We’re always happy when public figures “come out” and discuss their struggles with mental illness, because they can become positive role models for kids and because they can educate the public in a real and tangible way. Actor Dash Mihok (me-hawk), in addition to starring in movies like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and the current Liev Schreiber TV vehicle Ray Donovan, has been living with the motor and vocal tics of Tourette’s syndrome since he was 6 years old.
In a very nice piece on CNN, Mihok describes the work he does with an anti-bullying organization called Jayden’s Challenge, talking to kids in schools about tolerance and the neurological differences that can make children targets. Mihok also offers an illuminating take on living—and making it in Hollywood—with a disorder that too few comprehend, and many misunderstand wildly. Paradoxically, his success at acting has made people skeptical of his disorder, given that he can control his ticing when on set. “People believe that if you can shut your Tourette’s off for a period of time,” he tells CNN, “then you can always shut it off.” Instead, he suggests people imagine “the greatest itch you’ve ever had and multiply that by a thousand. There’s no way you can’t scratch it. It’s impossible. You have to do it.”
Dr. Jerry Bubrick, an expert on tics, Tourette’s, and OCD at the Child Mind Institute, agrees with this description and thinks it’s an important starting point for better understanding Tourette’s. “In most cases of tic disorders people have what’s called the premonitory urge,” he says. “The best way to understand it for everybody else is the feeling you get in your nose right before a sneeze, and the only way to get rid of it is to sneeze. So people with a tic disorder will have that internal discomfort or itchiness or weird sensation and doing the tic alleviates that feeling.”
This leads to the misunderstanding that Mihok describes. “It’s not really an involuntary action, although it can be so automatic that it seems involuntary,” Dr. Bubrick continues. “But it’s actually a voluntary act.” This means that people with Tourette’s can “recognize that they have to do the tic, and not do the tic, and stop in on their own. But it builds and builds and builds. It’s not like if you don’t do it once it’s gone forever.”
Dr. Bubrick is also excited about Mihok’s potential to change attitudes because his disorder is clearly with him—the CNN report includes video of him ticing and discussing Tourette’s when he was 10, and also candid contemporary video of him ticing in between takes on set. People can be skeptical “when a celebrity says they had a disorder growing up,” he says, and wonder “whether it’s for real. But here we have the videotape.”
For his part, Mihok wants people to understand that Tourette’s can be a barrier—he hid it from Hollywood for years out of fear that it would lose him parts, and many children with the disorder are tormented by bullies—but only if people don’t understand it. Dr. Bubrick has seen the troubles firsthand. “There’s a lot of bullying associated with it because it’s so visual, so obvious,” he says. Mihok’s visibility and success are one way to make people rethink their attitudes. His message is another: “I’m just like you, just a little bit different,” he says in the video. “And you’re a little bit different from me, and I have nothing but love for you.”