By Elsé Khoury
When I was seven years old, my family moved from Mississauga, Ontario, to Kuwait City. My Palestinian father, who immigrated to Canada in the sixties, joined a wave of Palestinians who at that time had found careers and a home in that small desert country. He left when I was six. We joined him shortly afterward. Kuwait was my first experience of the Middle East, or, more correctly, western Asia. (Middle compared to what? I’ve always wondered.) In the almost-year we lived there, I learned a lot of things, including the fact that my body has a tendency to betray me in my times of need.
Sometime after moving to Kuwait, I started blinking: a lot. It seems obvious now that the twitch was a response to moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language, but at the time my parents didn’t connect the dots. Concerned, they took me to see an ophthalmologist. Once there, we sat in a small sterile room where a large, bearded man explained very calmly to my parents that, if my condition did not improve, he would have no choice but to insert a needle directly into my eyeball. He acted this out with great drama, grabbing my shoulder and pressing down on a fictional syringe pointed directly at my face. He was so convincing that I swore I could feel the phantom dose being forced out of the needle and splashing my cheek. And although the thought of a thin rod of cold steel being forced into my eyeball was terrifying, I pushed my fear down until it was a small, throbbing ball in the pit of my stomach.
At seven, there were few things more terrifying getting a needle. The cold, silver sharpness of the alcohol swab on my arm, the crinkle of plastic yielding to the expert hand of the nurse as the syringe is unwrapped, the gentle clink of the small glass bottles as they are pulled from cabinets: All these things evoked in me a creeping sense of dread that was all-consuming, resulting in a flash of sweaty fear that soaked the back of my school uniform, bunched up and wrinkled from the car ride over. I was well acquainted with the ritual, and over time my fear had calcified, built up like a hard crystal shell.
My parents must have seen the fear in my eyes. They very quickly ushered me out of the doctor’s office and down to the car park. I seem to recall many wide-eyed, meaningful looks passing between them in the elevator. Are you freaking kidding me? I imagine my father secretly muttering. He had a bit of a temper in those days, and in retrospect I wonder if our hasty exit wasn’t just a way of getting him the hell out of there before he had a chance to enlighten the ophthalmologist on twentieth-century medical techniques. I imagine the doctor responding: What? You no longer terrify children into shitting themselves as a means of discouraging involuntary physiological responses to stress? No? You must be kidding with me right now, habibi. You are laughing at me, yes?
For many children with nervous dispositions, a tic is the body’s way of responding to trauma or stress. It followed, then, that the key to stopping the blinking was to try to settle into my new life. Getting used to my new school and making friends was a good start, but my twitch presented a kind of social catch-22. The tic made me seem weird and off-putting, which decreased my popularity with my classmates. On the other hand, lack of friendship made me feel weird and off-putting, thereby contributing to stress and more blinking.
A young child with a nervous tic provokes strong reactions in people. Especially when the child already has so much working against them, like natural awkwardness and coke-bottle glasses. They become the object of pity or, at best, concern. They bring out the best in people. Strangers give them lollipops. Aunties tsk-tsk them and pat them on the head. Teachers are indulgent and kind.
I once knew a woman whose communist family had very quietly sneaked out of Chile shortly after the infamous dictator Augustus Pinochet had taken power. This would have been sometime in the seventies, and she would have been around four or five years old. After having witnessed countless friends and family members “disappear,” this woman and her family somehow managed to get out of Chile and into Canada. The entire ordeal must have been extremely stressful, because in response to these events she developed what she would describe to me as a “full facial seizure.” She once provided a demonstration: puckering her entire face, eyes closed, frowning, lips pushed out, and then rolled her eyes back in her head while her mouth opened into a large O. It was like an exaggerated, creepy air kiss: MWWAAAH. This she would repeat in rapid succession several times a minute.
While a child with a twitch may evoke empathy, in adults twitches are less likely to be indulged. They tend to make people feel uncomfortable. I experienced this myself many years later, when I worked with someone who had the habit of blinking repeatedly when considering some new piece of information or pondering a response to a question. It gave him an air of skepticism somehow. Like, I hear what you’re telling me, but I’m not buying it. Even innocuous questions like, Hey, Joe, how was the weekend? were met with prolonged fits of blinking which seemed to last an uncomfortable eternity. In the silent seconds that it would take for Joe to consider the question, my confidence would slowly begin to crumble: Did I say something offensive? Did a member of Joe’s family die and the interment was this weekend? Are those tearstains on his collar? Oh God, what have I done?! Just as I was about to mumble an excuse and make my getaway, Joe would blink twice and respond: Fine. How about you?
Eventually, I settled in. I made friends, went to the sea with my family on Fridays, and was deeply comforted by the deep azure of the sky beside the blondeness of the sand dunes. Eventually, my tic went away. I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if it hadn’t. What would have become of the likes of my Chilean friend and I if our families had not fretted and worried and protected us from crazy barbarian ophthalmologists and American-sponsored bloodthirsty dictators?
Because some people never grow out of it. You know who I’m talking about: the guy on the subway who can’t stop rubbing his nose; the dry-cleaner whose constant shrugging seems to signal an internalized sense of resignation: You can pick up your jacket on Friday. Or, whatever. Normal people, doing normal things, but with the addition of a particular physical trait that sets them apart.
A few years ago my tic made its triumphant return when I suffered through a particularly bad patch at work. What does it all mean? I would ask myself, sitting awkwardly in meetings, trying to hide the side of my face that was engaged in the electric boogaloo. Ironically though, no one seemed to notice. Not only did I have to suffer through the frustration of crippling facial convulsions, but for all intents and purposes, the problem seemed to be quite literally all in my head.
On a couple of occasions, desperate for some kind of validation, I would mention it to someone: friend, colleague, the guy who picks up garbage on the side of the highway. Each time, they would look at me uncomfortably and hesitate before leaning in really close and muttering:
Oh yeah, there it is.
Yes! I would think, momentarily vindicated by their acknowledgement of my suffering. But my relief was short lived as I watched their faces slowly change from curious to concerned.
She DOES have a twitch. Weird.
Her face is going into spasm. Because of work. Huh.
I should probably put these scissors away.
Despite years of effort, I have not yet found a way to control my tic, and I have come to accept that I will never be completely rid of it. It’s both humbling and frustrating to know that the façade that I have constructed, the stories I tell myself in the dark about who I am, can be so quickly undone. For while life moves along quietly, my tic hides buried away in the twisted labyrinth of my nervous system, slumbering peacefully, until like a vulture circling a carcass, it moves in. Its motivation is insignificant and unpredictable: moving across the continent, talking to a boy, almost getting fired. It has its own logic and sense of proportionality. My tic makes its own rules. And at the age of forty-five, I have finally accepted it for the existential consolation prize it is.
Although I may see it as a betrayal, my tic is really my body’s way of keeping me humble. It serves as a reminder that inside, I am still a coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired kid from Mississauga experiencing culture shock for the first time, whose sense of self can be swiftly undone by a face with a tendency to break into movement like a dancer on Soul Train.
ELSE KHOURY is having a mid-life crisis, only instead of buying a motorcycle or getting a tattoo, she’s writing essays. Elsé lives in Niagara, Canada.