Turning chaos into creativity: An interview with a part-time superhero

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Jess Thom wants you to know that it’s okay to laugh. “You’re going to hear the words biscuit and hedgehog a lot in the next few minutes,” she says at the beginning of her talk at TEDxAlbertopolis. That’s because Jess has Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological condition that causes involuntary movements and noises commonly referred to as tics.   

In this extraordinary talk, Jess explains how she has turned her condition into a source of creativity and artistic expression, empowering herself to become a superhero instead of a sufferer.

We spoke with Jess about learning to embrace creativity and humor, and her responses were really lovely:

You bring so much humor and joy to living with Tourette’s syndrome. How have people reacted to your message, and to your TEDx talk in particular?  

When I first started Touretteshero, an organization that celebrates Tourette’s syndrome with everybody, I had no idea how people would respond. I was worried some people might mistake my celebration of Tourette’s for a joke, but so far, that hasn’t been a problem. There is, of course, a big difference between laughing at someone and laughing with them. Shared laughter has helped me get through some very difficult times.

While little can be done about the physical impact of tics, improving the social impact of the condition is something everybody can play a part in. The response to my TEDx talk has been amazing; lots of people have been in touch with thoughtful questions and ideas for future collaborations.

During your talk, you said: “Even the most challenging aspects of the condition have creative potential.” That idea really stuck with me. How did you discover that creativity, and how did you learn to embrace it?  

It certainly wasn’t an easy process. I spent years trying to ignore my tics, and I was desperately afraid of them being noticed and commented upon. As they began to intensify and have a bigger impact on my life, I learnt to explain them to other people. Developing this skill has improved my quality of life more than any other intervention or treatment.

A key turning point was when my friend Matthew described me as a ‘Crazy language-generating machine.’ He told me that not doing anything creative with my tics was wasteful. This comment transformed how I felt about my condition. Rather than wanting to hide my tics, I felt excited to share them.

There are currently over 5,000 of my vocal tics on touretteshero.com, and they’re ready and waiting to be turned into works of art by anyone with creativity and imagination.

Do you remember a specific moment or project when creativity helped you see Tourette’s in a new light? What was that experience like for you?    

One cold autumn afternoon, just as we were starting Touretteshero, I travelled across London to meet my friend Alex. Together, we recorded a very special interview. Rather than ignoring my tics, we decided to let them lead the conversation and see what strange stories would emerge.

We called this interview ‘Live Talk’, and however surreal and unusual it might be, recording it was a liberating experience. After years of battling to have coherent conversations despite my tics, giving them a free rein was extraordinary. I remember traveling home that night excited by what we’d done and wanting to do more.

How would you encourage others to embrace creativity in their own lives, no matter what conditions or circumstances they face?  

Creativity has helped me transform myself from a Tourette’s ‘sufferer’ into a Tourette’s superhero. But it wasn’t that my tics suddenly became more interesting overnight or that I’m unusually strong or brave. I just learnt to see my condition in a different way.

To others I would say, be open to finding creativity in unusual places; don’t be afraid to make mistakes or to experiment with new ideas; do ask for help when you need it; and be ready to see things from other people’s perspectives. It’s not essential, but I find wearing sparkly pants and a shiny cape helps too.

Touretteshero has helped me realise that ignoring problems never works, but that laughing a lot often does. Most importantly, I’ve learnt that if something’s not working, I have the power to change it.

Watch her whole talk here: 

Confessions of a depressed comic: Talking to Kevin Breel

As a teenager, Kevin Breel almost took his own life. His story — so powerfully told in his viral TEDx talk, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic” — gives voice to an often silent struggle and offers a message of hope. 

In honor of Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day, we spoke with Kevin about living with depression and speaking out. See his original talk, followed by our conversation:

As you say in your talk, people are often afraid to admit they feel depressed. What helped you come forward and speak up about living with depression? 

I got to a point where I no longer felt afraid of who I was or the fact that I deal with depression. I no longer felt ashamed or embarrassed by it. It can be really hard and exhausting to keep sharing my story onstage, but ultimately, I know that has the potential to help people. And that’s all that matters to me.

How have people reacted? 

The reaction has been the most amazing part of speaking at TEDx. When the video first went viral, I remember checking my email one time, and I had almost two thousand new emails out of nowhere. The one that stuck with me most was from one girl who sent me an email with her suicide note attached. She said she had watched my talk and she didn’t need it anymore. That was pretty powerful. And I think if you go look at the video right now, the top comment is, “This talk is the reason I put my razor down.” That’s so amazing to me. I really couldn’t ask for more.  

There’s a lovely moment in your talk when you say that hurt has forced you to have hope. When you’re in pain and hope is hard to find, how do you remind yourself that it’s still there? 

When I’m dealing with pain, I keep reminding myself that hope and help are always available for me; I just have to choose to reach for them. That’s really hard, but it keeps me accountable. I never used to have that perspective. I used to really personally identify with my pain, and I wanted to stay stuck in that place of hurt because it had become a comfortable place to stay. Now, I realize that being mentally healthy is just like being physically healthy; it takes work. You have to take preventive measures, you have to make sure you are checking in with yourself, you have to make sure you are doing the work. And it is work. But it’s worth it.  

During your darkest times, was there someone who reached out to you? Someone you remember, a moment that stayed with you and helped you find the light? 

Yeah, definitely. It was actually just a quote that I read one time. It was by Carl Jung, and it said, “Sure, a tree can grow to heaven. But only if its roots go to hell.” I remember how that made me feel a sense of peace for the first time in a long time. It made me reframe the way I looked at my pain and my struggle. For the first time ever, I thought, “Maybe this is giving me something. Maybe this is showing me some depth in life. Maybe this isn’t all bad.” And that changed everything. I’m very thankful for that quote to this day.

In the spirit of Suicide Prevention Day, what can people do to help friends or family who are suffering from depression or considering suicide? 

If you feel like a friend or a family member is struggling, think about how you can reach out to them with kindness and empathy before you think of what you should say. Letting them know that they are not alone and they are loved can truly save a life. They won’t hear your words at first; they will only feel your presence. But it all starts with someone who cares enough to ask, “Are you okay?” Please, do not be afraid to ask that question. Ask your friend. Ask a family member. Ask yourself. And be okay with whatever the answers are.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please see the following resources: 

International Association for Suicide Prevention

To Write Love on Her Arms

The best argument I ever had: A short Q&A with philosopher Daniel H. Cohen

imageDaniel H. Cohen at TEDxColbyCollege

In Daniel H. Cohen’s TEDxColbyCollege talk — which just so happens to be today’s featured talk on TED.com the philosopher asks us to set aside our goal of winning arguments in favor of gaining a greater appreciation for the legitimate points being made by the other person.

In an effort to gain more appreciation for that argument, TEDx Talks Manager David Webber asked Cohen if he would answer a few questions over email. Read his answers below and, please, feel free to argue about them with your closest friend, enemy or distant relative.

What is the best argument you’ve ever had?

There are quite a few that stand out — beginning with one late-night argument with a couple of other philosophy majors when I was an undergraduate on the nature of reality, focusing on Spinoza’s monism versus pluralistic and atomistic approaches. What made it so remarkable was that, over the course of the argument — which lasted several hours — all of our positions evolved to the point that I think everyone involved managed to occupy and defend each position at some point. The result: no clear winner, but we all came away with a much greater understanding and appreciation for all of these philosophies.

I should also mention an ongoing realism/anti-realism argument that I’ve been having with a poet … for the last 30 years! I’m not sure how much progress we’ve made towards any real resolution, but it’s convinced me that progress and resolution are not the most important measures of argumentation.

What defines an argument? Does this come close: Before an argument, two or more people have a set of incompatible beliefs and, over the course of the argument, some of those beliefs are refined to form compatible beliefs.

As you might expect, I’m not keen on overly adversarial conceptions of argument, nor on exclusively epistemic accounts of what arguments are about.

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