Damian Friel is a 26-year-old mental health nurse from Derry, Northern Ireland who is openly gay and has Tourette Syndrome (aka. Tourette’s), a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes physical and vocal tics. Friel’s Tourette’s causes him to turn his head, twitch his shoulder, say “Hey!,” whistle, make popping noises and occasionally swear — it’s kind of cute and charming until you realize that it’s an ongoing physical disability that affects his ability to date and function in public.
Scientists don’t know what exactly causes Tourette Syndrome — they suspect it’s a mix of genetic and environmental factors — but they do know that its effects can cause increased anxiety and depression in people who have it. Stress can increase one’s physical and vocal tics increase, and people’s negative reactions can cause isolation and shame.
“It makes me kind of nervous that someone could just see the Tourette’s and just like, ‘Oh dear Jesus Christ,’ and walk away,” Friel said.
Once, while waiting in public for his date to arrive, Friel began to feel nervous and experienced rapidly recurring tics. Unbeknownst to him, his date was watching him crank his neck and make noises from afar, and decided to stand him up rather than go out with someone he thought was mentally disturbed.
“That was the worst experience I’ve ever had,” Friel said in a recent interview. “He’s not someone I would even want in my life as a friend and not someone I would value a friendship with if they’re going to judge someone based on a physical disability. I felt like I dodged a bullet there.”
Friel once appeared on a U.K. dating show called First Dates and was so nervous that he involuntarily said things like, “Hey kitten fucker,” “I’m on loads of drugs” and “I have three nipples” while repeatedly whistling and flipping his middle finger at his date.
Nearby waiters and customers would look over, thinking that Friel’s whistles and vocal tics were meant for them. His date graciously tried to ignore them, but Friel repeatedly apologized and looked visibly embarrassed as he tried to laugh off his tics.
Friel is not really dating now. He is reportedly finishing his degree, training for a marathon and co-hosting the MenTalk Health, a podcast where he and his co-host discuss mental health issues. Friel also has depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While he has considered that some men might find his disability endearing, he says he wouldn’t feel comfortable being with anyone who fetishized it.
Many people associate Tourette’s with random swearing, but swearing only occurs in an estimated 10% of people with Tourette’s. Experts think that anywhere from 1% to .1% of all people have Tourette’s.
Most people with Tourette’s try to control symptoms through a combination of relaxation exercises and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but in more severe cases, medication can help.