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Breaking Dishes: A Lifetime With a Lesser-known Disability

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When we inevitably meet at some point, you will say, "Julia, are you okay? You're shaking." I'll reply with something like that's just what I do, but eventually I get around to telling you the whole story. I was born with Essential Tremor: a condition that makes you shake all the time always. It also, unfortunately, affects me cognitively. In my junior year of high school, back home in California, I underwent strenuous testing sessions to determine why I was doing so poorly at testing in school, and not in writing essays or other short-term work like regular homework. The doctor showed me pictures and asked me what they made me think of and gave me puzzles to put together, as well as word and math tests. The few hours that I underwent were exhausting and discouraging, although I knew they were necessary to finding out what was happening and how I could make it better for myself.

I have a bad habit of holding everything at once. Unfortunately, due to my ET, I always have a bad habit of dropping everything as well. I broke one of my mother's favorite mugs when I was a kid, trying to wash it. I dropped my iPhone in a hotel bathroom toilet. ET makes holding things worse. The shake also gets worse as I am stressed or emotional or nervous. I'll be giving a soliloquy in a play and have to hold my own hands, or gesticulate far more than necessary to hide the fact that I am practically spasming. After the testing in high school, I received accommodations for a computer and time and a half on all tests, because we saw the effect of my ET on my (completely wrong) pencil grip. I wrote at least two times slower than everyone else, especially after 10 minutes. Even when I'm typing on my computer, if I go to quickly, my hands start to spasm and I hit the keyboard with a force that is not of my own will, and have to take a few breaths in order to slow down and stop everything. It's embarrassing and I look around to see if anyone noticed this weird irregularity.

It also has affected me cognitively. I can learn things in class -- I love to learn things, which is why I applied to college in the first place -- and forget them two seconds later. I can study all weekend for a test, and blank out on everything when I'm taking it. The knowledge that I'm inputting into my memory is stuck there, and I cannot pull it out easily. Some of my professors saw it manifested, but some cannot understand. It's hard to explain that the reason you're consistently getting Cs on tests, but As on everything else.

I watched the movie Love and Other Drugs with my volleyball club teammates at a tournament one year. I didn't know it was going to be a narrative I could relate to on such a personal level. There I was, sitting on a hotel room floor in the dark, facing my mortality head-on. Essential Tremor is a condition related to the onsets of Parkinson's disease, although the tremor is different, and it is sometimes misdiagnosed as Parkinson's. About 10 million people in the United States are affected by it every day. Some individuals develop both, especially as they age. Seeing Anne Hathaway's character struggle with some of the same things I struggle with every day (although her case of early-onset Parkinson's was extremely rare) was scary. It was scary that they made a movie out of something that was similar to my every day reality. To my teammates it was just a sad, romanticized, fantasy they'd never have to experience. I found myself wanting to get out of there as fast as I could.

Living as a college student at a top university has been a challenge to say the least. When your whole academic and educational experience is based on testing and grades, it's easy to give up and feel hopeless. Instead, I get up hours before my Chinese class every morning to study. I organize and bullet point and color code like nobody's business. I've found that if I organize my life a little more, I can help myself remember and do better during the day. This year my mother bought me this amazing planner from Paper Source that I utilize every day, and she nags me about the really important things so I never forget until it's too late. I recognize my accomplishments throughout my education, and so do my parents. However, it's hard to show others who you truly are, and to have them see your life through your eyes. Some people won't understand, and cannot hope to. It's not like I have ADD or another well-known learning disability. There's no visibility for people with ET, so it's always hard to explain everything to others in the way that I know it. I'm hoping that in being open with others and educating on a daily basis, that I can raise awareness step-by-step for my fellow ETers.

To learn more about this condition go to the International Essential Tremor Foundation's website at essentialtremor.org.