Jewish comedian shares laughs about her experience with Tourette’s syndrome
InclusionPamela Schuller performed April 15 at the JCC

Jewish comedian shares laughs about her experience with Tourette’s syndrome

‘I love being different’

Pamela Schuller speaks at the JCC in Squirrel Hill on April 15 (Photo by Abigail Hakas)
Pamela Schuller speaks at the JCC in Squirrel Hill on April 15 (Photo by Abigail Hakas)

Once Pamela Schuller, a Jewish stand-up comedian, takes the stage, she is quick to explain that she has Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that leads to uncontrollable vocal or physical tics.

She tells stories about every part of living with Tourette’s, from accidentally winking at a customs agent who asked if she had brought anything illegal with her, to the day her landlord accused her of owning a dog against building rules.

When she explained that she had Tourette’s and the barking was her own, the landlord swore she would never bother Schuller again. That same day, Schuller got herself a dog.

“At this point, I love having Tourette’s — 10 out of 10, I could not have asked for a more perfect-for-me neurological disorder,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from having Tourette’s.”

She quips that Tourette’s taught her the world has double standards: Nobody bats an eye when her dog barks, but it’s suddenly a problem when Schuller does.

But Schuller doesn’t shy away from talking about the more challenging parts of Tourette’s. Aside from being a stand-up comedian, she is a mental health and disability advocate with obsessive-compulsive disorder and has a doctorate in advocacy. On April 15, she came to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill for a night of comedy and heartfelt conversation about her experience with Tourette’s.

The event was sponsored by The Friendship Circle, The Second Floor at the JCC and The Branch, alongside a plethora of community partners, including Open Up, Repair the World Pittsburgh, The Beacon, Chabad Young Professionals, The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Self Advocacy Voices.

Schuller recounted how, as a child, she had the worst case of Tourette’s that her doctors had ever seen. She tensed her stomach so hard that she ruptured her appendix, and she broke her neck from throwing her head back too much.

But what she remembers most of all from her childhood is how her Tourette’s changed the way people viewed her. Once, a school nurse bent over and asked her in a patronizing tone — as if she were speaking to a toddler — if Schuller needed to use the bathroom. When she thinks of the time she broke her ankle running to catch the school bus, she doesn’t remember the pain. Instead, she thinks about the three teachers who saw her fall.

“I remember them whispering and talking, and I remember having this realization that they didn’t know how to communicate with me,” she said. “So, they did nothing, and every bus drove around me.”

This lack of understanding was a frequent reaction from adults in her life. A teacher at her religious school asked her to leave because Schuller was having vocal and physical tics. But as she prepared to leave, her classmates spoke up for her.

“One of my classmates goes, ‘No, we’ve known Pam her whole life. We’re used to all of her noises. She doesn’t have to leave. She can stay,’” she said.

Her teacher eventually yelled that she would quit if Schuller didn’t leave. Schuller got up to go, and all her classmates followed her.

This was the theme undergirding the night of comedy: the importance of inclusion.

“That day, my world felt inclusive, and it wasn’t because of a multibillion-dollar inclusion campaign,” she said. “And it wasn’t because there was a social worker in my class. It was because my peers got it. They got it, and they made sure I knew that I was one of them and that I belonged.”
At her middle school, the woman hired to be the disability advocate for the children told Schuller’s mother that Schuller would never be able to succeed in school or go to college and that it would be easier for them if they gave up on those dreams.

She sued for the right to attend a boarding school and worked with an education consultant to find one in Burlington, Vermont. If Burlington had a motto, she said, it would be “Come as you are, but the weirder, the better.”

The boarding school taught academics in the mornings and arts in the afternoon. Students called teachers by their first names, and the teachers often brought their dogs to school. It was an atypical educational experience but one that celebrated individuality and creativity.

Schuller, however, still carried the weight of how she was treated in the past.

“I was pushing the world away from me as hard as I felt like the world had pushed me away,” she said.

As a result, she had the record for most detentions earned in the school’s history. She wasn’t breaking laws; rather, she frequently received detention for her quick wit — often directed as an insult to whoever had earned her ire.

After misbehaving, Schuller was required to write letters of apology.

“The school must have known they were funny because they saved them and, when I graduated, they gifted them back to me,” she said.

Schuller asked the crowd if they’d like to hear a few. As the cheers quieted, she read an apology letter to her art teacher.

“I was not one of the ones who put Sour Patch Kids in your hair. I know this sounds like something I would do, but it wasn’t me,” she read. “Since I have to write this letter, I guess I’m sorry I didn’t think to put Sour Patch Kids in your hair. It was funny, and since I’m getting punished for it, I might as well get some of the credit, too.”

On one of her many days spent in detention, Schuller’s teacher placed a paper in front of her. He wrote and underlined “Things Pam loves about herself” on the paper and waited for her to write.

“I remember wanting so badly to have something to put on that list,” she said. “And I remember watching his face turn to fear as he realized I wasn’t just being a snarky teen, I truly had nothing about myself that I loved or that I felt added any value to this world.”

After that day, her boarding school put her in therapy and enrolled her in a variety of classes and workshops so that she could find something she connected with. One of those workshops was for stand-up comedy and improvisational theater.

She explained to the audience the most basic rule of improv: “Yes, and,” the concept that no matter what someone brings into the scene, you play off it and expand on it. When she performed, the symptoms of her Tourette’s were worked into the scene, and she made people laugh.

“After that very first workshop, I went back to that empty list that had been sitting on my desk for weeks of things that I loved about myself,” she said. “And I wrote ‘sense of humor.’”

That piece of paper is framed and hanging on the wall of her New York City apartment. Since the day she wrote on that paper, Schuller’s sense of humor has taken her — and her lessons — on tour to six countries and almost every state in the U.S.

“I’m so excited to keep sending the message: I love being different. I love it,” she said. “I have a disability and a mental health challenge. I’m always going to have a disability and a mental health challenge, and I’m not broken. I’m whole. I just exist in this world a little bit differently.” PJC

Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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