Northgate High School Alumni

Walnut Creek, California (CA)

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Chris Mason

Class of 1988

I was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was twenty years old. I began having symptoms of the disorders at the age of five. My symptoms of both disorders were so minor from then up through my Junior year in high school that they were barely noticeable. Junior year was the first year that Northgate fielded a soccer team. I had been playing soccer for a long time prior to that. I was very good. I tried out for the team. I made it through most of the tryouts. There were only two more days of tryouts left. It was a good bet that I would make the team. That’s when the coach informed everyone on the team, that we couldn’t play unless we had at least a 2.0 GPA. I had not known that I needed to have a 2.0 GPA to play sports, when I started soccer tryouts, since I had never really gotten far enough, on a team, for my grades to matter. When the coach told us about the 2.0 GPA rule I knew that I had not gotten good enough grades to play. The coach told us that those of us who were under 2.0 knew who we were. He told us to bow out gracefully and just quit showing up to practice, instead of having
him announce our names in front of the entire team at practice. Then everyone would know who we were. So I quit. Many people asked me why I wasn’t at tryouts the next day. I told them that I had an injury that I made up and that I wouldn’t be able to play that season. I had a different excuse for my mom and dad when they asked me the same question. I told them that I didn’t make the team, because I wasn’t good enough, which was a total lie.
For most students in high school, junior year is supposed to be the most difficult. Not only was it that, but most of my teachers that year were also bad. In fact, most of them were bad throughout my high school career. They weren’t bad in the way they taught their classes or in how well they knew the material that they were teaching. They might have been good teachers for the good students in their classes. They just didn’t know how to deal with me, or any of the other problem students, and I don't think they tried to learn.
In one particular class that year (Algebra 2) I had more trouble than I had had in any other
class that I had ever taken. I also happened to have the worst teacher that I have ever had. I received F’s on most of my tests and I hardly ever did my homework. Even if I had wanted to do it I couldn’t have done it, because of the horrible OCD symptoms I was having. She knew I was struggling, but she never once tried to help me. I won't use her real name. I will only refer to her as Mrs. Zackerman. My sister had Mrs. Zackerman for the same class many years later.
We still argue about what kind of teacher Mrs. Zackerman was. My sister thought she was one of the best teachers she has ever had. She said that Mrs. Zackerman helped her whenever she needed help. No wonder she helped my sister. She was a star student. Mrs. Zackerman helped all the star students. She helped them if they asked for help or not. When I wanted help I practically had to beg. It’s easy to help the students that don’t need much help. It is much more difficult to help the troubled students. I guess Mrs. Zackerman had never heard the term “you are only as strong as your weakest link”. All the F’s I was getting in her class must have given her a clue that something was wrong. She knew I was having major trouble in her class. What
did she do? Nothing at all.
I think most of the teachers at my school took the easy way out whenever they had bad or problem students. Maybe they didn’t want to be bothered with students who required more time and effort like I did. Perhaps they thought we were lost causes and therefore, hopeless. There weren’t many students at my high school with learning, or other problems, at least that I knew of. I know that none of those students’ teachers did a good job of helping them either. Most of our
teachers didn’t even try to find out what was wrong with us or what was bothering us, so how could they? How do I know this? I talked to some of the problem students occasionally and they all said the same thing.
All of the bad students were treated the same, like they didn’t want to learn. We were all thought of as being lazy. That may have been the case for some of us, but not for all. Each one of us had different problems, but we were all lumped together as the problem kids. Some of us didn’t care about how we did in school, or if we even graduated or not. The teachers could not tell who of us cared about how well they did, and who didn’t, which I thought was horrible, on their parts.
Not only was junior year the hardest year, and my teachers were the worst, but it also marked the beginning of major learning problems that made it possible to study. I had never been very good at studying before, but I had always been able to when I really put my mind to it. During Junior year that was even impossible, even when I tried my hardest. The first time I sat down at my desk to do homework that year I absolutely could not do it. It started with me becoming distracted every time I sat down at my desk to do homework. I tried doing homework with the
radio on and with the radio off. I tried doing it during different times of the day and night. Each time I sat down at my desk I was distracted by everything in and around it. I played with just about everything near, in, or on the desk every time I used it.
About a month later I also began having horrible symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive
Disorder. Many people have OCD, but very few of those people have it so bad that it affects their daily living and is debilitating, like it was in my case. Usually OCD manifests itself differently in people with Tourette Syndrome as it does in people without Tourette Syndrome. That is why people who have OCD, but don’t have Tourettes, have no idea what it is like to have both. The only way a person could possibly know would be for them to experience it for themselves. Even so, if both cases are minor, then it might be manageable for those people, like
it is for many others in those same situations. I know that there must be others who have the
exact same symptoms that I have, but I have not me anyone like that yet. I know that my it has taken all the fight I can muster, not to succumb to them and just give up.
In me, OCD showed itself in the form of making me think about making lists and being
obsessed with certain numbers. Of course, I wouldn’t be diagnosed with OCD until many years later, so I didn’t know I had it. When it began, an idea would pop into my head. Then, I would spend the next two or three hours writing down everything I could think of that was related to that topic. If I started thinking about cars, for instance, I would get out a piece of paper and write down every make and model of every car I could think of. If I started thinking about professional basketball teams, I would jot the names of every team and players on them, until I couldn’t think of anymore. No topic was off limits. Whatever came into my mind would be written down on paper and consume my thoughts for hours.
Later on I became obsessed with numbers. I started counting up to whatever number was my new favorite each time I did a daily activity. Most people would do things, like brushing their hair, until they thought it looked good. I had to brush mine well past that. Even if my hair looked good, I had to continue on. I would get stuck on a number for months. Then, all of a sudden, I would become obsessed with another number for several months without rhyme or reason. The numbers were always odd and consisted of having the same number multiple times. The numbers 11, 33, 77, 111, and 333 were just a few of the numbers I obsessed over. If the number that I was stuck on was 111, for example, I would make sure I did every daily activity I did during that time, no less and no more than 111 times each time I did them. Things like brushing my teeth, brushing my hair, and running my hands through my hair while shampooing it, each had to be done exactly 111 times. It had to add up to exactly 111, or it didn’t feel right. If I ever miscounted I had to start over and count again. I knew that it wasn’t normal and that it would have sounded crazy to anyone I told, but I couldn’t
help it. I didn’t know why I was doing these things, but I had to do them. My mind made me.
Halfway through that school year, after having had the horrible obsessive thoughts, where I made lists and obsessed over numbers, another variance of OCD appeared. Up until then I had either made lists or obsessed over numbers. I had done one or the other and had never done both
of them at the same time. During the middle of the school year both of them combined to make to make my life a living hell. I would begin by getting a thought in my head, just like I had done before. I would then start making a list and I would not stop thinking about that topic until I had written down as many items as the number that I was obsessed with at the time. Usually, it was easy to think of more than the number I was obsessed with, especially when that number was
low. When the number I was obsessed with was a number like 111 or 333 and a topic that I did not know much about entered my brain, I was in deep trouble. Many times, when that happened, I would be up until the early morning hours, trying to think of 111 things to write down on my paper. If I thought of them I would go to bed. If I couldn’t think of them I would stay up until I did, sometimes all night. If I just tried to forget about my list and go to sleep, thoughts about the list would overwhelm me. At that point I would have to get up out of bed and work on the list until I was finished or until it was time to go to school. There were many times, after staying up all night, where my brain would be so exhausted that it would just shut off. That was the only time I ever got a decent amount of sleep for three years straight. I would usually forget about making the lists while I was at school or when I was doing things that I enjoyed. I pretty much only made lists when I was bored, alone, or doing something I didn’t enjoy. I made lists and obsessed over numbers in the same way, every time I was in any of those three situations, every day for three straight years. I was constantly having obsessive thoughts, or thinking about having obsessive thoughts. And people wonder why I had a hard time studying. Maybe they won’t anymore. I wanted to learn, but my mind wouldn’t let me.
I am not sure how to describe the feelings I had right before the thoughts of making lists, or becoming obsessed with a numbers appeared. I don’t really know how to describe how it felt to not be able to complete my lists either. I just know that the urge to perform these tasks was unlike any I have ever had before. Sometimes these urges built up over a few minutes. Other times they happened within a few seconds. There was no way to know how or when they would
make their presence known. I just knew that the only way I could satisfy those urges was to
carry them out. There was no other way. There is no other way. I have tried to describe to people, what OCD feels like to me, but no one ever understands. The only people who have come close to understanding are the people who have it. For anyone else, it has been impossible. How do you tell someone that you have no control over what your mind thinks and that it makes you think about things that you don’t want to think about? If I didn’t have OCD myself, and I would have heard someone talk about having it, I would have thought that person was crazy. Maybe that is what people think of me when I try to tell people who don’t OCD, what it is like to have it. I may have thought that I might have been crazy before, but I know now that I am not . I
just have a couple of chronic disorders that may make it seem that way. The feelings I have right before I do tics is very similar to the feelings I have right before I have obsessive thoughts. The urges are the same in that I have to satisfy them or I can’t move forward. When I put off doing them off or try not to think about them, the urges eventually come back and have to be satisfied. The longer I go without doing them, the worse they are when I finally do them. At least the Tourettes urges aren’t quite as strong as the OCD urges. I
can put off the Tourette urges longer than I can put off the OCD urges. The OCD urges almost always have to be satisfied right away, or I cannot think about anything else. I can sometimes put off the Tourette urges for a few minutes or more, but eventually they must always be satisfied.
I thought about telling my teachers about my problems with Tourettes and OCD, even though I still didn’t know what was wrong with me at the time. Then I just decided that since I didn’t know what was wrong with me, they wouldn’t either. I thought they would think I was crazy if I told them all the things I was doing. I was also embarrassed and ashamed, because I had never seen or heard of another person doing the things I did.
My behavior in high school was lousy, not because I didn’t want to learn, but because I
couldn’t learn, and I didn’t see any other way to get through what I was going through, than to do the things I did. I changed the grades on my report card to fool my parents a couple times. I also missed a test on purpose, when I went to sleep in my car. I skipped school and went to professional baseball games. I was late to school almost every day, which is also something that I started doing in first grade, and didn’t stop until I graduated from high school. I was even late to school almost every day when I lived across the street from the elementary school I attended.
I had to beg one of my teachers during senior year to give me a grade that that was higher than the one I deserved, otherwise I wouldn’t have graduated. He promised that he would help me out, so I would graduate, but I couldn’t be sure. At the graduation ceremonies I wasn’t sure I would graduate until they called my name. Even after I received the diploma case I still wasn’t
sure. I wasn’t sure until I opened the diploma case and saw my diploma inside. After the
ceremonies were over, buses came to pick all of the Seniors up and take us to San Francisco, where we got on a boat to take a four-hour cruise of the bay. While everyone was having a good time on the inside of the boat, saying their goodbyes to their fellow classmates, who they might never see again, all the tics that I had ever had were coming back at once, full force. I was now swallowing repeatedly for no reason, shrugging my shoulders up and down, biting the insides of my cheeks, blinking my eyes quickly, scrunching up my face and nose, and darting my arms out to the sides. I was doing one or more of those tics every three or four seconds. I was also stuttering and pausing in the middle of sentences while I was speaking, so I couldn't have conversations with people. I'm sure my friends could tell that I was behaving strangely, but they didn't say anything to me. I knew differently. I hadn’t done most of the tics I was doing for many years and they had all been minor before. Now, they had returned full force. I had thought, that since I hadn’t done them for so
long, that I would never do them again. When they came back, while I was on the cruise, I was so scared, because I didn’t know why I was doing them again and what was wrong with me. All I could think was that I was going crazy. I was so upset, embarrassed, and ashamed that I couldn’t be around anyone. So I went up to the top deck, out in the cold air, lied on one of the benches, curled up in a ball, and cried. While I should have been having one of the best nights of my life, saying goodbye to my friends, I was by myself, crying my eyes out.
When I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome two years later I told my doctor about how my tics had gotten bad on the cruise he told me that stress and anxiety make tics worse and that the stress and anxiety of graduating from high school most likely brought out the major tics. Most of the teachers I've had througout my life thought I was either lazy, dumb, or both. They didn't know that I had Tourette's, but they didn't try and help me either. They treated me like an outcast. They thought that I was causing trouble on purpose, but it was due to the Tourette's. My mom brought me to every kind of doctor imaginable when I was younger, hoping to get an answer and to put a name to what I was suffering from. She supported me the entire time, and was the only person in my family who supported me. She did so up until the day she died, a little over six years ago.
Hopefully, this is a lesson to all teachers and parents out there. It shows that things aren't always as they seem. You might think you know what is wrong with a student or a child, but the truth could be very different. You owe it to your students and children to try to learn about what is wrong with them, so you can learn how to deal with and teach them properly. Teachers should not just think about teaching as a job and ignore the problem-children in their classes. They need to learn too and should not be given up on. You can be a teacher who is remembered for failing those students or you can be a teacher who helps those students improve their lives. Which are you going to be? The choice is yours.

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