Saturday, November 30, 2002

As an armchair philosopher and student of Buddhism, the question of personal identity has long been a fascinating one for me. Who am I? Who are we? These, respectively, are perhaps the single most important questions we can ask ourselves as individuals and as a race. Important and profoundly difficult to answer . . .

The jungle of sense impressions which engulf our physical selves, layers of memory and learned response that accrete around our minds as we make our way through life, biological imperatives and urges � these are only a portion of the many obstacles that must be weeded and sorted through in order to determine what, if anything, lies behind the pronoun "I".

For some the question is further complicated by disease and/or disorder of the body or mind. It has been something of a revelation for me to realize that I may well fit into this latter category.

A few years ago, precipitated by her reading of An Anthropologist on Mars by noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, Sarah mused that I seemed to display many symptoms of the greatly misunderstood condition, Tourette�s Syndrome. I did not think much of it at the time (despite Sarah�s proven and uncanny knack for diagnosing a variety of mental and physical conditions in friends and co-workers) but as time passes and I learn more about Tourette�s, I realize that this informal diagnosis is more likely than not accurate. In which case, I am blessed to be at the mild end of the Tourettic spectrum.

I am not plagued (thank goodness) by the wildly flailing limbs and uncontrollable vocalizations which characterize more extreme cases of Tourette�s Syndrome. Rather, the condition (if, indeed, it is Tourette�s) expresses itself in me via smaller, subtler physical "tics" and language eccentricities akin to echolalia and glossolalia. For instance, even as I write these words my left leg is vibrating rapidly up and down on the ball of my foot. Other physical manifestations include a general state of more or less constant fidgety twitchiness involving finger tapping, knuckle cracking and intermittent head rolling. The above mentioned language eccentricities are evidenced by my regular fixation upon and verbalization of certain words or phrases � either real such as "spatula" or gibberish such as manunu yodo parp. These phonic fixations seem to pass through cycles, one word or phrase replacing another as favorite on a varying scale of time (usually bi-weekly or monthly, it seems).

I hesitate to refer to any of these "symptoms" as uncontrollable or involuntary, as is typically the case with Tourette�s. However, I must admit that I am often unaware of my physical perturbations (such as the shaking leg) until somebody (usually Sarah) brings the movement to my attention (�Rick, you�re vibrating the entire room!�). It is true also that my mind is almost constantly moving, occupied with thoughts, images, song lyrics and words of one sort or another � although in this I wonder if I am so different from most people, possessed as they are by what is known in Buddhist circles as monkey mind.

As I tend to be almost pathologically shy among people with whom I am unfamiliar, all of the above mentioned behaviors are downplayed or completely suppressed in most social situations.

Other aspects of my personality that might be explained by Tourette�s Syndrome, or conditions often associated with it, include the mild depression I have struggled with most of my life and the (thankfully) infrequent attacks of rage I have been known to suffer (during which I have destroyed an electronic typewriter, a stereo system and more than one avocado), as well as my long time habit of counting to the number nine while engaged in certain activities.

The possibility that I might be among the estimated 1,000,000 Americans (according to this article) who experience life through the lens of Tourette�s Syndrome has certainly shone a new light on many facets of my physical and mental self. It is a possibility that has caused me to wonder anew about just who or what that self is.

A new light on an old question. . . . Who am I?

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