Neurological & Cognitive Disorders

Conducting In Colombia With Tourette’s

Conductor Eric Gault's music career almost passed him by because of his condition, until he embraced a new attitude.

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Eric Gault looks like a shaved Viking, but instead of looting for a living, he’s an orchestral and choral conductor and music teacher. From Los Angeles to Nevada to Bogotá, he works with everyone: children, university students, and–of course–professional musicians.  And drawn by his loud, frequent, operatic laugh, Eric even attracts the occasional celebrity: he’s currently arranging his Colombian pop-star friend Cabas’ music for choir.

Eric Gault conducting in Colombia

Talking to Eric, you’d never guess he was once a textbook case of Tourette’s Syndrome. His symptoms were emblematic: the tics, the vocalizations, the immunodeficiencies. But his journey to wellness has been anything and everything but textbook. Instead, after suffering a serious decline in his health and realizing traditional meds weren’t working for him, Eric spent much of his adult life chucking the book on Tourette’s treatment out the window and writing his own.  

Folks sat down with Eric to talk about his journey to health and what it means to be “functional.”

 How were you first treated for your Tourette’s?

 I was diagnosed at the age of nine and immediately put on a major tranquilizer. I gained sixty pounds and suffered extreme lethargy and cognitive blunting. I felt like I was in a chemical straightjacket. I was such a frustrated, energetic kid. I was fighting back against this daily constraint though I may not have been able to articulate that at the time with constant thrashing around and violent fits. I became uneducable.

I felt like I was in a chemical straightjacket.

It got worse until I was twelve, when I was sent away to a treatment facility in New York for three years. Towards the end of my time there my medication was changed and I lost sixty pounds in three months. From this I realized you’re not supposed to be baseline depressed and fat and that much of my condition was, by that point, iatrogenic (a type of illness caused by medical treatment – ed.).  Other kids there were a mix of those with Tourette’s, those suffering with severe autism, violent kids who were wards of the state and those whose family life was so broken that they simply had to be removed. These kids had huge amounts of rage because of the traumas and structural inequalities they faced. I would go home for a week or two a year and that was difficult, but in retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me because it instilled in me an ability to contextualize my life so that when I went through trauma beyond that and living with a disability, which is enormously difficult, I was able to hold onto my wits and make decisions that benefit me.

  How did Tourette’s affect you later in life?  

 Later, I went to study music at Oberlin College. That’s also when I started taking meds that destroyed my health. The doctors would literally open books, turn the pages, and say, “Oh this one seems good, why don’t we try this?” I felt like a trashcan for experimentation. They’re well meaning, but they’re trained to diagnose and medicate. They’re not trained to treat a person so they can be functionally healthy.

I was playing college baseball at the time and I would see trails behind the ball sometimes like I was tripping on acid. Other drugs made me puff up like the incredible hulk, where my muscles were unusually defined. The antidepressants made me feel rage and physical and emotional pain. Every medication I took I would experience these very awkward and troubling symptoms. I was becoming increasingly physically ill, fatigue, nausea all the time, losing weight, losing hair, dark circles around my eyes. I was 22 and I would run into people I knew and not remember who they were.

Eric Gault on the streets of Bogotá.

And what was the tipping point when you decided that traditional treatment wasn’t for you? How did things start to turn around?

 Conventional doctors had no idea what to do for me or they would dismiss me and say I was crazy. But I was so sick I couldn’t tolerate it anymore so I had to stop and I did. I didn’t finish school at the time. My immune system broke down so badly, I couldn’t tolerate chemicals. Anywhere near paint and I would start vomiting.  I moved back to Chicago and I found a job at a health food store. Little by little I started learning about other people who had gone through similar experiences and were treating their illnesses holistically. Just by sheer luck, I ran into a woman who had begun seeing Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez in New York who treated cancer and other degenerative illnesses alternatively. Tragically, he passed away a year ago. I’ve been on his program since 1993.  It allowed me to go to grad school, be successful in my field, have girlfriends, and have good relationships with my friends.

Tourette’s may be partly genetic… but you have to treat your body in a way that functionally makes sense.

When you nourish your body and detoxify and get an understanding of nutrition in a functional way, it does marvelous things. Most of my ticks started going away. My cognitive functioning started improving, my hair started growing again. Tourette’s may be partly genetic, but in its expression it is thoroughly dependent on its environment. You have to treat your body in a way that functionally makes sense. Don’t eat crap. Don’t breathe crap. Don’t sleep next to crap—not with your cellphone next to your head nor with a person who doesn’t treat you well.

But also, I was left with a grieving period. I realized I’d suffered with something little understood and that I’d lost years. When my friends from Oberlin were going off to sing opera at the Met and have international careers, and I knew I was equally gifted but I was just too sick to do it, it was a deep sense of loss. I still sing and I intend to record and make my voice heard but life did get in the way. The positive part is that I went back to grad school and fell in love with conducting. So, I landed in the place that made the most sense for me.

You keep using the word “functional.” What does that mean to you?

 You know how sometimes you say something reasonable but people are so captive to their emotional state, so emotionally armored, they can’t hear what you’re telling them? Well, to be functional means you have the ability to respond to the world in front of you, the evidence before you, to respond to stimuli in an as spontaneous and natural a way as possible—an unarmored way. It comes from Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud’s. We are raised to run away from our feelings. We feel pressure to conform and that develops in us these secondary, anti-social impulses because that energy must go somewhere. Functionality means returning to one’s core as it functions in the world and tolerating the anxiety this produces without running away.

Part of staying healthy means choosing people with whom you are able to have nourishing relationships, says Gault.

Having gone through physical, social, and emotional struggles with my disability, I’ve developed a way of maintaining equilibrium. It means acknowledging my own rhythm, and deciding who and what I will allow to interrupt it. Sometimes I make mistakes in choosing the ‘who’s’ and ‘whats’ but from that I learn as well. We have to understand that people are going to behave irrationally because they’re dealing with trauma themselves by virtue of growing up in a damaged world, or not dealing with their traumas and expressing it in all the inappropriate ways. When you run into people who are basically rational and functional for the most part, it’s a rare and special treat.

When you run into people who are basically rational and functional for the most part, it’s a rare and special treat.

 Functionality for me is not about getting Tourette’s under control. If I want to control or manage Tourette’s, it’s about nourishing my health and life. We nourish our bodies when we nourish our environments, when we nourish our relationships, when we find work that nourishes us. When I don’t do that, I have immunodeficiency, ticks, all of it. When I do, Tourette’s is just a part of who I am. 

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