Shakin' a Baby!  Twist and Shame!

Jessica Jade Andres

Shame. I wish I were referring to Steve McQueen's psychological drama made possible by Michael Fassbender's acting. But I'm not. What I am referring to is the feeling defined by Webster as “guilt, regret, or sadness for having done something wrong.” My mentor more accurately defined the experience of shame as the universal story of falling from an ideal. This conjures up an image of crashing white waves, an open mouth filled with jagged black teeth, an impossibly high cliff, and me teetering on the edge. While I've never fallen off a cliff, I have certainly fallen from many ideals; I'd bet my life that it feels pretty much the same.

I first had the feeling that something was wrong about 5 years ago, when I noticed a slight tremor in my right hand. I automatically associated the shaking with nervousness, as the tremor seemed to occur when I felt overly stressed. Over time, however, I noticed shaking also appeared in moments where I wasn’t stressed or tense. I was confused. If it wasn't a matter of nerves, then why was my hand shaking? What was wrong with me?

I began performing daily “tests” on myself. The second my eyes opened, I would examine my hand for signs of shaking, then again when putting toothpaste on my toothbrush, and yet again while pouring hot water for tea, and so on. Any task or movement that involved my hand became grounds for an exam of self-worth. I scurried around my apartment practicing pouring water into potted plants in a vain attempt to train my tremors away. My gut flipped into my throat as I inevitably felt the shaking begin; my slight tremor speedily developed into an obsession.

It was bad enough, I thought, that I noticed the shaking. What would happen if other people noticed it too? En route to a dinner party in West Hollywood, I found myself in a full-on panic. “My god, what if all these people at this dinner party see my hand shaking… what will they think? That I'm a freak, I'm incompetent? That I can't keep my shit together, I can't even hold a champagne glass without twitching like a tweaker?” My heart slammed itself against my ribcage as my head floated off my body into the sea of taillights ahead. I would have turned the car around right then and there had it not been for my friend in the passenger seat. How could I possibly explain that to him?

“Hey, so I can't go to this thing right now.”

“Why not?”

“I'm having a nervous breakdown. I’m worried that our friends will see the extremities of my right arm shaking and find out that I'm weak and a mess and a general failure at life. How about I just drop you at the corner?”

I avoided that fall. Instead, I spent the evening behind a thick glass wall, scared to death that someone would catch the light glinting off it and ask me to step out. 

I nearly hit the floor when a friend asked me to refill her glass of champagne but somehow I managed to get through the dinner.  

The following week, I took myself to see a therapist.

Her name was Nicole, and we talked about my hand.  We also discussed my other stresses and anxieties, my hypersensitivity, and (shocker) my family.  In the course of several years, I created a “toolbox” of skills to help me cope with the tremors.  But I didn't want to cope, I wanted to get rid of them.  To aid that effort, I took myself to a hypnotherapist, dropping astronomical amounts of money listening to recordings of a soothing voice repeating in my ear, “Your hand is not shaking. You're normal. You're alright.” 

The tapes were incredibly peaceful, but in order to for me to be “normal”, as I so desperately wanted, my hand had to stop shaking. Despite being more relaxed, my tremor was still there.

I stopped hypnotherapy, mostly because I was going broke and experiencing  soul-crushing first-world guilt about spending that much money on a luxury like therapy. I did, however, continue sessions with my talk therapist. Even though certain aspects of my tremor improved, it never went away completely. There were good days and bad days, but the tape playing on a loop in the back of my only repeated over and over: “How can I fix this? How can I fix me?”

I began to selectively share my problems with a few close friends, their unanimous response was to reassure me that no one was paying any attention to my hand except me. 

Exactly, I thought, I am the problem! I’ve turned my body into my own worst enemy

My tremors are proof of an internal revolt or a glitch in the system, and worst of all, I was allowing it to get in the way of living my life. In addition to social phobias, there were jobs I took as an actress that involved my hand. Every single time, I felt the hot rush of shame flood the insides of my body, while on the outside I flailed in the crashing waves beneath that cliff. I was treading water well enough to feign calm, but I didn't know how much longer I could keep my head above the surface. I needed answers or I was going to eventually go under.

Where else could I turn but the all-knowing, unbiased Internet? I had researched my symptoms online years before, but had come up empty-handed (or should I say shakily-handed?). However, it is my belief that the universe reveals things in our lives, be it friends, jobs, lovers, or information on neurological conditions, only when we are ready to receive them. I guess the crashing waves had finally subsided, allowing me to wade my beaten body back to shore.

What I found on the Internet that day has truly changed my life, and I’m not being hyperbolic.  I have a neurological condition called Essential Tremor, also known as benign essential tremor, or ET, which causes rhythmic shaking in the limbs, and sometimes the voice. Although it can affect any part of the body, it is most commonly seen in the hands. Relief washed over me as I read and identified with nearly every single symptom listed; the test for ET even involved pouring water from one cup to another!  For the first time in years, I didn't feel so alone. ET affects more than 10 million Americans. Actress Katherine Hepburn had ET, as did President John Adams and playwright Eugene O'Neill. It ranges in severity (I have a mild case) and is exacerbated by a lack of rest and any increases in stress, anxiety, or caffeine levels. Its cause is unknown and there is no cure. 

I won't go into the extreme details of the condition but I do encourage you to do so; March is International Essential Tremor Awareness Month. Raising awareness about ET is vital not only so people can understand the shaking symptoms of ET, but also to prevent their feelings of depression, embarrassment, or shame over the tremors due to a lack of awareness about the condition.  

Trusty Webster failed to suitably define awareness, so I asked my boyfriend instead.  We happened to be on an airplane at that moment. The plane was picking up speed, churning air beneath its wings for takeoff. He looked out the sun-drenched double-paned window, watching Columbus, Ohio grow exponentially smaller. “Accurate perception,” he declared.

It was a definition that fit beautifully with Essential Tremor. It is essential that we be aware of how we perceive our tremor. It's not something to hide from the rest of the world, nor something of which to be ashamed. We shouldn’t try to “fix” it; it is something that is an inherent part of us. It is no different than height or eye color. My ET is one of the undeniable aspects of who I am, but I refuse to let it define me.

Many of you are probably wondering whether there are medications that you can take to alleviate the symptoms. Yes, there are, but the one I tried only me feel groggy, as if I was watching the world like a movie with sound and picture out of sync. I'll take a little tremor over that any day. Of course, I've spent years experiencing deep feelings of shame about my tremor, so it takes a lot of courage, practice, and a conscious decision to live authentically, sans apologies. 

This month was the first time I told someone in a professional setting about my ET. The audition involved a lot of hand movements, so despite the rising feelings of embarrassment, I simply told the casting director about my ET and admitted that perhaps this wasn't the best job for me. To my amazement, he didn't gawk at me like I was a freak or end the audition. He listened, smiled, and said, “Well, let’s just have some fun and see what happens. We can let the director know if it comes to that; they always do more than one take.”

They (aka people smarter than I) say that art imitates life. Yet while it’s true that we get more than one take on a film set, as far as I know, we have only one “take” in life. This is it. This is me, and the more I learn to accept my ET as a part of who I am, the less scary it is.

Whenever I reach for a glass of wine at a party or use my hands in an audition, I still feel that familiar flash of shame rip through my gut, but I take a deep, calming breath and remind myself that there are 10 million people out there just like me. Each of us desires to live our lives fully, so we must allow ourselves to perceive this condition not as an obstacle, but as a gift. We can’t change or ignore this part of our life, nor should we wish to. After all, the unique and unpredictable gift of life is the most precious commodity we have.

First and foremost, I am an actress. As such, I prefer to use other people's words to express myself; in this case, I defer to the incomparable Tennessee Williams: “ In the time of your life-- live. That time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”

Many things in a lifetime, not just a neurological condition, can make it feel as though we're losing. But as Mr. Williams so poetically conveys, the only real loss we suffer is time. Time we could have used to share and expand our life experience with others rather than drowning ourselves in fear and shame. But it is up to us to pull back from that edge, take our eyes off the crashing waves below, and stand confidently in our own skin. Even if we are a bit shaky.


Jessica Jade Andres is a regular contributing author and poet for Sheriff Nottingham.  Sheriff Nottingham is an avant-garde literary magazine.  Her work is available at