Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Taking A Closer Look At Tourette Syndrome & Music
Billie Eilish has shocked the world more than once. Last month, the burgeoning counter-pop megastar became the first person born after the year 2000 to score a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Also, Eilish opened up, on national television, about living with Tourette Syndrome (TS).
“It’s something I’ve lived with my whole life,” Eilish said on "The Ellen Degeneres Show." “Everybody in my family, all my friends, all the people that are closest to me know I have it and it’s not anything different.”
Eilish's wild success despite her condition is remarkable, but her composure in coping with TS and the work she's doing to demystify it is perhaps most striking. How can a musician, a songwriter, an artist of the biggest modern scale manage TS under such a spotlight? What can those who don't understand Tourette's learn from seeing their hero living with it? Her story suggests a closer look at Tourette's, the reality it creates for those afflicted and its complex relationship with music.
Researches in recent years have posited theories that Mozart, one of music's most magnificent minds, suffered TS during his lifetime. While this is not a confirmed diagnoses, this does much to dispel presumed limitations the condition puts on artistic creativity. As Eilish alludes to above, for many living with TS, there is no difference, as it is built into the foundation of their functioning.
Known for the "tics" it creates – defined by repetitive, involuntary movement or vocalization – TS is shockingly common, showing up in more than 200,000 cases per year in the U.S. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of its most prevalent treatments involves music. A 2015 study discovered "a significant reduction [of tics] both by listening to music and musical performance."
What might come as a surprise is not all TS patients view its affects as negative. Heightened awareness and attention to detail resulting from TS have left many uninterested the search for a cure, as eliminating TS might also eliminates its positive attributes. Star soccer player Tim Howard has gone as far as claim his condition helped him succeed. In his autobiography, Howard dispels some of the many misconceptions surrounding TS.
"Most people don’t understand TS," he writes. "They think of it as a 'cursing disease,' a disorder that makes people swear uncontrollably. That’s how it’s usually depicted on television. It’s a trope, because it makes a great punch line. And sure, that form exists, but it’s rare – fewer than 10 percent of all diagnosed TS cases. But there are myriad possible tics. In fact, TS looks different in everyone who has it – I’ve heard it called a 'fingerprint condition,' and that’s exactly right. No two people have the same case."
And while sports require different a skillset from music, the distinction to be made here is that while TS certainly presents challenges, those who have it are quite capable of, well, anything.
"Many individuals with TS are bright and remarkably creative and sensitive to the needs of others. Indeed, many are destined for success in life despite their tics," said James Leckman, M.D. in a piece on the Tourette Association of America website, and the site provides many examples of exactly that.
Remembering that Tourette's in Mozart and Cobain can only be speculated, not confirmed, one wonders if some of the sense-sharpening effects of TS could be connected with musical aptitude. But even if this is the case, it likely varies greatly, as Howard points out, and each case is unique. For Eilish, being a high-profile musician and keeping her condition quiet is about avoiding stigmatization.
"I've never mentioned [my Tourette Syndrome] on the internet because nobody thinks I'm deadass," Eilish wrote on her Instagram story in November of last year, when she confirmed she has TS. "As well as the fact I've just never wanted people to think of Tourette's every time they think of me."
And because of leaders like Eilish and Howard speaking up, the stigma will hopefully give way to understanding. Already, opening up about TS has forged deeper connections between Eilish and some of her fans.
"I've also really learned that a lot of my fans have it, which made me feel kind of more at home with saying it," said Eilish. "Also, I felt like there was a connection there. I felt like when I said that, there were kids that were posting and being like, "Oh my god, I've always had this, now she has it, and she's who I can look up to."