On my trembling hands

Chris Hoadley

People who have met me in person have probably noticed that my hands tremble. While this is something I generally took for granted growing up, I figured out as a preteen that it wasn’t “normal.” The father of a friend, a neurologist, saw my shaking freshman year in college and suggested I get diagnosed, and now I have a label: familial essential tremor. Familial, meaning inherited, and essential, meaning at all times (as opposed to only when deliberately moving my hands). The doctors determined that I’m at no risk of it progressing, and that I vibrate at a relatively constant 6 Hertz.

While the shaking hands impose some practical limitations (I have to turn off the touch-to-click feature on my laptop trackpad), I’m rarely disadvantaged in any significant way. In high school, I got a doctor’s note to take the AP English Composition test with a typewriter in lieu of my nearly illegible handwriting. But even my scrawl is correctable with care—it’s probably due more to a combination of haste and left-handedness than my “condition.” The occasional benefit presents itself, such as additional interest from lovers or recipients of my backrubs. I play piano, type expertly, and can pour liquids without spilling as well as the next guy, though I would shy away from a career in surgery.

I am a white male, and so I am usually blissfully ignorant of how people judge my book by its cover. While I’m sure I’m stereotyped by people, these stereotypes rarely surface in a way that I notice or that harms how I work or live. My hands have given me a window into how deeply physical attributes shape how people deal with each other. Usually, people don’t discuss the unsteadiness with me, but when they do, a startling variety of interpretations come out. The most common response is people thinking I’m nervous or overcaffeinated, but I’ve been accused of everything from poverty (shaking from hunger) to drug abuse. One woman thought I was afraid, but only of her in particular. Another woman saw it as a sign her unprofessed romantic feelings for me were mutual—“I see how you tremble when I’m near,” read the love note she eventually sent.

When I was in high school, I behaved, dressed preppie, and got high marks: my social identity as a good student was set. One day, on a lark, I borrowed a friend’s heavy metal band T-shirt, threw on torn jeans, and moussed my hair into a tangled thicket before driving to school. People treated me in a radically different way—not only strangers or the teachers in the hall watching the blur of students go by, but by friends and enemies, people who knew me well and long. Classmates who had never talked to me approached me, and longtime study group partners gave me the silent treatment. I remembered who stuck with me and who didn’t, and tried to connect a little more to the people who thought I might be okay as a burnout but who were afraid to talk to me in my usual persona.

My tremor gives me the opportunity to be vulnerable. While I know some people respect (or fear) me less when I shake, I enjoy the ways in which I can get some reflections in the social mirror. I can see myself and others a little more clearly, and gauge who looks beyond the surface. When I remember and if it seems relevant I alert people to the real reason I shake. I’ve had this warmly received by others who have “conditions” that they either choose to discuss publicly or have chosen not to disclose. For me, it’s no big deal, but many people still feel fear to share the hidden, the “abnormal” aspects of themselves even if it’s as blameless as genes. I appreciate, but don’t feel like I deserve, their praise for bravery. I have a little better sense of how it might change my life if I were dark skinned, or paraplegic, or just plain short. I’ve discovered my tremor really is essential—it’s part of my essence, how I appear, all the time. I’m grateful I’ve been able to learn a thing or two from my trembling hands.

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Copyright © 2004 Christopher Hoadley. Last updated 17 July 2004.