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tic tac: a peculiar analogy between skateboarding and tourette's syndrome, by dave carnie

A couple years ago I read a book by the late neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, titled, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. (Sacks is also the author of the book-cum-movie Awakenings). Sacks employs a jaunty literary style in the stories he writes about his patients and the bizarre neurological disorders they suffer from. There is, for instance, a series of patients who can no longer recognize faces or common objects; others can’t remember their pasts, some can only remember their distant pasts, but nothing just seconds prior; some have phantom or alien limbs; and one mistakes his wife for a hat—it’s a bizarre and fascinating book, I’d even say it’s amusing, except that it’s all real and thus rather disturbing. Chapter 10, “Witty Ticcy Ray,” was particularly interesting to me because I found in it a peculiar connection to skateboarding.

Ray suffered from Tourette Syndrome. Today Tourette’s is a fairly well known condition. I’ve heard jokes about it for as long as I can remember, there’s a reality TV show dedicated to it (Raising Tourette’s), and I’ve always felt that the over-caffeinated South Park character, Tweak, was a nod to the disease, but at the time of the book’s publication (1985) Tourette’s wasn’t as familiar and required explanation. It was here that I first thought of Tourette’s in relation to skateboarding:

Tourette’s syndrome … is characterized by an excess of nervous energy, and a great production and extravagance of strange motions and notions: tics, jerks, mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses, involuntary imitations and compulsions of all sorts, with an odd elfin humor and a tendency to antic and outlandish kinds of play.

That description could apply, at least in part, to a good number of skateboarders I knew growing up, myself included. (If ADD had been in vogue back then, my brother and I would surely have been on Ritalin because we were spazzes.) Skateboarding has, traditionally, been populated by a peculiar group of characters who, for whatever reason, seem to either enjoy the role of being an outcast, or are simply outcasts to begin with, and have sought refuge in a culture that welcomes weirdos and encourages individualism. In short, skateboarders have an affinity for “odd elfin humor and a tendency to antic and outlandish kinds of play” that are generally not acceptable in polite company. Sacks’ portrayal of Tourette’s could also be used to describe the stereotypical artist-type, or any number of personalities who have nervous energy and don’t fit in to “normal society.”

(Note: In no way do I wish to diminish the gravity of Tourette’s Syndrome by frivolously comparing it to skateboarding. This article is purely an intellectual pursuit. I discovered some interesting parallels between the identity issues a Tourette’s patient faces with those that have beleaguered skateboarding throughout its short history. There is, of course, a difference between an artist/skater and someone with Tourette’s: the latter is not free to choose their condition.)

This is what English people sound like to me all the time, but apparently this group has Tourette’s?

Sacks’ initial description of Witty Ticcy Ray, and how his Tourette’s manifests itself, illustrates both a disheartening condition in an extremely interesting and resilient character:

When I first saw Ray he was 24 years old, and almost incapacitated by multiple tics of extreme violence coming in volleys every few seconds. He had been subject to these since the age of four and severely stigmatized by the attention they aroused, though his high intelligence, his wit, his strength of character, and sense of reality enabled him to pass successfully through school and college, and to be valued and loved by a few friends and his wife. Since leaving college, however, he had been fired from a dozen jobs—always because of tics, never for incompetence—was continually in crises of one sort and another, usually caused by his impatience, his pugnacity, and his coarse, brilliant “chutzpah,” and had found his marriage threatened by involuntary cries of, “Fuck!” “Shit!” and so on, which would burst from him at times of sexual excitement. He was (like many Touretters) remarkably musical, and could scarcely have survived—emotionally or economically—had he not been a weekend jazz drummer of real virtuosity, famous for his sudden and wild extemporizations, which would arise from a tic or a compulsive hitting of a drum and would instantly be made the nucleus of a wild and wonderful improvisation, so that the “sudden intruder” would be turned to brilliant advantage. His Tourette’s was also of advantage in various games, especially ping pong, at which he excelled, partly in consequence of his abnormal quickness of reflex and reaction, but especially, again, because of “improvisations,” “very sudden, nervous, frivolous shots” (in his own words), which were so unexpected and startling as to be virtually unanswerable.

I would love to meet Ray. He sounds like a very interesting person. However, most people don’t get to read the charming description on paper before they meet him. Like most handicaps, people are introduced to the condition before the person, if indeed they ever make it past the person’s condition.

I always thought this sequence of Daewon from Big Brother #2 had a touch of the Tourette’s.

Again, Tourette’s is a neurological syndrome, but from a behavioral perspective, it sounds a little like a skateboarder: athletic and creative, but hyper, impatient, and “doesn’t work well with others.” That’s probably why the independent, authority-free landscape that skateboarding offers is fertile ground for this type of personality. Unfortunately for the Touretter, skateboarding is not a treatment option (that I know of anyway? FRIN). There are, though, dopamine antagonists, such as haloperidol (commonly known as, Haldol), which can smother or at least reduce a Touretter’s tics. Ray was very interested in treatment, but at the same time he was skeptical of what the medication would do to him—he wasn’t so much concerned about physical side effects as he was worried about what it would do to himself, his self Self, his identity:

“Suppose you could take away the tics,” [Ray] said. “What would be left? I consist of tics—there is nothing else.” He seemed, at least jokingly, to have little sense of his identity except as a ticqueur: he called himself “the ticcer of President’s Broadway,” and spoke of himself, in the third person, as “witty ticcy Ray,” adding that he was so prone to “ticcy witticisms and witty ticcicisms” that he scarcely knew whether it was a gift or a curse. He said he could not imagine life without Tourette’s, nor was he sure he would care for it.

But after a successful test run on a very low dosage of Haldol, both Ray and Dr. Sacks decided to give the treatment a chance.

Less than a week after Ray’s first foray into tic-less reality under the influence of Haldol, he returned to Dr. Sacks’ office with a black eye and a broken nose. As a ticquer, Ray was prone to quick, spontaneous movement and, apparently, one of his favorite hobbies was dashing in and out of revolving doors. While under the influence of Haldol, however, he made an attempt at one of his favorite revolving doors and, as evidenced by his injuries, the drug had an adverse affect on his timing.

“So much for your fucking Haldol,” Witty Ticcy Ray said.

Ray was very frustrated by this Haldol experience. It made him “better” by society’s standards, but it also made him less of who he was and how he identified himself. “Having had Tourette’s since the age of four,” Sacks wrote, “Ray had no experience of any normal life: he was heavily dependent on his exotic disease and, not unnaturally, employed and exploited it in various ways.”

Andrew Reynolds is not diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, but he was the first person I thought of when I started writing this. Don’t we all do this to some degree?

If we imagine “skateboarding” as a Being, like an individual with Tourette’s, it could be said that skateboarding, too, was born with a disorder, or “defective.” In its infancy, skating was nothing more than a substitute for surfing when the waves were flat, and by the time it came into its own identity, it was openly disparaged by the general public and deemed dangerous and illegal in cities across the country. Anybody who skated in the latter part of last century (!!!) can remember constantly being hassled by cops and security guards not to mention the derision and hostility the general public openly heaped upon us. For the first three decades of its existence, skateboarding was considered wrong, dangerous, and it was outlawed.

But skateboarders, like punk rockers, relished their rebel status and skateboarding’s outlaw nature made it all the more attractive to its constituents. It was “wrong,” and, as anyone knows: wrong = fun. (This is not the place to get into it, but compare the conservative/Christian/Republican community’s recent zeal for embracing and celebrating politically incorrect—“wrong”—language, symbols, and ideology.)

So it’s not difficult to understand why any disturbance of its outlaw identity would be met with resistance. Older skateboarders, much like Ray, are uncomfortable with seeing skateboarding’s “tics” being smoothed over because those tics are its very identity. And this is the question that has been plaguing skateboarding for decades: how does skateboarding stay true to its fucked-up outlaw identity while also being tolerated by society at large? (Is it a question? And has it really been “plaguing” skateboarding? In my opinion, no. No one cares… but there are still more words in this stupid article, so we must press on.)

There have been many in the skateboard community, myself included, who bemoan any changes that move in the direction of organization and/or sport. In short, anything that attempts to improve skateboarding’s image and make it more palatable is frowned upon. Skateboarding’s inclusion in the Olympics is a prime example of something that has raised skateboarding’s collective ire. This, for instance, was the top post on the SLAP message board in my search for “Olympics”:

I want to punch so badly the pro skaters who pushed skateboarding in Olympics. Don't they realize this is not just another contest? Skateboarding being included in the Olympics with all of it's consequences might potentially kill skateboarding in it's essence completely and then the core street rats won't matter, not even as important media as Thrasher is could save it.”

The Lap Dancer, June 02, 2016, 02:12:41 AM

“I want to punch so badly…” You’ll note that I did not edit The Lap Dancer’s words.

Trinity Lewis teaches us how to tic-tac in this video, but he also has a peculiar tic that causes him to flip out without tact for no reason at all.

I’m of the opinion that skateboarding is not a sport and thus I don’t particularly care for the televised contests that attempt to treat skateboarding as such. I identify with skateboarding as an outlaw culture. I got into skating precisely because it didn’t contain all the trappings of traditional sports, so the idea of skateboarding being welcomed on to a stage usually reserved for professional athletes is a little disconcerting. At the same time, I realized many years ago that it’s futile to try and affect the direction skateboarding is going because skateboarding is going to go where skateboarding is going to go whether I like it or not. Skateboarding’s steering wheel is controlled by the kids—as it should be. I also like to keep in mind that being concerned about the future of skateboarding is like being concerned about the future of hula hooping—in the grand scheme of things, who gives a shit? I hope that kids are still riding skateboards (or hoverboards?) after I die, but I don’t care whether they’re doing it while wearing baseball uniforms with numbers on them or leather jackets with Crass patches on the back. I will only say that I would beware of anyone who is a proponent of the sport of skateboarding because, as history has shown, they are not so much interested Skateboarding as they are in $kateboarding.

My hunch, though, is that skateboarding will continue rolling along in much the way it always has: weird and dysfunctional, but able to mix with polite company when required. Which is essentially what happened with Witty Ticcy Ray. After much counseling and experimenting with his dosage of Haldol, Ray was able to achieve an unusual balance that might be a metaphor for the future of skateboarding:

[Ray] found that on Haldol he was musically “dull,” average, competent, but lacking energy, enthusiasm, extravagance and joy. He no longer had tics or compulsive hitting of the drums—but he no longer had wild and creative surges. As this pattern became clear to him, and after discussing it with me, Ray made a momentous decision: he would take Haldol “dutifully” throughout the working week, but would take himself off it, and “let fly,” at weekends. This he has done for the past three years. So now there are two Rays—on and off Haldol. There is the sober citizen, the calm deliberator, from Monday to Friday; and there is “witty ticcy Ray,” frivolous, frenetic, inspired, at weekends.


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  • Fd on

    I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore-Network (film) 1975

  • Bryce Reynard on

    I was diagnosed with Tourette’s at age 14. I have what they consider a “mild” case. Nonetheless, I still do the head nod, squinting, slight grunt, and the shoulder rolling. It’s lessened over the years, but was pretty consistent, especially during my Jr. High school years. At that age, kids were very nasty with their comments, and quick to point it out, which only made it worse (or at least made me more conscious of when I’d do it). I tried the Haldol, and weighed the option of whether to continue it, and feel dull and tired, or suck it up and live my life with the symptoms Tourette’s dealt me. I chose the latter.
    I still don’t understand the reason I tic. I’ve had some pretty cruel comments made to me over my lifetime as a result of it. Comments made by people who think it’s funny, or who think I’m strange. You can’t control it. You may fight the impulse, but it’s going to happen. I’ve had times where I’ve felt like I’ve been beaten because of the shoulder rolling. Everything tightens up so much that you feel like you are bruised internally.
    Despite all that I’ve dealt with having Tourette’s, I have a lucrative career, was married to a very attractive woman whom I have 3 sons with, and I still skate. I think that dealing with it prepared me to deal with hurdles that life has thrown at me since those Jr. High years. Never let anything beat you down.

  • Brendan M on

    When I think of skateboarders with possible Tourette’s I think of Kerry Getz. Nobody was angrier back then.


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