Friday, August 23, 2013

Alien Hand Syndrome

                My body has never felt particularly compelled to act in accordance with conscious thought. This is evidenced not only by the fact that I sleep-eat, but also by my nervous twitches. So far, I have had two distinct nervous twitches. The first started in sixth grade and lasted about a year. The second began about three years ago and still graces me with its presence every few days. I would not be surprised if I end up collecting several more by the time all is said and done. My hang-ups do not seem compelled to stay confined to my mind, perpetuating obsessive thoughts like normal neuroses. Instead they flitter about, randomly taking control of my faculties and producing awkward moments.
                Given my adolescent social graces, the first nervous twitch was not particularly surprising.  At the time, I was wound so tight that I would tape flash cards on the ceiling in order to be able to study until the actual moment I fell asleep (I slept on the top bunk of a combination futon/bunk bed, the futon part of which was covered in marine mammal stuffed animals). I worried about most of the same things as my peers: things like why the kids on the bus were so mean to me, how I did on my last social studies project, and what would happen to the marine ecosystem near Alaska if the Cook Inlet subpopulation of Beluga whales went extinct. I just worried about them at a much more intense level.

                The Original Twitch (as it’s known since the arrival of its successor) was a combination of uncomfortable-looking gestures. I would simultaneously: squint my eyes, scrunch my nose, curl my upper lip over my braces, hunch my shoulders, and clench my hands approximately twice a minute whenever I was worked up. I didn’t even know I was doing it. Okay, now you try. 
                Nervous Twitch: the Sequel arrived in the spring of 2010. I had just started graduate school, quit drinking, and changed just about every major facet of my life. In other words, I was a basket case. The new one was much more insidious. Whereas the first twitch was very obviously a compulsive tic, the second one looks more like I’m just throwing things at people. My right hand and elbow extend simultaneously, causing me to lose my grip on whatever object I’m holding and launching it through the air. This has produced some situations involving various degrees of embarrassment, apologies and feeble attempts at explanation. 

                The first time I can remember really noticing the new twitch was at Barnes & Noble. I was buying some books and the guy at the cash register was trying to flirt with me. I started feeling flustered. I didn’t want to be flirted with- I just wanted to buy my ineffective pop psychology “anxiety cure” manuals and historical chick lit novels in peace. While I was not consciously assertive enough to verbally create those boundaries, my hand decided to do it for me by propelling my credit card at the cashier’s face. I was so embarrassed and perplexed that I said the first thing that came to mind- the only thing that came to mind:

                “Sorry I threw my credit card at you.” With that, I took my bag and sped off.

                I told my parents about this incident and the other, minor occurrences I began to notice afterward. I don’t think they really believed me until my dad experienced it for himself. I had moved into a new apartment and Dad and I were painting the walls together. It’s one of my favorite memories. Dad and me, listening to podcasts and a particularly excellent playlist I’d created for our painting party. We didn’t talk much, painting side by side in a companionable quiet. Everything was going smoothly until I turned to say something to my dad, and instead hurled my paint-filled brush at him. It hit him in the chest. My dad looked at me, aghast. I stared back at him, feeling surprised but vindicated that he could finally witness my latest motor affliction.

                “You really didn’t mean to do that?” He asked after a long pause. I shook my head. I could tell he was struggling to believe me.

                “Because it looked like you meant to throw it at me.” 

                We were in the process of listening to some Discovery Channel Stuff You Should Know podcasts, and it seemed that the next couple episodes directly related to the twitch. The first was about Alien Hand Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which a person’s hand acts involuntarily. Symptoms may include picking up an object and attempting to use it without conscious directive from the brain, spontaneously trying to perform simple tasks like buttoning a shirt, or uncontrolled reaching and grasping. We decided to start explaining my twitch as Alien Hand Syndrome.

                The very next podcast was about absorbed twins. Some pregnancies begin with two fetuses but one of them dies early in the first trimester and is reabsorbed into the womb. But sometimes- rarely- the fetus is actually absorbed by its twin. Naturally, my dad and I determined that my twitch is a manifestation of my absorbed twin. And it is actually my absorbed twin who has Alien Hand Syndrome. We named her Olivia, and to this day, whenever I unintentionally throw something, I blame it on her. If Tom and I are out to eat and my fork goes clattering to the ground, I’ll simply say, “Oh, it’s just Olivia.” He shrugs and continues eating.

 Situations in which my nervous twitch has presented itself:

  • During graduate school, as I was taking a final exam. My pencil shot out of my hand and toward the front of the class. When I picked it up, I made the mistake of holding it with my right hand, at which point I threw it again. Twice. By this time, my classmates were staring at me, presumably wondering why I was pitching a pencil across the room rather than taking the test. I finally realized I could avoid this by holding the pencil with my left hand.

  • More recently, during a performance review at work as we were about to discuss my professional competency. Armed with a pencil and a notebook, I felt reasonably confident until my pencil landed under the couch where my boss was sitting. We both poorly pretended it didn’t happen.

  • Several times, I have inadvertently thrown my cell phone against the wall. Tom, I think it’s safe to say we’re not getting back our deposit on this apartment.

  • Olivia has breached countless time while I’m holding pens, clothes, Diet Cokes, books, and various other items. For a while, I worked in the toddler room of a preschool, but I have yet to throw a baby.

  • A few weeks ago, I was paying for a few snack items at a news stand in the airport. Once again, I threw my credit card at the face of the person working at the cash register. Only this time, it was a perfectly lovely young woman who happened to not speak English. Trying to explain that one was uncomfortable.

      Despite the constant low-level embarrassment produced by my twitches, I enjoy them immensely.  It’s as though my body has so much to say that it can’t keep it to itself. With my first nervous twitch, my parents gently teased me about it- teaching me how to laugh at myself in a safe environment. That way, I wasn’t so impacted when other kids made fun of me. My parents and my nervous twitch joined forces to teach me to have a sense of humor about myself. Which is, I think, the most important lesson anyone can learn.

         The new twitch forces me to interact with strangers more than I otherwise would. Yes, I would rather smile vaguely and avoid small talk while purchasing my Diet Coke and Check Mix from the airport newsstand. But when I throw my credit card at a lady’s face, I am forced to interact with the outside world.

                Or at least, Olivia is.

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