, “Maaan, this fool’s trippin’. What the hell is …” and just at that moment I realized something was tragically wrong with this poor guy. His spastic, uncontrolled outbursts reminded me of what little I knew of a condition I had heard of before: Tourette syndrome. I said in my head, “Damn, ‘G’, homeboy got Tourette’s,” and I felt bad for a moment, silently scolding myself for finding humor in his condition.

After my revelation, I began to take note of the other passengers and their reactions. Every time the young man had this “fit” of sorts, someone different would look back to try and decipher what this rhythmic ruckus was about. The different expressions on the passengers’ faces included those of astonishment, confusion, laughter, pity, and even disgust, and for the latter I felt bad for the young man. I began to go into empathy mode thinking, “What if that was me? Damn …” Simultaneously and perhaps even selfishly, I began to thank the Almighty that I wasn’t this poor soul, and I oscillated between thoughts of pity and relief. What did this guy do that he deserved to live his life like this? How could this young man have any sort of normal relationship with anyone? I stopped asking myself questions for a moment and went back to observing how others reacted to this persistent and shocking disturbance.

As the bus moved along, people got off on their respective stops, which finally left some seats available. I sat in the one closest to me across from the rear door where I was standing, and as I was getting myself together I observed this small family seated in the upper level, just behind me. There was a mother and three children and they were all finding their own way to deal with this unavoidable situation. The eldest girl of the children seemed confused and looked back and forth between the tortured man and her mother as if she was looking for an explanation of these strange outbursts. The other two children, a boy and a girl, oblivious to what was happening were actually more amused than anything else. They snickered and grinned, and the louder the young man got, the louder they laughed.

“Unghhungung,” went the young man simultaneously clapping his hands to an almost deafening volume. “Hahahaha! Mommy, look,” the children cried as they pointed their fingers and wriggled in their seats, too young to be expected to know more proper etiquette. The mother of the children had about the same curious look on her face as her eldest daughter. She tried to tame the youngest ones, as if she knew this was no laughing matter, though it was clear that she didn’t know what was really going on. In fact, the eldest girl, who was only about 8 or 9 years old even asked her, “What’s that, mommy?” Mama tried to hold it down, but had no answer to offer.

After a while, I guess the noise, confusion, and frustration got to mama and, as a result, she had an outburst of her own.
“DAMN!!!” she shouted with such exasperation and disgust that I braced myself for this young single mother to come undone for real. Luckily before this situation exploded, the bus rolled up to the young man’s stop. With quiet urgency, he got up and got off the bus, his flip flops flapping and his head down the whole way.

After he left, I felt both sadness for him and relief that he was gone. I figured his condition was Tourette’s, but could it have been some other illness or condition? Could it have been treated, and, if so, why was he not at the place where he could get help? Better yet, could that be where he was going? The entire event left me with a plethora of questions and no answers. After I said a short prayer for the troubled lad, I once again digressed from a place of empathy to selfish gratitude and silently prayed, “Thank you Almighty for my health! May I always have it!” For if we have our health, people, we are truly blessed. On this day, a young, troubled man re-taught me exactly that.


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