People with Tourette syndrome report worsening tics during pandemic

Philip Charlebois, 24, was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome last year. Amid the pandemic, he's noticed his tics have become more "disruptive," and he's now being treated by four doctors and experimenting with different therapies

Philip Charlebois of London, Ont., says his vocal and motor tics have worsened this past year

Philip Charlebois, 24, of London, Ont., says he often wears this sweatshirt when he goes out. (Submitted by Philip Charlebois)

Philip Charlebois first noticed mild tics when he was 17, but the 24-year-old from London, Ont., was only diagnosed with Tourette syndrome last year.

That's when things started getting worse.

"A couple of months after the pandemic started locking things down, I noticed my Tourette's, which had been fairly mild up until then, had gotten much more disruptive," said Charlebois, a product technician. 

People with Tourette, a nervous system condition, may experience spasm-like movements of particular muscles that are known as tics or twitches. According to Tourette Canada, studies indicate Tourette affects between one and nearly four per cent of the population. 

Charlebois says his tics are affected by stress.

"My arms and legs twitch. I can't always control the movements. And then the vocal tics, most of the time it's the chirping and whistling."

Charlebois said he also struggles with uncontrollable profanities and is working with four different doctors, including a neurologist and a psychiatrist, and experimenting with different drugs and treatments.

Multiple surveys and studies have investigated how the pandemic has affected people with Tourette syndrome. The Tourette Association of America surveyed individuals and families, and 82 per cent of 900 respondents said their tics had worsened over the last year.

The Tourette Association of America surveyed individuals and families about the impact of COVID-19 on their symptoms. (Tourette Association of America)

"I describe it almost like a sneeze," said Charlebois, who has two roommates after leaving the family home in Penetanguishene, Ont., nearly four years ago. "You can kind of feel it coming on sometimes, and sometimes you can work very hard and suppress it."

His roommates have been lifesavers, he said. 

"Tourette's can get very loud and and they've just been fantastic dealing with it.

"Sometimes when my arms start acting up, I need to ask one of them to cut my food for me so that I don't have to handle a steak knife."

Charlebois says he first noticed Tourette symptoms when he was 17. Now, at 24, his symptoms have ramped up since the start of the pandemic, he says. (Submitted by Philip Charlebois)

Keeping a positive attitude

Charlebois figures he'll continue working from home even when his workplace opens back up to employees. His tics would be too disruptive, he said.

"It's no longer an invisible disability," said Charlebois, who wears a special sweatshirt when he goes to the grocery that reads, "I'm not possessed. I have Tourette Syndrome." 

"It's something that when people see me in public, they also see the tics. But honestly, I'm so fortunate to live in this era because people are much more accepting."

Londoner Philip Charlebois, 24, has Tourette Syndrome. He says his tics have increased since the start of the pandemic. 7:45

Charlebois is hopeful his tics will improve once the pandemic is over. 

"So it might get better. It might not. We're not sure, but it is very heavily correlated to stress.

"And I think the most important thing with Tourette's is just the positive attitude. Sometimes you almost just have to laugh." 


Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 15 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna.


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