By Molly Miller
If you’ve been to a gym, you’ve probably seen men staring at a mirror, grunting and lifting weights for hours on end. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve made the unfair assumption that these people are meatheads.
If you’re like me, maybe you never considered that one of these men might be lifting weights for the same reason as Josh Hanagarne, a Salt Lake City librarian and an “old-time strongman.” Although he had small tics from the time he was six years old, he wasn’t diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome until his freshman year of high school.
Hanagarne grew up in a Mormon household in Elko, Nevada. As a kid, he never questioned his religion. He loved sneaking Steven King books into his house against his mother’s orders, and read them with the faithful obedience he observed in the Mormon religion.
Hanagarne’s tics became vocal in middle school, but they were never a huge distraction.
“For people who liked me, Tourette’s was kind of an endearing thing,” explained Hanagarne. “I felt safe enough that it wasn’t on my mind.”
The worst incidence of taunting occurred during a high school basketball match, as Hanagarne, a freshman, was shooting a game-deciding free throw.
The opposing crowd yelled, “Twitch! Twitch!” After Hanagarne made the basket, he gave the crowd both of his middle fingers. Later that night, for the first time, Hanagarne asked his parents what was wrong with him.
He said the doctor took three minutes to diagnose him with Tourette Syndrome.
At 19, he travelled as a missionary to Washington, D.C., and had terrible symptoms. “Suddenly, one day I started hitting myself in the face as hard as I could,” said Hanagarne. By the time Hanagarne returned to his hotel, he had three deep furrows in his head.
Hanagarne’s mission ended a year early. He returned to his home in Nevada, and was unable to go in public areas for years.
“I had a very predictable crisis of faith,” said Hanagarne. He couldn’t attend church. He said it wasn’t until that constant reinforcement stopped that he was capable of questioning his Mormon faith.
When he was 29, Hanagarne started going to the gym. Although he called most of his strongman tricks “a lot of dumb and dangerous stuff,” the exercises have helped him rebuild his confidence. The training, he said, gives him measurable progress he didn’t have before.
“It’s hard for a person not to feel more confident,” he said, if he is getting measurably better at something.
One of the most important parts of Hanagarne’s routine was tracking his improvements, but he struggled to keep all of his stats in order, so he created a blog, “The World’s Strongest Librarian.”
After two months of blogging, author Seth Godin came across the blog. Godin hooked Hanagarne up with a literary agent, and after about four years, Hanagarne published his memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
“This book is weird and uncomfortable,” said Hanagarne. Originally, the story ended with Hanagarne being cured of Tourette’s.
Hanagarne had been working with Adam T. Glass, a man who suffered a severe brain injury in the U.S. Air Force. Glass lost the ability to emote, and suffered enormous head pains. But he also gained the ability to assess other people’s injuries, and to prescribe a course that could heal them.
Hanagarne worked with Glass to control his tics, and had been tic-free for about a year. But just as Hanagarne finished writing his memoir, his Tourette’s came back.
“I had to change some themes,” said Hanagarne. He made the book more introspective. He asked, “Who am I?” and “What makes me tick?”
Hanagarne continues to struggle with controlling his tics. He said that the feeling is similar to holding in the most intense sneeze, but in every part of his body, all the time. “I am trapped moment to moment, tic to tic,” he said. “It’s this panicky desperation of, ‘What do I do next?’”
He is also struggling to figure out, along with his wife, Janette, how to raise his five-year-old son, Max. Hanagarne is no longer a Mormon, although he said he is “not ‘anti-’ in any way.” His wife is a Mormon, and she and Hanagarne are raising Max in the Mormon faith.
“It’s tough trying to figure out what to teach a child,” said Hanagarne.
But he said what’s most important is that he’s taught his child how to think.
“We have to try to figure it out as we go,” he said.