Tourette Syndrome

Posted: Apr 25, 2004 12:00 AM

     COPPELL, Texas -- Even in what passes for repose, your basic 11-year-old boy resembles the former Yugoslavia -- a unity of sorts, but with fidgeting and jostling elements. Andrew Nesbitt is like that, only more so, because he has Tourette syndrome.

     He also has something to teach us about the power of a little information and a lot of determination. And about how life can illuminate philosophy, which is supposed to do the illuminating.

     He is 79 pounds of shortstop and relief pitcher -- a closer, no less, which is a high-stress vocation. Stress often triggers Tourette symptoms. Hitting a thrown ball with a round bat is hard enough, and so is throwing the ball over a 17-inch wide plate with the game on the line. Hard enough, even if you do not have an inherited neurological disorder that causes recurrent physical and phonic tics.

     The physical tics can include involuntary muscle spasms -- blinking, clapping, hopping and the more or less violent twitching of shoulders and flailing of limbs. The vocalizations are usually grunts, hisses, barks and other meaningless sounds. Rarely, and not in Andrew's case, there is the compulsive utterance of obscenities.

     At the benighted school he attended last year, teachers could not -- would not -- understand that he did not have a mischievous penchant for bad behavior. They frequently banished him from the classroom to sit in the hall.

     When he was younger, his parents had to hold his thrashing head so he could eat. Playing soccer, he sometimes bruised his behind by kicking himself with backward leg spasms. This year, he says, Mrs. Marill Myers, his math and homeroom teacher, ``asks me if it's a tic.'' She gives him a jump rope to use to subdue unmanageable energy. Or pauses to briefly rub his back. Not complicated, really.

     He was 5, standing on a swimming pool diving board, when his mother first saw him jerking his head and shrugging his shoulders oddly. He is bright as a new dime -- at 10 months he had a 50-word vocabulary -- but his gross and fine motor problems became so bad that in fourth grade hip spasms would throw him out of his desk chair.

     A visiting columnist is Andrew's excuse for taking a break from the work part of a sixth-grader's day in Coppell Middle School West (math, English -- the school stuff) and savoring anticipation of the good parts, such as lunch, baseball and lacrosse practice. He is dressed conservatively, even formally, as his age cohort understands such matters: red T-shirt reaching almost to his knees, blue shorts that aren't short -- they reach below his knees, toward his white sneakers.

     Nowadays, he says, ``I sometimes hold the tics in when I'm batting.'' Extreme concentration also helps Mike Johnston, a Pittsburgh Pirates reliever, contain his Tourette symptoms: ``I'll sometimes stare at something until my eyes water.'' Johnston, who was awakened in a Chicago hotel on an off-day by the thoughtless columnist, chats on the phone with Andrew, who is asking important questions, such as: ``Have you ever pitched to A-Rod?'' Johnston gets important information from Andrew: cap and jersey sizes. Pirates gear is on the way.

     Last year, Andrew came close to exhaustion from dread of teachers' incomprehension and from some children's cruelty. This year, Andrew's teachers and classmates are better informed. What causes his odd behavior may have caused similar behavior by some high-achievers -- probably Samuel Johnson, perhaps Mozart. Even more impressive, Jim Eisenreich, formerly of the Twins, Royals, Phillies, Marlins and Dodgers, has Tourette syndrome, as does Tim Howard, current goalie for Manchester United soccer club, the world's most famous sports team.

     The mind-body dichotomy is a perennial puzzlement for philosophers. Most people say, ``I have a body.'' Perhaps we should say, ``I am a body.'' People who say the latter mean that the mind, the soul -- whatever we call the basis of individual identity -- is a ``ghost in the machine,'' a mysterious emanation of our physicality. They may be right. But were Andrew given to paddling around in deep philosophic water -- if he were, he would not be your basic boy -- he might reply:

     ``No way. Wisdom is encoded in our common language. We all have, to some extent, a complex, sometimes adversarial, relationship with our physical selves. And I more than most people know that it is correct to say 'I have a body.' There is my body, and then there is me, trying to make it behave.''

     Let the philosophers contend about the mind-body distinction. If you think Andrew has it wrong, spend a day in his sneakers.