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Tics on a Plane! (Handling Tourette’s While Flying)

If my tics (I have Tourette’s Syndrome) are going to get worse, they tend to do so when it will be most obvious to someone else. Movie theaters, classrooms, monasteries (probably), convents (probably), and any time anyone else is trying to concentrate.

On an airplane…because I wind up feeling like I’m sitting on everyone else’s lap and my elbows are always in the crook of someone’s throat and my shoulders push everyone next to me into the wall, it is often a time for lively tics–there’s no way my co-passengers and I can get away from each other.

If you have Tourette’s and flying is hard for you, here’s what I do to make it a little easier.

1. Explain (don’t apologize)

I don’t explain unless I need to, but if I’m doing something that is making people look at me, sigh in exasperation, or mutter to themselves, I get their attention and say “Here’s what’s happening.”

The explanation is usually good enough. It worked on my most recent flight and I actually had an interesting discussion with the people around me. Anyone who really has a problem with it after that point either has serious work to do and needs to be able to concentrate, or they’re just a dick and nothing’s going to placate them anyway. Either way, if you can’t help it you can’t help it.

Don’t tell anyone you’re sorry, but help them understand what’s happening. You don’t have to be sorry. It’s not your fault.

2. Distraction

Now that I’ve got an iPhone, I have an easy way to distract myself if I can’t calm myself down in other ways. I filled it up with those dumb little addictive games that start you over as soon as you die. They take up all the RAM I’ve got and sometimes help when nothing else will.

3. Skip the snacks

I don’t make myself do this often enough. When the flight attendants come around, I want a coke and a cookie. If I do this, the stimulants make me want to have more tics.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever skipped the snacks, come to think of it, but I do know it would help me, based on how I react to these substances.What can I say? I love candy, cookies, and crap.

4. Stare back at the jerks

This is the last resort when I’m dealing with people who are determined to be annoyed and glare at me. I just stare back. No other reaction. No apologies, no explanations (no further explanations, at this point I’ve already offered one), and no backing off. I stare at them with no expression until they look away. Generally, if we’ve reached this point, after I win the staring contest, they don’t look at me again.

It messes people up. Being stared at can feel incredibly hostile. It unnerves people. They don’t like it. I don’t like it. I’m not hostile. I’m not out to bother anyone or rattle them with the dead eyes. But it has worked for me a few times. Again: I never do this unless someone simply won’t stop looking at me and they won’t accept the explanation and I’m just not up for being stared at for the remainder of the flight.

Seriously, if you’re going to try this, make it your last resort. Be ready to be challenged on it. You might get that one stubborn person who’s going to stare back at you for three hours.  Don’t do it if you can’t handle the thought of that.

That’s about it, besides the obvious: if anything helps you stay relaxed prior to the flight, do as much of those things as you can. Exercise, stretching, singing, specific foods, etc.

Has anything worked for you? If so, please put it in the comments and we’ll see if any of us have had similar experiences.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Pauline May 7, 2012, 2:20 pm

    I think your method “help them understand what’s happening. You don’t have to be sorry. It’s not your fault.” is the best. You are a kind person, and you’ll find most people will be kind in return. Best wishes on future travels!

  • shane vanoosterhout May 8, 2012, 11:05 am

    A poor comparison, I know, but my mother frequently sneezes unexpectedly at an ear-ringing decibel. Unlike most people who produce obvious signs of a forthcoming sneeze, my mother exhibits no warning. There is something uniquely startling about her eruptions even to us. Reflexively we cover our ears but never in time to muffle the shriek of what sounds like a carnivorous night bird defending its nestlings from a violent attack. We quietly grumble, mostly to relieve the appalling adrenaline spike but honestly, she can’t help it. When she sneezes in public, strangers can be most unforgiving with their blatant scowls and disapproving voyeurism. I am always more surprised by expressions of victim hood, as if she has brought forth plague.