“Are your wrists okay? Do they hurt?”
As a cheerleader since age six who spent six days a week lifting human beings above my head and also as an avid writer, this was not an unreasonable question for people to ask me.
“Oh, no they’re fine,” I’d respond along with the awkward half-laugh people give when the question warrants a much longer answer they don’t want to burden a stranger with. Eventually, those who spent more time around me would give up on staring and just blurt out, “OK I didn’t want to ask, but seriously why do you do that?”
For as long as I have had the physical ability to shake my wrists the way you would after hand-writing an extended essay, I did. Any time I was nervous or excited, I’d unknowingly shake my hands and look up toward the sky for a few seconds until eventually I realized what was happening, came out of my trance, stopped shaking and went on doing what I needed to do.
Initially my parents found themselves in a panic, afraid I was suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome or another ailment that warranted uncontrolled movement. My doctor assured them it was nothing more than a habit, and he promised that with age I would outgrow it.
I never did.
Growing up, my “habit” was never much of a problem. I traveled the country as a competitive all-star cheerleader, and my shaking was the way my mom could find me on a competition floor as I stood in a crowd of 30 girls in uniform, and she stood in a crowd of thousands of parents. I’d be the one looking up to the sky and shaking my wrists by my side until just before it was time for the music to start for my routine.
Some people joke about shaking out their nerves, but my body took it literally.
Fast forward to the fourth grade. I had made it to the final round of the spelling bee and was feeling as confident as ever when a teacher noticed my shaking hands. She stood up and shouted at me. She accused me of cheating in front of my entire class because she thought I was signing letters to someone or they to me. She then disqualified me from the competition.
She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that I didn’t even know I was doing it. She refused to accept my explanation that the shaking wrists were beyond my control. She shouted, “Anyone can control a ‘habit!’” I was reduced to tears. Despite the millions of stares and questions I had received in the past, this is and always will be the moment where I first learned what it meant to be different in a “bad way.”
This was the first moment I felt ashamed of who I was because I didn’t have control over my body.
It took one pediatrician, two neurologists and a therapist to conclude that my shaking was not a “habit” but what they called a neurological tic. Habits, though difficult to shake, can be controlled with willpower. My tic, on the other hand, would take serious training — essentially a reprogramming of my brain — to shed.
My tic was triggered by any sort of surge, no matter how minor, in adrenaline. In moments of anxiousness or excitement my adrenaline levels would rise, and the chemical change would manifest itself in my shaking hands. This meant that any time I did something as small as telling a funny joke to any time I did something as bold as jumping out of an airplane and skydiving over the Swiss Alps, my tic would kick in and I wouldn’t notice it was happening until the adrenaline levels started to decrease after a few seconds. I would then zone back in and put my hands back at my side. I could never day dream in class because if I let myself get distracted and think about something I was looking forward to in the future, my shaking hands would be a dead giveaway.
It didn’t happen if my hands were occupied or if I was actively doing something. It didn’t negatively affect my productivity, so there was no medical reason to try to change it. But after learning at age 9 that being different was something to be ashamed of, I would have done anything to just be “normal.”
I begged the neurologist to teach me how to make it go away, and she told me the only thing I could do was count on friends and family members to call me out every time they noticed me shaking. I would have to be classically conditioned to associate the movement with embarrassment or shame so my brain no longer allowed my body to do it. This is sort of the way you know not to pee your pants in public. Simple enough, right? Of course not.
My tic stayed with me. In fact, it only got worse with age. It stayed through cheer competitions, lacrosse games, SATs and senior prom. It stayed with me through a boyfriend who asked, “Why can’t you just sit on your hands or put them in your pocket?” It stayed with me through the countless times I’ve had to tell people that my wrists do in fact feel perfectly fine. It stayed with me through high school graduation and before I knew it, it was my freshman year of college.
In a place where you are allowed to reinvent yourself and be anybody, I wasn’t allowed to shed my tic. I had two options upon starting college: I could continue being ashamed of who I was, or I could own it. I came to Lehigh early for cheer camp and decided I’d stop waiting for people to ask me if my wrists hurt.
On the very first day I met my teammates, I came out and said, “I uncontrollably shake my hands when I’m excited or nervous.” Whether they thought I was weird or not, they accepted me just as others had in the past. I surrounded myself with friends who took my wrists for what they were, even if it meant dodging my flying hands every now and then. If you ask those with whom I’m closest today, they will probably tell you they don’t even notice it anymore.
But even more important than the people in my life accepting me for who I am, I’ve accepted me for who I am. I’m not afraid of being different, and I’ve accepted that there’s no such thing as “normal.” I crack jokes about my hands, and I’m never afraid to laugh it off when I hit them against a wall or table and everyone turns to look.
I’ve always been fond of bracelets, and I don’t hesitate to wear a stack of them on my wrist, despite that they only draw attention to me when I’m shaking.
This isn’t to say I don’t ever find myself getting frustrated when I have to explain my tic to new people, or that I don’t still feel embarrassed when people stare — and they do stare. But my hands aren’t a secret. They’re just me, Madison, 5 feet tall with brown hair, hazel eyes and shaking wrists.
So my advice to anyone out there who is just intrinsically different, or starting their time at Lehigh, or in any new place with insecurities beyond their own control and in fear of judgement from others, is to not only appreciate the things that make you different but to own them. Those who are worth a spot in your life will accept you the way you are, and should you ever come across someone who doesn’t…
Just take a page out of my book and shake it off.
Madison Gouveia, ’17, is the lifestyle editor of The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]