Feng Shui and the Chinese Pantheon


Elizabeth Johnson Lee
Copyright 2008

Feng Shui is the art of living in harmony with time and space where you live and work for more harmonious relationships and increased health, wealth and happiness. By arranging one’s surroundings in ways to maximize the lucky sectors of one’s space and minimize the unlucky one’s, the chi, or energy is allowed to flow in a free and balanced way.
There are two parts to this report. The first is a basic description of feng shui and the Chinese pantheon. The second is a personal story of how I’ve applied feng shui to my life.
The three main forms of feng shui are traditional, the Black Hat Sect and intuitive/modern. Traditional feng shui is based on either form or compass directions and includes the bagua, flying star and eight mansions formulas. The Black Hat Sect is a combination of Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism and traditional feng shui. Intuitive/modern feng shui is an adaptation of traditional feng shui to modern Western decorative styles.
Some of those philosophies contradict each other and not all practitioners agree on everything. Some believe that the flying star method is more effective than the bagua and eight mansions methods for its power to cure problematic areas and activate lucky ones. The Chinese have goddesses, gods, and enlightened and/or wise ones whose images can be used to cure and enhance.
According to feng shui, there are five elements from which everything in the universe is made. Those elements and everything that corresponds with them in turn are considered either yin or yang, and yin and yang forces must always be kept in balance. Yin and yang each contain a part of each other and neither can exist without the other. The five elements each correspond to their own direction/s and colors. The elements and their correspondences are:

Fire—south—yang—red, purple, dark orange, pink

Earth—northeast, southwest, center—yin—brown, yellow

Metal—west, northwest—yin—white, silver, gold

Water—north—yin—black, blue

Wood—east, southeast—yang-–green

There are three cycles in which those elements interact, called the productive, the controlling and the weakening, or exhaustive cycles. The order they’re listed above shows them in their productive cycle, where the one before it produces each element in a continuous circle. The controlling cycle is fire, metal, wood, earth, and water as if drawing it in the shape of a five-pointed star. The weakening cycle is the productive cycle going backward in a counter-clockwise circle, where fire exhausts wood and so forth.
In the flying star formula, the power of the stars’ positions affects the energy of buildings and land. Depending on the direction of your front door, which direction your house faces the street or which side has the best view (here’s some of the ways people disagree) the stars affect nine sectors. One must use a compass and consult a flying star chart in order to figure out which stars are in the nine grids of their home or office. Since the stars positions change from month to month, year to year, and in twenty-year periods one must be vigilant of where certain stars fly in and out and arrange their homes and businesses accordingly. Lucky stars are one, four, six, eight (the best) and nine. Unlucky numbers are two, three, five and seven. By using appropriate remodeling, furniture placement, elements and their corresponding colors and images one can create a more energetically balanced space.
In the bagua method there are eight sectors of every house or apartment and within every room in the house. Starting in the South they correspond to fame, romance and women or matriarch, children, men or patriarch, career, education, health and wealth. As in the flying star method luck can be enhanced by the use of remodeling, furniture arrangement, elements, colors and images in the right areas, both inside and out.
In the eight mansions formula there are eight sectors of a building that correspond with romance, success, bad luck, total loss, five ghosts (troublesome people), health, six killings (danger) and personal growth. As in the other two methods the lucky and unlucky sectors can be enhanced or diminished by the use of remodeling, furniture placement, elements, colors and images.
Fuk, Luk and Sau are the gods of health, wealth, and prosperity, respectively and Sau is also the god of longevity. He is an old man with a large forehead and is often shown holding a staff with a wu luo, or bitter gourd hanging from it. Sometimes there is a deer or a pine tree in the background and Sau is often holding a peach. The wu luo and peach are also symbols of longevity. Sau is the most popular Taoist deity and symbolizes a smooth life and a happy old age surrounded by children and grandchildren. Other wealth gods are Tsai Shen Yeh and Kuan Kung.
Zhong Kuei is red-robed and protects the home from harmful spirits and people. He carries a sword in his right hand and a flask of wine in his left. He has a fierce countenance.
Mo Li Ching is the guardian of the East. He has a white face and carries a spear and a metal sword to control the wood element of the East.
Mo Li Hai is the guardian of the West. He has a blue face and carries a mandolin spewing balls of fire to control the metal element of the West.
Mo Li Hung is the guardian of the South. He has a red face and holds an umbrella which, when opened causes total darkness and when closed causes earthquakes and tidal waves. The waves control the fire element of the South.
Mo Li Shou is the guardian of the North. He has a black face and carries a pearl and a snake. Sometimes he’s shown with a white rat and an elephant. He is also the guardian of wealth and the king of the wealth gods.
The eight immortals are Taoist deities who ate the fruit of immortality at the Queen of the West’s Paradise Realm. Each corresponds to an aspect of life’s aspirations. Their names are Lan Tsai Hok, Ho Hsien Ku, Lo Tien Kuai, Tsao Kuo Chin, Chang Kuo Lao, Xhong Li Chuan, Han Hsiang Tzu, and Xiu Tung Pin. Their images in the home bring the eight types of luck mentioned in the bagua, including long life.
Kuan Yin is the goddess of Mercy and a Buddhist bodhisattva. It is she who came up with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum.
Last, of course is the Buddha who is shown either in meditation, or in the form of a fat, bald “laughing Buddha”.
Some other auspicious images for the home are the dragon, white tiger, tortoise, phoenix, rooster, horse, all the other animals of the Chinese horoscope, wind chimes, Chinese coins and countless others.
Through the use of the flying star, bagua and eight mansions formulas of feng shui one can help balance and harmonize the energy flow with appropriate remodeling, furniture placement and use of elements and colors. Also by displaying the images of powerful goddesses, gods, animals and other images in their home or business.

My Story

When I was single I lived in an apartment with my young son, Dale. My fondest dream was always to marry and raise a family as a full-time mother, but the exciting kinds of men to whom I was attracted made abysmal partners while I found the successful, stable marriageable types boring. I bought a book about the bagua formula of feng shui and arranged my home accordingly. Soon I met and eventually married an exciting and stable first generation Chinese man named Elgin. When Dale and I moved in to Elgin’s condo I felt feng shui had done its job; I let my interest in it fall by the way side.
Elgin and I now have a daughter, Rowan. We moved into a house in a cul-de-sac and, for the first year and a half my life felt like a dream come true. My neighbors were friendly and Rowan had friends to play with right across the street. Dale’s best friend also lived nearby. No more having to arrange play dates. No more hearing neighbors moving around on our ceiling or through shared walls. I could plant whatever I wanted in the yard, and we got a dog.
That dream came to a halt when another girl, “Dora” and her family moved in next door. Rowan and Dora were friends at first but Rowan complained more and more of Dora being mean to her. Dora was mean to the other kids, too. When they cried she laughed at them, and I once watched as she tripped her brother on his skateboard and laughed when he screamed and crashed on the pavement. Dora’s parents insisted that that’s just the way kids are and that parents should stay out of their conflicts and let them figure things out themselves. Rowan decided not to play with Dora anymore, and for months she was afraid to play outside.
Dora’s family ostracized us. The other kids’ family did too because the two families were close friends and sided with each other. Even though Dora’s family’s actions hurt, the ostracism of the other family especially stung; I had trusted them to stay out of it and remain friendly toward us, but they didn’t.
The bullying continued at school and we asked the teachers and principal to intervene. They did and I thought that we could finally put the whole mess behind us.
I thought wrong. Dora’s parents filed a restraining order against me, claiming that I had made the whole thing up and that my complaining to the school was “harassment”. I have Tourette syndrome, and they claimed that my tics were attempts on my part to intimidate Dora. They also claimed I put a Buddha in my front yard to intimidate them. They listed other allegations that were exaggerated, taken out of context or false. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
I asked Higher Power, call it God, Goddess or whatever for help but it didn’t seem to make any difference. When I’d had trouble with people in the past, such as neighbors or my in-laws I wrote their names on pieces of paper, put them in bags of water and put them in the freezer. All those neighbors moved away and my in-laws died, but day after agonizing day my current neighbors remained. I felt forsaken and powerless.
What am I supposed to learn from this, I asked the goddess? I’d practiced a form of Japanese Buddhism years ago, and I’ve never forgotten one teaching in particular; hendoku iyaku, or change poison into medicine. How could I turn this around to my benefit, I wondered?
Weeks went past and at two court dates the hearing was postponed. I wanted my neighbors to be brought to justice and I struggled to restrain myself from cursing them. Seeking solace, I pulled out my old copy of the Tao De Ching deciding that I would open the book to random pages and read a chapter a day. When nothing is done, all will be well, one chapter read. I determined to be non-reactive.
I called a friend, Lynn who I’d avoided telling my problem to because I feared she wouldn’t want to get involved. My fear turned out to be wrong. “There’s the flying star feng shui formula,” she explained, telling me about how it worked.
“That all sounds too complex and complicated for me to understand,” I said. “I think it’s beyond me.”
“The legal problems with your neighbors seemed to just come out of the blue, didn’t they?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “they did. That’s what’s so weird about the whole thing.”
“That’s how problems with our homes can affect us. It’s not that hard to figure out. Let me take you out to lunch, I’ll bring my book and we’ll fix it.” She was very persuasive and so we agreed to meet.
The numbers that corresponded to the sectors of my house, we discovered over tacos and enchiladas were startling. The number three corresponds to quarrels, legal problems and litigation. I had a three in three rooms of my house, including the front entryway, the worst place for one as well as my back door, another bad place. “Kids running back and forth through them can activate them worse,” Lynn said. My front door also had a nine, which activates all the stars in its sector. The number seven star causes accidents, and my house had three of them. Several months previously Rowan was hit by a car and broke her leg. Not long before she’d also recovered from a broken arm. My house had three twos, which cause sickness. Dale had trouble with frequent colds, flues, and sinus infections due to having had Epstein Bar virus, as well as asthma and sleep apnea. In addition, according to the eight mansions formula the five ghosts sector corresponded to five different types of troublesome people. At my last court date, five people in all, the couple and three friends of theirs had come to testify against me.
It all seemed like too much to be a coincidence. Even more coincidental was that I discovered, after using a compass and looking up my houses’ chart that my house had the exact same chart as Lynn’s apartment. I bought three books on feng shui and dedicated myself to reading them instead of anything else until I’d cured as many areas of my home that I could.
Mean while, my husband and I decided to move. We’d decided to move months before, actually but the latest problems got us motivated to get his parent’s house on the market and sold so that we could buy another house and move in before selling ours.
Elgin’s parents’ house was filled with three generations of junk. Since Elgin was busy working the only way to get it cleaned out was for me to do it alone. For hours I sorted through countless boxes and bags of stuff. Lots of it was old bills and junk mail dated as far back as the sixties, as well as old letters, empty bags and gift boxes, gifts they received and never opened and bag after bag with nothing more than a few buttons or paper clips.
Buried among the useless junk and scattered throughout their house, however were Buddhas, red scrolls of Chinese calligraphy, beautiful red silk brocade fabrics, antique Chinese vases, decorative roosters, other auspicious animals and other items I now recognized from Chinese philosophy as being useful for feng shui. On a dresser in the master bedroom was a large, glass-encased figure of Sau, the god of prosperity and longevity. In a glass cabinet in the dining room was a collection of ceramic figures that I had never taken the time to notice before. When I opened the cabinet to pack them, there, arranged in a half circle were the eight Taoist deities. Everything, even my decision to write this report on feng shui and the Chinese pantheon seemed like too much to be a coincidence.
The cure for the number three star is the color red, which symbolizes fire. I went through my home looking for all the red things I could find and tacked, taped, hung and otherwise festooned the afflicted parts of my house with red. I lined red shoes in front of a bookshelf, put red toys Rowan no longer played with and red squeaky toys our dog had chewed in front of the books. I covered a plant container with a red Christmas letter my uncle had sent and hung a red apron on the back doorknob. I hung red scrolls over the front and back doors. They clashed with the pink and green Victorian floral decorating scheme I so loved, but I no longer cared. I just wanted to be happy and keep my family safe. I wanted to make my problems go away.
After decorating my front entryway, I wondered if I had put up enough red and what other red stuff I could find. According to the bagua, the South side of the house or any room in it where my doorway was corresponds to one’s reputation. My next-door neighbors had collected letters from six of our other neighbors to use against me in court and so my reputation needed a wee bit of a boost. The enhancer for one’s reputation, or fame sector is also fire and the color red.
The number four star, corresponding to happy marriage and romance was also in our living room where our front doorway was. Good images to put in that sector are the dragon and the phoenix, which symbolize happy marriage. Where could I find a picture of a dragon and a phoenix?
Then it came to me. On our wedding day, my in-laws brought an embroidered red silk square of fabric and had all the wedding guests sign it. I ran to the drawer where I’d left it and rummaged around. There it was, folded again and again so that, when I opened it and held it up it was creased and rumpled. There, embroidered above the signatures were the dragon and the phoenix!
I ran and tacked it on my front door. It was perfect. Another red, embroidered skirt had yet another embroidered dragon and phoenix, I tacked it on the South wall next to the door below a William Waterhouse print called Casting the magic circle, of a witch casting a circle around a cauldron of fire. Over the print I hung another red embroidered square of fabric. Outside I planted flowers and set up a fountain beside my front door. I hung wind chimes as cures in the sectors with twos and put metal containers filled with dirt from my garden in the sectors with fives (five of those) that correspond to death.
My front doorway also had a lucky eight, which I activated with my favorite Chinese vases, crystal items including two cups, a candlestick, a rat (my birth animal), a metal Buddha and a freestanding, battery operated wind chime. I sometimes turned it on when I left my house so that it’s delicate tinkling could be heard over the bubbling water of the fountain on my porch.
It’s giving me hope, I told myself. If nothing else, it made my place look nice, distracted me from my problems and helped me feel better.
One afternoon I arrived home from school with Rowan. Across the street was “Carol,” one of the girls who wouldn’t play with Rowan anymore after our problems had mushroomed over Dora. “Hi Carol,” Rowan called, waving to her. Carol responded, and Rowan walked over to talk to her.
Wow, I thought. It had been months since they had spoken or played together, and Carol’s mother had arrived with my next-door neighbors to testify against me in court. It was a surprise to see them speaking again.
I carried my things into the house, and a minute later Rowan came in and asked if she could go play at Carol’s house. I told her she could. A little later they both came in and asked me to make Top Romen for them, something they had always done before. Whenever I grocery shopped I always made sure to stock up on it. I found the last package in the back of the cabinet, and they sat down at the table as I served them. They talked and laughed as if nothing had happened. Carol’s sister came over later and, at their father’s request, I even babysat them for a while. Later their father came for them and thanked me, also as if nothing had happened.
Miracles, whether due to feng shui or other means, do happen.
As luck had it, we sold our house when the housing market was at it’s highest for a great profit and then moved into a larger house we bought, six months later when the market was at on all time low.
Two of the neighbors who had ganged up against me with Dora’s family apologized. They told me that Dora’s family had targeted five other families in the cul-de-sac since our move, including them. Dora was expelled from two schools and then put in juvenile hall.
The use of feng shui not only gave me hope and helped me benefit in the face of adversity, it also helped me create the wonderful family and happiness I enjoy today.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2 (order at http://goo.gl/BauAk). She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper. Her articles have been published in both local and national publications. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat and can be reached at liz@funghi.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.
Three Surprising Things About Tourette Syndrome—Do TV and Movie Dramas Get it Right?

Tourette syndrome is a genetic neurological condition that always manifests in childhood. It is caused by an imbalance in the brain of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. That imbalance causes the brain to send signals to the body, including the vocal cords to move against the person’s will. Those involuntary movements and vocalizations are called “tics”. Tics are more common than people think. An estimated 60,000,000 people in the U.S. have had tics at some time during their lives, and one out of two people knows someone who has had them.
People with Tourette syndrome have both vocal and motor tics that wax, wane and change over time. The most common are eye blinking, coughing, throat clearing, sniffing and facial movements. Tics can be simple, single sounds or movements, or they can be complex, involving multiple noises, words or movements involving different parts of the body. There are often other symptoms as well, such as learning disabilities, OCD, ADHD, impaired fine motor skills and impulsivity. There is no known cure.
My realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2, about a mother, and her son whom both have Tourette syndrome was inspired by my own life; my grown son and I both have Tourette. My symptoms started when I was six-years-old as soft, high-pitched squeaky noises that I felt the urge to make until I felt “just right”. No one else noticed them at first, and I passed as normal. When I was nine, I became obsessed with parallel lines. I looked pairs of parallel lines, and whenever I found them I had to knock the sides of my upward raised fists together twice. It was kind of like a game, except that I had to do it. When my friends and classmates noticed me doing that, they thought I was weird and made fun of me. That was when I realized that no one else had those “urges" but me.
When I was 11 I had the urge to knock my knees together. I knocked them together so much that large bruises appeared on the insides of my knees, and they hurt. It was when I rode on a bus during a class field trip that I realized the only way to stop the pain and the bruises was to stop the knee knocking. With nothing else to distract myself, I forced myself to stop, and the urge to give in was overwhelming. I succeeded at not giving in, but it was one of the hardest things I ever did.
It was when I was twelve that my tics really exploded. Whole body jerks overcame me so that heads turned as I sat at my desk at school. Adolescence is usually the worst time for a kid with Tourette, and I had it bad. No one, including my parents, knew what I had and so I endured years of bullying and rejection. It was especially painful when the mother of one of my best friends got her daughter reject me because of my strange “habits”, and I struggled with learning disabilities. Mercifully, by my mid teens my tics calmed down, and I was able to make new friends.
I first learned about Tourette syndrome while watching an episode of LA Law. One of the lawyers had a client with Tourette whose main symptom was coprolalia, otherwise known as the “swearing tic”. That character was exactly like me, the main difference being that the only time I swore a lot was when I felt angry or frustrated. Therefore, I thought that I did not have Tourette. Many other media also portrayed Tourette as being just coprolalia, which brings us to the first surprising fact about Tourette: Only 10% of people with Tourette have coprolalia. That’s right, just 10%.
The media sensationalize Tourette in movies and on TV by showing the most shocking cases, misleading the public into believing that all people with it have coprolalia or other extreme symptoms. That brings us to the second surprising fact: most people with Tourette just have mild cases. Those misconceptions lead to mislabeling and misunderstandings by parents, teachers and many other individuals in all walks of life. Since the disorder manifests during childhood, many children are blamed for their symptoms and punished because their parents or teachers believe that they can control them, when they cannot. Even parents who understand Tourette and how it affects their children struggle to convince teachers that their children are not being deliberately disruptive.
My son Dale’s tics started when he was two. I still had not figured out what we had, and I was mystified. During that time, I studied for my state board licensing examinations for my Marriage and Family Therapist license, and I kept coming across the diagnostic criteria for Tourette in the diagnostic manual, the DSM III. Whenever I read it, I panicked.

Diagnostic Criteria for 307.23 Tourette’s Disorder

“ . . . motor tics . . . vocal tics . . . causes . . . distress or impairment in social or . . . occupational functioning . . . clicks, grunts, yelps, barks, sniffs, snorts, and coughs . . . associated symptoms . . . distractibility . . . social discomfort, shame, self-consciousness . . . depressed mood . . . learning disorders . . .”

The description on the page sounded exactly like me, irrefutable proof in my mind that I was a raving, abnormal crazy freak. Horror washed through me like freezing ocean water. I didn’t want to have that bizarre, unattractive disorder. It couldn’t be true. I do not have this, I argued with myself. But every time I opened the DSM III to study, that diagnosis lurked within the pages, daring me to read it again. I avoided it at first, but the tension increased like a heavy weight pressing on my chest until I was drawn to the page with a strange, morbid fascination.
One day as I sat at my desk staring at that awful diagnosis, I felt my denial drain from me, in its place flowing a warm, peaceful sense of surrender. I could no longer deny the truth. I had Tourette syndrome, and so did Dale.
“Grunts, yelps and barks—ha ha!” my husband laughed one night while I studied as he read the diagnosis over my shoulder. He didn’t have a clue that I was the one he was laughing at. Oh God, I thought. I could never tell him. Although being able to name my and my son’s mysterious affliction was a relief, I felt like a gay person hiding in the closet, and I told no one. Just like that 11-year-old girl sitting on the bus resisting the urge to tic with ironclad determination, I suppressed my tics around others in desperation to be normal. I wasn’t always successful at it; even my husband wrote off my strange quirks as just part of my zany personality, and it became my deep, dark secret.
One night over dinner with my family, with my father, sister, husband and then five-year-old son, I disclosed to them my diagnosis. It took courage, and I felt relieved to have an explanation I could offer for my lifetime of weirdness. Their reaction was not what I expected.
“You’re just nervous,” said my sister. “Besides, you can’t diagnose yourself. That’s stupid.”
“We can’t be sure that’s really what you have,” said my husband.
My dad, never one with a high radar for sensitivity, looked annoyed. He admitted later, however that his sister had had symptoms like mine, as well as himself when he was a child.
Wanting to be taken seriously, I went to a neurologist to get a formal diagnosis. “I have Tourette syndrome,” I told him as I explained my symptoms. “I just need you to concur so my family will believe me.”
“There’s no other diagnosis it could possibly be,” he said with an amused smile. Scribbling “Tourette syndrome” on his letterhead, he handed it to me. “You can show that to your family, and I’ll make a plaque for them with those words on it, too.” We looked at each other and laughed. He also gave me a prescription for medication, but I never filled it, which brings us to the third surprising thing about Tourette syndrome.
The medications prescribed for tics (as well as anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD and psychosis) often have side effects that are worse than the tics themselves. People with Tourette cannot just pop a magic pill and have all their symptoms disappear. Each case of Tourette is unique, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution; one medication may bring some relief to one person but wreak havoc with another. The medications prescribed for Tourette are often ineffective, and it can take years to find the right medication and dosage with minimal side effects. In the mean time, many people become obese, have decreased sex drive or sexual response and/or cognitive dulling that makes them feel like zombies. Other unpleasant side effects include blurred vision, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, sleepiness and tardive dyskinesia, the latter, which is permanent.
There is controversy in the Tourette syndrome community over whether or not to medicate. Some believe that all people with Tourette should take medication; others believe that there are natural alternatives to medications that in most cases are preferable to pharmaceuticals. As an adult with Tourette and the mother of a grown son with it, I am in the latter camp. All the adults I knew who had Tourette said they did not want medication. Adults who were medicated as kids said they would have preferred that their parents had accepted them the way they were rather than trying to force them to be “normal”. Most people agree, however that if tics are so severe that they cause a child bodily injury, medication may be the lesser evil.
The diagnosis of Tourette syndrome for a child can be devastating to a parent, and they may feel they owe it to their child to help them to be just like other kids. Many kids with tics are bullied, and so their parents want to protect them from being victimized. While it is understandable why parents medicate their kids for tics, many mistakenly believe that their children prefer enduring unpleasant side effects to having tics.
I find the following strategies crucial for managing and coping with Tourette syndrome. Even if you do not have Tourette or another tic condition, we all have something that we are embarrassed about, so you may still find some of those strategies helpful.
* Advocate for yourself by explaining your condition to others, if needed, in a casual, self-accepting way. I explain my Tourette to groups of parents at school events, to flight attendants on air planes, and to anyone I think might otherwise freak out, “I’m just letting you know that I have Tourette syndrome, so if you notice any unusual noises, movements or mannerisms about me, it might be my Tourette so please just ignore it.” Then I switch the subject so as not to make a bigger deal out of it than it needs to be. When I explain my Tourette to others with confidence, I am reassured by how supportive people usually are. Some say they had already figured it out; others say they never noticed my tics. People often ask why I am not swearing. One woman joked after a group meeting that I didn’t turn into a vampire.
* Habit-reversal therapy is where a trained therapist teaches a child to substitute a disruptive tic for a more socially acceptable one that still brings some relief. The child needs to be self-motivated, and many adults figure out how to redirect their tics on their own.
* Provide a safe place for you or your child to release tics, anger and frustration without judgment or censure. Some people with Tourette are easily angered, and if that is the case it is imperative that they have a safe place to release it.
* Join the Tourette Syndrome Association, find out if there is a local support group and attend meetings. Talk with the people there, and read everything you can about Tourette. Knowledge is power. If there is no group in your area, consider starting one. I find that groups that allow parents to bring their children are the most successful. The Tourette syndrome Association’s contact information is Tourette Syndrome Association, Inc., 4240 Bell Boulevard, Bayside, NY 11361-2820. 718-224-2999; Fax: 718-279-9596. www.tsa-usa.org, ts@tsa-usa.org.
* Develop a network of family and friends to call for support when feeling frustrated or overwhelmed.
* If your child has Tourette, educate yourself about it as much as you can, how it affects your child and what accommodations she or he needs in school. Be firm, assertive yet diplomatic with a teamwork approach to working with school staff.
* Do not let Tourette define you; develop confidence and build an identity instead based on your interests and character.
* Do what works best for you or your child and family, whether or not it is what works well for others.
* Having a condition like Tourette weeds out prejudiced people fast. Learn to accept yourself regardless of whether or not others do, and know that if someone does not accept you because of your Tourette, they are not worth knowing anyway. The flip side is that those who stand by you are the true compassionate souls we all need.
* Exercise. Nothing calms down my tics like a good vigorous workout. My favorite physical activity is bike riding.
* Meditate. Stress can trigger tics, and retreating to that quiet place within is a great way to relieve it.
* Seek out other alternatives to medication. A complete list with explanations is beyond the scope of this writing, but I offer a free list to anyone who purchases my book The House at 844 1/2. Just email me the receipt, mention USA Today magazine and I’ll email you a copy. See my website below for purchasing information.

Elizabeth Johnson Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the critically acclaimed book The House at 844 1/2—a realistic fantasy about a mother and her son whom both have Tourette syndrome. In October 2003, the Bay Area Parent published her article Tourette syndrome: Bay Area Mother Helps Child to Succeed. She is a contributor to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and has spoken at Tourette Syndrome Association events. Elizabeth lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children and their hyperactive poodle.
Hi Folks,

This is my article that won first prize in the 1999 Jack London Writing Contest. I hope you find it enjoyable and informative.


Accomplishing anything was more difficult for me than for others. Keeping jobs was especially hard. When I tried to figure out why, I couldn’t; the reasons I was given for my rejections were varied.

I grew up in a sheltered, critical environment where approval was hard to come by, so I didn’t begin adulthood with confidence. Dad kept his work separate from our family. He left for work early, and returned in the evening wearing a suit and tie. I knew he worked as an architect for the government and that he was a supervisor until he retired. He never brought me to his job site, nor did he talk much about his work.

Mom was a full-time mother and homemaker and attended various self-enrichment classes. When I started working, she seemed to think I should automatically know how to perform well—as if I could pull such knowledge down from the ozone with no role models for how to be a good worker.

My social skills suffered as a result of the years I spent rejected by, and isolated from, my peers because of my nervous quirks, such as head jerks, sniffs, squeaks, and other strange noises that I had trouble controlling. Therefore my employers wrung their hands over my lack of good judgment. It was as if everyone else was given a manual for how to perform well on the job but me.

My brain had a bad habit of switching things around when I was unaware so that they got out of sequence, misaligned, backwards, and generally botched. That happened the most with things involving visual detail, such as balancing my checkbook. I balanced it time and time again but never got the same balance twice. I forgot to write down the amounts of purchases, reversed numbers, put the decimal point in the wrong place, punched in the wrong numbers on my calculator, and skipped entries in my checkbook. That caused me such frustration that I swore, cried, and banged my desktop. I didn’t handle frustration well at all and the most upsetting thing was, I didn’t have a clue why I was so scatterbrained. I assumed I was just stupid.

Doing my own things was hard enough, but when I worked for others, it was no longer just my problem. My bosses discovered my errors and became angry. Like the time I worked in a plant nursery. The job involved displaying pots of geraniums on long wooden shelves in a large green house. There were many rows of shelves, and they all looked the same. When I first started the job, my boss, Bill, stood smiling over his large belly at my neat rows of geraniums, obviously pleased.

A few days later, however, I got the rows of shelves confused and put some geraniums on the wrong shelf, so I carried them over to the right one. After I’d moved a dozen pots, I realized that the geraniums were on the right shelf the first time so I started moving them back—only to find that it looked like the wrong shelf again, and suddenly I couldn’t trust my own eyes, my own brain, to tell me what I was looking at. It was as if there was a little green trickster following one step behind me, sabotaging everything I did.

“What’s this?” Bill asked when he found me moving the geraniums around. “Can’t you tell these rows apart?”

“I got them confused,” I said as my anxiety rose.

“You don’t concentrate very well,” Bill said. “You’ve just got to try harder.”

When I finally got the geraniums arranged correctly, the task had taken me three times as long to accomplish. Bill stood a few rows away, smoking a menthol cigarette and watching me, his previous smile replaced by a growing look of irritation. Is there something else I did wrong? I wondered, or was he just upset about my getting the pots arranged wrong? Perhaps he noticed my nervous quirks, which I could suppress for several hours. Although I tried to disguise them by coughing and fidgeting, people often gave me odd looks that I was too embarrassed to acknowledge.

Just try hard and it will be okay, I told myself, but it wasn’t okay. The tension built as my errors multiplied, until Bill fired me a week later.

Similar things happened at other jobs as well. If I would just try harder and pay attention, my employers told me, I wouldn’t screw up. Sometimes they thought I had a bad attitude, when I actually was desperate to do well. Once a woman I worked with in a cafe accused me of stealing from her when I divided our tips because I confused a five-dollar bill with a one. Some bosses verbally abused me, which only increased my stress so that I made even more errors.

My scatterbrain problem, as I called it, became my big, deep dark secret. I had to be sure no one found out, lest I lost another job. During interviews I felt like an imposter, covering for myself with false confidence so they didn’t know I was a scatterbrain. If I told them I had trouble doing things right, I knew they wouldn’t hire me. Who would?

I didn’t like conning people during interviews, but I couldn’t depend on my parents’ financial support and I had to earn my own living. I didn’t usually lie outright, just stretched the truth a bit and omitted telling potential employers I’d been fired. Sometimes I pulled the act off and got hired; usually I didn’t. I was too subdued, nervous. One woman told me I seemed depressed. “We need people who are more ‘up,’” she said.

“We noticed this vulnerability about you,” another woman explained to me on the phone, making me feel like my secret was written across my forehead.

Whenever I found a job, I was usually fired within three months. Sometimes I started the job with an inner knowing I would fail, that the job setting was ripe with things for me to switch or forget. But I always started each job with a fresh case of denial. That problem won’t come back, I’d think. Not on this job, with these people, or in this location.

But it always did. A building tension would permeate the air as my boss became increasingly cold and distant toward me, and I’d fill with foreboding. It’s happening again, I’d think. They’ve discovered my horrible secret. Then that inevitable day would arrive when my boss summoned me to her or his office. Here it comes, I’d think, she or he is going to fire me. And they would.

Whenever I lost a job, I was engulfed by feelings of failure, humiliation, and shame. What’s wrong with her? People must have thought. They told me I didn’t learn quickly enough, lacked initiative, worked too slowly, and didn’t dress appropriately. I tried to learn from the feedback so I didn’t make the same mistakes. I dressed nicely, took notes, and tried to learn what needed to be done so others didn’t have to tell me. But I always managed to upset someone.

After graduating from college and losing five jobs, I washed dishes in my college cafeteria. I worked alone in the dish room and the door had to always stay closed. “We have to keep the door closed so we don’t offend the poor, innocent customers with the sight of dirty dishes,” my boss said. The arrangement suited me just fine. I was so paranoid to be seen working for fear someone found something I did wrong that I panicked whenever anyone entered the dish room. Fortunately, I kept the dishwashing job until I quit and moved back to my hometown. But the problem followed me there, and I felt like society wanted me to climb behind a rock and die. What possible use was I to anyone? I wondered. What was wrong with me?

At first I thought it was my lazy eye. A visual specialist explained to me that my eyes were strained from the effort of keeping my vision from going double. That caused me trouble with visual details, paying attention, keeping organized, and even sleeping and relaxing, I was told. So I did visual training with an optometrist, but it didn’t alleviate my symptoms.

I took a meditation class. The teachers gave psychic readings and healings, and they said that my problems were caused by “beings in my space”. For lack of a better explanation, I believed them. I thought that if I took their classes, I would learn to “clear the beings out of my space”. The teacher kicked me out of the class because of my nervous quirks.

Suspecting I was dyslexic, I had myself tested at the Department of Rehabilitation. “You’re not dyslexic,” the gruff-mannered, middle-aged social worker explained when we went over the results. “Your reading and writing skills are way too high for that. You’re just so preoccupied with what’s going on inside yourself that you don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside. You just need to pay attention, that’s all,” she said, waving her hand at me in a gesture of dismissal. I felt foolish, and she made it sound like I could just stop being a scatterbrain anytime I wanted. But I couldn’t.

After more job failures, I worked in a cafe for the next four years. The job was menial and low-paid for a college graduate and I didn’t enjoy the work much, but I feared doing anything else. Finally I was financially independent from my parents. Finally I had a job I could keep.

So I worked at my humble job in the cafe, grateful that the managers were too lax to notice many of my foibles and too easygoing to care about the ones they did. I learned to compensate for my shortcomings by being efficient and courteous to the customers.

During my four years at the cafe, I got my Master’s in psychology and later completed the 3000 hours of counseling training required for my Marriage and Family Therapist license. Then I studied for the state licensing examinations. One of the materials I studied was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Revised III, or DSM III. It was in that manual that, at age thirty-four, I discovered my true diagnosis, the reason for my difficulties.

Diagnostic Criteria for 307.23 Tourette’s Disorder

‘ . . . motor tics . . . vocal tics . . . causes . . . distress or impairment in social or . . . occupational functioning . . . clicks, grunts, yelps, barks, sniffs, snorts, and coughs . . . associated symptoms . . . distractibility . . . social discomfort, shame, self-consciousness . . . depressed mood . . . learning disorders . . .’

When I first came across the diagnosis, I panicked. The description on the page sounded exactly like me, irrefutable proof on paper that I was in fact a raving, abnormal, crazy freak. Horror washed through me like freezing ocean water. I didn’t want to have that bizarre, unattractive disorder. It couldn’t be true. I do not have this, I argued with myself. But every time I opened the DSM III to study, that diagnosis lurked within the pages, daring me to read it again. I avoided it at first, but the tension increased like a heavy weight pressing on my chest, until I was drawn to the page with a strange, morbid fascination.

One day as I sat at my desk staring at that awful diagnosis, I felt my denial drain from me, in its place flowing a warm, peaceful sense of surrender. I could no longer deny the truth. I had Toilette’s Disorder.

It was over a year, however, before I noticed the words “learning disorders” on the page in the diagnostic manual, so I didn’t yet connect my Tourette’s with my scatterbrain problem.

I was also terrified of telling others what I had, especially my boyfriend Ian.
“Grunts, yelps, and barks—ha ha!” Ian laughed one night while I studied, as he read the diagnosis over my shoulder. He didn’t have a clue that I was the one he was laughing at. Oh God, I thought. I could never tell Ian. I felt like a gay person hiding in the closet, and I told no one but my therapist. She didn’t know much about Tourette’s, however, for while she agreed I had it, she didn’t tell me anything more about it.

My therapist referred me to a neuropsychologist, who ran me through a battery of tests. I told him about my Tourette’s, but he apparently didn’t know much about it either. When I read his assessment, he didn’t diagnose me with it because, he wrote, unaware of how I suppressed my tics, he didn’t notice them in his office. The assessment did say, however, that I was mildly to moderately impaired on half the tests. His diagnosis, if it can be called that, was “some kind of atypical attention-deficit disorder”.

Feeling just as mystified as before, I talked with my therapist about my symptoms, all the while hoping she could tell me their cause. But she couldn’t.
Years later I learned from some literature that my scatterbrain problem was caused by being learning-disabled, another symptom of my Tourette’s. My quick temper was another common symptom.

Tourette’s is a neurological disease caused by an imbalance of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the brain, causing it to send signals to certain parts of the body, including the vocal cords, to move against the person’s will. It is non-contagious and usually genetic. There’s no known cure.

I told my family, and Ian, now my husband, about my Tourette’s, but they didn’t believe me. “You’re just nervous,” said my sister. “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Besides, diagnosing yourself is stupid.”

“We don’t know for sure that’s really what you have,” said Ian.

Feeling indignant over not being taken seriously, I went to see a neurologist. “I know I have Tourette’s,” I told Dr. Taylor as I explained my symptoms. “I just need you to concur so my family will believe me when I tell them I have it.”

Dr. Taylor stood in his white lab coat, arms folded, leaning against the counter of his office. “There’s no other diagnoses”, he said with an amused smile, “that it could possibly be.” He scribbled “Tourette syndrome” on his letterhead and handed it to me. “You can show this to your family, and I’ll make a plaque for them with those words on it too.” We looked at each other and laughed.

My dad later admitted that his deceased sister had symptoms like mine, as well as himself when he was a child. Knowing the name of my problem brought a new acceptance of myself. No longer did I berate myself for being unable to control my tics or my learning disorders. Finally I could tell others I was neurologically impaired, and ask for acceptance rather than endure scorn for my symptoms. I could see my past through a new lens of understanding, and for the first time, I dropped the feeling of shame I’d worn like a cloak for my entire life.

I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2, about a mother and her 12-year-old son who both have Tourette syndrome. I live in Palo Alto, CA with my husband, two children, and our hyperactive poodle. I can be reached at ejl@elizabethjohnsonlee.com, or visit me at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.



January 2015

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