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Actor Damian Friel on living with Tourette’s in Northern Ireland

Ahead of a BBC documentary, Ivan Little talks to the aspiring actor from Londonderry whose life has been taken over by the condition

A broken heart over an unfaithful lover left Damian Friel a broken man - a shambolic shadow of the confident aspiring young actor he'd been and almost overnight the Derryman became a swearing stuttering and suicidal outcast whose tics were among the classic characteristics associated with Tourette's syndrome.

However, in a new and powerfully engaging BBC NI documentary, Damian comes across as a friendly and intelligent man who is more to be pitied and admired than scorned and subjected to the ridicule of heartless people who've filmed him on mobile phone cameras.

For beneath the initially disturbing exterior, the programme-makers have shown that Damian is someone who desperately wants to be free of the rare condition that makes him twitch incessantly, whistle and shout “f*** off” completely out of the blue, without warning even to himself.

“I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth next. I don’t know what trouble it’s going to get me in,” says Damian, who reveals that he sometimes asks to go into separate waiting-rooms from the rest of the public, because he fears he will cause them offence with his involuntary interjections.

Throughout the half-hour programme, Damian lets fly with at least 38 F-words, sometimes repeating four in machine-gun-like rapid succession.

He tells the makers of this, the first programme in the second Story of a Lifetime series, that he accepts it’s ironic that, as a gay man himself, he should repeatedly drop homophobic insults into his sentences — even though he hates them.

And, occasionally, he will tell strangers that he’s a racist, though the “real” Damian will instantly add that he’s not.

But Damian insists that there’s nothing he can do about his outbursts.

He first went public about his Tourette’s-like disorder last year in a series of interviews with a newspaper in Londonderry, but in the documentary, presented by Stephen Nolan, he reveals that his astonishing Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation started in the wake of his discovery that his boyfriend of 18 months was in a relationship with a mutual friend.

He’d thought they’d been getting too close, but a tip-off from a third party that they’d been seen out together devastated him.

“It was a major betrayal on behalf of my boyfriend. I just cracked,” says Damian. “I just wanted to die.”

Within a week, Damian was in a psychiatric hospital, because “I could no longer guarantee my own safety”.

The fear was well-founded, because he did try to kill himself, but though he didn’t succeed, he developed his tics, strange popping sounds and cursing after he tried to have a conversation with a friend.

“I picked up the phone and started to stammer and stutter. That had never happened to me before in my life. There was a block on some words and I couldn’t get them out.”

Damian and his family grew to believe that he had Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder which affects a part of the brain called the Basal ganglia.

However, Damian hasn’t been officially diagnosed with Tourette’s — something which can only happen a year or more after the tics are first observed.

What’s even worse is that there is no known cure at the moment.

Trying to rationalise his disorder, Damian says that he can’t explain the process in his head which leads him to swear and to say things which were totally alien to his genuine beliefs.

“The way I can best describe it is that it’s not conscious. It’s like your heart beating — you don’t think about it. It just happens.” The same goes for his tics. One of them involves a gun gesture which almost caused him difficulties on one occasion when Damian was walking past a Union flag protest in Derry.

His father, Damian Snr, says he was at first mystified by the change in his son’s demeanour and suspected that he might be seeking attention after the break-up of his relationship. But he quickly realised something was seriously wrong.

“My biggest fear was people,” says Mr Friel, who wondered how Damian would be treated in public and how he would react to people laughing at him, or even physically attacking him.

He didn’t have long to wait for the answer. And it was one which exposed the cruelty of people unable to cope with anything remotely different from the perceived norms.

In a Derry eatery, diners at a nearby table actually filmed Damian on a mobile phone camera. “I noticed that people were laughing and nudging one another and looking over in my direction,” says Damian Jnr, who sat nearer to them, thinking they wouldn’t do anything in his face.

“Instead of trying to be subtle about it, they burst out laughing and their video recorder was pointing up in my direction. I felt violated. I was trying my hardest to live a normal life and it was just  abusing and degrading.”

For Damian, it was almost as if the people were treating him like a joke.

“I was that sickened by what happened I didn’t even eat. If I had been a person in a wheelchair, if I had been a person of a different race and I was getting abuse for one of those two reasons, I’m pretty sure they would have been ejected from the shopping centre.”

However, Damian says that a security man “walked me away from the situation”, telling him that he would sometimes meet people like the ones who mocked him and there were nothing he could do about it.

That “humiliating day”, however, had a deep impact on Damian who told his family he felt useless and for three months he couldn’t leave his home. “I would rather stay in bed and hide under the covers,” he says.

His father tried to reassure Damian that things would come good again, but he thought his life was over and that he had no future with his condition.

“It was tough to see a loved-one just completely change, frightened of the unexpected,” says his father, who adds that he would accompany Damian on his rare outings to protect him.

Mr Friel says he was always on his guard, looking out for people who were trying to insult his son.

Slowly but surely, however, Damian was able to get on with his life and the first steps back to some form of normality for him were dance steps.

The documentary shows him enjoying dance classes and, remarkably, throughout his routines, Damian doesn’t stutter, swear, or twitch. He reckons it’s because he was focusing on his dancing. Once he stopped, however, it was back to square one.

At one point in the interview, Nolan asks Damian about how his condition affected sex and the dance student side-steps the question.

“Obviously, I’m a virgin,” he laughs. “And I wouldn’t know about that. But I have asked other people and they would say it wouldn’t interfere normally. I suppose I could tell people I need a fair bit of sex to keep the tics away.”

Damian playfully chides Nolan for the query, because he says his granny will be watching the documentary. She clearly means a lot to him, but he says she was distraught at the dramatic alteration in his personality.

Damian says: “I love my granny to bits. But she said it was really difficult for her to see me like this and that I wasn’t the same person she always knew.”

He tried to convince her that nothing was different on the inside, but he didn’t want to upset her, or make her feel awkward, frankly conceding that he was a stranger to himself.

During the making of the documentary, Damian returned to his work in a pub. On his first day back at the bar, he admits he’s worried that people will take offence at his swearing and he says he thought about wearing a badge saying “Tourette’s awareness”.

It doesn’t take him long to get the hang of the hospitality business again, but his easy rapport with the customers is bizarrely interspersed with F-words, though he swiftly weighs in with an embarrassed “sorry” afterwards.

The documentary shows Damian going to Dublin to meet children as young as nine with Tourette’s, though there are no signs that they use the same colourful vocabulary as their northern counterpart.

Damian listens as parents talk about the hurt their children feel if people mock them and he says he wants to help fellow sufferers.

Back in Derry, Damian says the support of his own circle of friends bolstered him and one of them said the people who stared at him or made fun of him were usually middle-aged adults who should know better.

“If you hear someone shouting and swearing, of course you are going to look, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out after a few minutes that he has a tic disorder,” says the friend.

The programme ends with Damian going for a meeting with a consultant to find out if he would finally be diagnosed with Tourette’s. But he is left in limbo, with medics telling him he needs more tests and perhaps an appointment with psychiatrist to assess any psychological issues.

It mightn’t have been what Damian wanted to hear. But he appeared to take it all in his stride.

“I expected no big revelation, anyway,” says Damian, adding: “They’re saying there’s obviously something there. It just needs more investigation.”

A complex condition...

  • Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological disorder resulting in involuntary movements and sounds, commonly called tics. It can also be known as multiple tic disorder or tic spectrum disorder
  • The syndrome is named after Dr Georges Gilles de la Tourette (pictured right) who identified it during the 19th century
  • Tourettes normally begins in childhood and has been known to run in families. Around half of those diagnosed see their symptoms lessen as they continue into adulthood
  • Symptoms can range from the mild to the extreme. It’s estimated that more than 300,000 children and adults in the UK live with some form of the condition
  • There is no cure for Tourette’s syndrome but the condition can be managed with medication and behavioural therapy
  • Charity Tourettes Action runs support groups around the UK. For support and information go to www.tourettes-action.org.uk

Tourette’s afflicts the famous as well

  • Tim Howard — once known as “Tim Dawg”, is a US soccer player who plays as goalkeeper for Everton and the US national team
  • Howard Hughes ­— the inventor and entrepreneur was one of the richest men in history
  • Dan Ackroyd — the Ghostbusters star was diagnosed with Tourette’s and Asperger’s syndromes at an early age, but the symptoms seemed to have disappeared when he was 14
  • David Beckham — the footballer suffers from OCD and it manifests itself through constant cleanliness and perfection
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — in 1992, the British Medical Journal published an article by endocrinologist Benjamin Simkin speculating that the composer had Tourette’s syndrome
  • Dr Samuel Johnson — one of England’s best-known literary figures, an essayist, biographer, lexicographer and critic
  • Pete Bennett — the singer won the seventh series of TV’s Big Brother in 2006

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