Tics and Traveling

One of the down-sides of having Tourette’s Syndrome is that you simply can’t blend. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, but there are certain circumstances under which it’s a virtue.

An obvious one is espionage. You have two spies entering a building. One looks strangely like Daniel Craig – wears a tux like he was born in it, exudes suave and confidence, and has those piercing blue eyes that draw you to him like… Ok, actually that’s just as bad as having tics. Start again!

One is completely nondescript: average height, average weight, a forgettable face, no bling, no flash. Someone like that is going to be able to get in the building and probably gain access to whatever they need through basic social engineering. “Hey, is there a restroom around here? Oh, no, I won’t be a minute.”

The other spy has TS… Yeah… EVERYONE is going to notice them. Everyone will remember they were there. It’s like that part of the cop show where they ask the only witness if they remembered anything else about the incident. “Well there was this one guy who kept whacking himself and saying, ‘Cheeseburger!'” This is why I’ve never considered espionage or crime as a career choice.

Another circumstance in which having tics is a drawback is having to travel by air. Ever since 9/11 the world has become more paranoid about the security and safety of air travel. I’m glad, because I’d like to know that’ll never happen again. But at the same time it makes it more difficult for people with TS to fly because security staff are trained to look for people who stand out. Who look different. Who act different. People who don’t blend in.

I have a long long list of incidents I’ve had with airport security. For a while I couldn’t fly without being pulled out of line at every security checkpoint. My bags were searched. I was searched. I’d go through the backscatter machine like a good little traveler and still get the pat-down search. In one instance security came up to me at the gate during boarding, pulled me out of line, and emptied my bags onto a table. I was already inside security! I was about to board the plane! It was humiliating. It also made me late for my flight.

It got to the point that I really hated to travel at all. If I lived anywhere but an island, I’d have sworn off air travel altogether. But out here in the middle of the Pacific I really don’t have the option to drive.

So several months ago I paid my fee, gave them my fingerprints, and submitted to a background check by the Department of Homeland Security so I could qualify for TSA Precheck and get a TSA Known Traveler Number. I passed, of course (can’t see me tic in a background check!), and got my KTN.

Question was, would it actually help? Last week I had a unique opportunity to put it to the test.

Last Sunday my sister called to tell me that our dad had fallen ill. She and my brother couldn’t fly out to be with him and help him through all the doctor’s visits, so I offered to. “Hey!” I thought, “What a great opportunity to use my KTN and see if I stop catching so much crap for my TS!” Problem was I couldn’t find anywhere to enter it on the airline’s booking page. “Oh well,” I figured, “I’ll do this test some other time.” So I flew out there without it.

I didn’t even get on the first plane before the run-ins started. “Sir, please step over here.” Sure enough, they ran my bags twice, ran me through the backscatter, pulled me out of line, patted me down, and damn near stuck a radio tracker and a numbered ear tag on me. “Have a nice flight, sir.” Right…

I stayed for a week, got my dad to all his appointments, and got him on the road to recovery. Once I was sure he was going to be ok I made arrangements to fly home. While booking my ticket for the return flight I finally found the little checkbox that let me say I’d gone through the TSA Precheck process and enter my KTN. When I printed my boarding passes I looked to make sure it said “TSA Precheck” on them. Sure enough, there it was. Yay!

But the real test was the security checkpoint. I went in the “TSA Precheck go here” line (which was incredibly short!), did not take off my shoes, did not pull my laptop out of my bag, and… did not get harassed by security. At all. No backscatter, no pat-down, no glares, no nothing. When they told me to have a nice flight I honestly thought this time I might.

And I did. It was glorious.

The one other thing I did for this set of flights was to get a medical ID bracelet made. (In teal, no less! Happy TS awareness month!) It’s not the full-blown Medic Alert bracelet that has an 800 number with a patient ID number and all that. I don’t need that kind of service. I just needed something that said I had TS, and an emergency contact number (my wife) so that if anyone had questions they could call and ask.

My thought was that if airport security decided I looked like a threat and pulled me out of line while I was boarding my plane I could show them the bracelet and say, “Hey, I have TS. I’m not ticcing because I’m nervous or on drugs, I’m ticcing because I tic.” But it never came up. And now that I paid the government to fingerprint me and dig into my past, it might never happen again.

One can only hope.


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