‘If There Was a Cure for My Tourette’s, I Would Not Take It’: Gardiner Comfort on Turning Tics Into Theater
The actor Gardiner Comfort, who has Tourette syndrome, regularly faces people’s taunts and ignorance when he ‘tics.’ He has made his experience into a moving and funny stage show.
When speaking to Gardiner Comfort on the telephone, one can hear his Tourette syndrome (TS) tics. They are not the curses and profanities you often see on TV when the condition is presented. They sound like throat-clearings or heavy sniffles. They are noticeable but not an obstacle in our conversation.
The 37-year-old actor, whose one-man show The Elephant in Every Room I Enter details his experience of living with the neurodevelopmental disorder, said he is finally at the point of not being so afraid of going into a room or a subway car and enduring “the general unwanted badness of other people” when they react to the tic-manifestations of his condition.
The tics he has experienced ever since he was 5 years old have been the elephant in every room he has entered, Comfort said, hence the title of the show.
The Tourette Association of America estimates that 1 out of every 160 children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the United States has TS and that 1 out of every 100 children has TS or another tic disorder.
When Comfort was a child, taking a subway train, his mother has told him he would look around nervously to see if anybody had noticed that he was tic-ing.
“I had terrible self-consciousness, which to some degree was warranted, as I attracted a lot of unwarranted hostility,” Comfort said.
This persists today. People, total strangers, will tell him to cover his mouth or offer him cough drops. Having attracted an entire subway car’s attention, Comfort said, he suddenly has the opportunity to educate people or hide his face in a book “and pretend it’s not happening.”
He has never had the most notorious tics—repeating words over and over again, or swearing. “The whole cursing thing is not that common: Only 10 percent of people with Tourette’s have that,” said Comfort. “Yes, it’s funny, yes, it makes for an interesting anecdote. But can we just vary the stereotypes a little bit?”
He is grateful not to endure such tics, “but what I do relate to is tics going off at the least opportune time. When I was growing up I had a girlfriend, and she’d put her head on my shoulders. It was so difficult for me to sit still and not shake her head off. My wife [Colleen Werthmann] suffers a lot with sharing a bed with me. At the end of the day, I am shaking all over the bed: It’s what my body wants to do.”
Comfort has had vocal and motor tics throughout his life. He used to have a high-pitched vocal tic and once had a tic that led him to contort his torso on his right side, so hard that he fractured a rib.
As well as throat clearing, another present-day tic is that Comfort digs his toes into his shoes really hard.
When lying down he is constantly moving to try to feel more aligned, “but I only end up being more misaligned.” The tics happen at different times but are more likely to happen, Comfort said, if he feels anxious and that he shouldn’t be doing them, as when he attended a Quaker school growing up where silence was a given, or a theater or subway car today when he knows sniffing violently through his nose or throat clearing would be an unwelcome noise.
In recent months, Comfort said he had greatly benefited from, with a psychologist, itemizing his tics, what leads up to them, and then formulating competing responses that nullifies the tic. He lifts his foot up now instead of digging his toes into his shoe, runs, and meditates.
Comfort has tried transcranial magnetic stimulation, “which feels like there is a hand in your head, and a finger flicking against your skull.” He has been on countless medications, including one today intended for non-epileptic seizures in babies. All have helped in different ways, albeit temporarily, for whatever periods of time he has taken them.
Comfort’s New York childhood was a domestically happy one. His mother was a choreographer with a dance theater company, his father worked in banking. The family home was a funky industrial loft in Tribeca.
His first tics, his mother told Comfort later, were visible when he was 5: He would lick his finger and wipe his lip with it. His tics now “are less OCD.” To Comfort, his tics are not involuntary, as they might appear to others, but “completely voluntary. I just can’t control them. It’s like I have an obsessiveness about every little aspect of myself all the time.”
When he was a little boy, Comfort would shift around constantly on the back seat of the car, his dad turning around and saying gently, “Are you having fun dancing back there?”
A play therapist diagnosed him with Tourette’s at 7. His father also has the condition. “It’s hereditary,” said Comfort, “and it affects slightly more boys than girls.” (Research suggests the syndrome results from a variety of genetic and environmental factors.)
Comfort, like his father, has learning difficulties, which, when his father was younger, he took as a sign that he had to work harder than other boys. Comfort Sr. was never diagnosed with Tourette’s. When Comfort Jr. was diagnosed, his father, who was with him, said, “That sounds a lot like me.”
Comfort Sr.’s grandfather also had the condition and had coughing tics. “But they never talked about it because they were WASPs,” Comfort said, laughing.
Kids were cruel to Comfort Jr. “I have Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder” was, he said, laughing, “never going to work with a bunch of 9-year-olds.”
If he said to the taunting kids what his parents recommended—“I can’t help it, I’m nervous”—that made the teasing worse.
It wasn’t easy, Comfort said, but he got on with living. From a young age to adulthood, he has been hyper-aware of people laughing at him on the train, or of people’s looks, or irritability around him.
“I will explain or be patient, but some people are totally committed to being assholes,” Comfort said. “Even after I explain about my clearing-the-throat tic, they tell me, ‘You should still cover your mouth.’ I get it, but that would be 20 times a minute.
“Then I get, ‘That’s that thing where you curse, right? Or, ‘I know a guy with Tourette’s. I don’t think that’s what you have.’ Or: ‘Try this treatment, go to this place and they might be able to cure it.’
“Or some people start laughing, and I go over and say, ‘Hey, I notice what you’re doing and I want to tell you I can’t help this. It’s much harder for me than it is for you. This is Tourette syndrome.’ And they just ignore me, or are so embarrassed or unwilling to be an adult and don’t want to acknowledge that they were making fun of me.”
Some interactions are wholly positive, Comfort also emphasized, with people asking about the condition and sharing their experiences of loved ones or friends with it.
Comfort was a bad student until he got to high school, he said. He knew he was smart and capable enough to be doing what his fellow students were doing, but his learning disabilities made the process of learning more complicated. It was hard for him to sit still. Acting became Comfort’s great love in ninth grade.
He had girlfriends pretty regularly, then met Werthmann, an actress and comedy writer nine years his senior, first when he was 17 and then five years later at 22, when he had just left college.
His Tourette’s is something they have dealt with together—from the difficulty of being physically intimate and his disturbed sleep patterns (he would occasionally sleep in the bathtub) to her support of the various therapies and exercising he does. If he seems keyed up at night, she hustles him out of their home in Harlem for a run. The couple do not yet have children, but “it’s definitely part of the conversation.”
Comfort’s stage show is based around his attending the Tourette Association of America National Conference in 2014. This was “life-changing,” he said, “because it was the first time I had been around hundreds of other people tic-ing: chirping, barking, shouting, grabbing, and sounds I had never heard before.
“It had a huge impact on me. I felt like I was normal for the first time in my life because no one criticized me. I could tic, and everyone understood—even the hotel staff. No one had any reaction whatsoever.
“My whole life, I always had the sense I had to manage my tics or had to worry in case there was some consequence to tic-ing. To be able to tic as loud and often as I wanted was so freeing. All the kids shouting and barking put me at ease. I didn’t have to be ‘normal.’”
The conference was mostly attended by children and their parents; Comfort was one of a few “freestanding adults,” as he put it.
Having attended the conference, Comfort and his collaborator Kel Haney conceived the show, which includes comedy, dance, and wall projections, which he said were intended to symbolize his “mind smeared on the walls.”
There is comedy in the show, as well as heart-wrenching stories.
When Comfort has previously performed it, he has been most moved by meeting all the people with Tourette’s who come and see the show, and their freedom to tic during it and then chat later about their experiences.
As well as working in restaurants, like many a jobbing actor, Comfort is also an adjunct teacher, and “trying to help a young person find their joy in life” gives him huge fulfillment, as has becoming a Tourette’s advocate.
When asked what he wants next, Comfort laughed. “Cash and fame, money, power, and respect,” he said.
He hopes the show will be seen by producers, that it has a life off-Broadway, and that he finally secures an agent and ultimately makes a living from acting.
“When I’m on stage I don’t tic,” Comfort noted. “It goes away, and that’s always been the case. I don’t know why, but I do know people with Tourette’s, when they’re in whatever zone it is they want to be in, don’t tic. I read about a famous surgeon who had violent tics and would throw things, but when he had that knife in the operating theater, he was fine.”
I asked Comfort if he ever wished for a life without Tourette’s, if that were possible.
“If there was a cure, I would not take it,” Comfort said. “Every other person with Tourette’s I have met feels the same way. Part of me would be gone. I wouldn’t trust anyone, who said they had a cure, that if I took it I wouldn’t lose a part of myself. It’s so interwoven with my mind and the way I think.
“Would I like to trade some of the throat-clearing moments with Tourette’s? Absolutely. It’s really hard. It takes a lot from me. It’s done some damage to my voice, I don’t know if permanently, but it has.
“But it’s my experience. Difficulty fuels me. It’s kind of what I like about teaching, and kind of what I look for in art and life in general. I don’t really believe in the cliché that all good art comes from suffering. But I do think there is value in the gravitas of life and struggle.”
The Elephant in Every Room I Enter is at New York Theatre Workshop, from Nov. 9 to 25. Details and booking here.