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Challenge of Tourette’s Didn’t Stop Librarian Josh Hanagarne

By Jahyra White

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Librarian Josh Hanagarne went through a lot in his childhood, but still managed to make it.

In elementary school, Hanagarne was performing in a class play and noticed that something was wrong. But it wasn’t until high school that doctors diagnosed him with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and vocalizations.

According to Hanagarne, Tourette’s is just like a sneeze – hard to keep inside – but it’s an everyday thing and it happens all the time.

In school, he was bullied for his Tourette’s outbursts.

Hanagarne is used to his Tourette’s and he doesn’t seem to think he’s any different from anyone else, but his story gets better.

When he met his wife after high school, she became the love of his life.

When he talks about her and describes what kind of person she is, he gets a little teary eyed.

It’s clear that he really loves his wife dearly and is thankful for having her in his life.

It’s hard to imagine being married to someone who has Tourette’s but his wife told him all of that didn’t matter.

A couple of years go by and they decide that they want to have a kid. After trying unsuccessfully and being told they couldn’t conceive, they had a baby.

Now they have a healthy five-year-old son named Max.

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Love and Family Sustains World’s Strongest Librarian

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Josh Hanagarne, standing six-feet-seven and usually weighing between 260 and 270 pounds, is the world’s strongest librarian. Seriously.

He says he can tear a full deck of cards into pieces and lift 500 pounds on one finger.

He could easily hoist any of us apprentices over his head – although, upon walking in, he put the idea out of our minds “for liability reasons.” He’s smart, too.

He is also one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met.

“We’re all the product of … some really deep training,” he said. And he’s been trained deeper than anyone I know. At 35, he is the product of Navajo ancestry – he has relatives living on reservations – a Mormon upbringing, a crisis of faith, and a constant battle with Tourette Syndrome.

Hanagarne recalled a time when his bibliophile fifth-grade self picked up the largest book he could find, a thick volume by Stephen King called The Tommyknockers, and got hooked.

When his mom caught him reading Misery, she banned King’s books from the house. This only excited him to smuggling.

The day he visited us, Hanagarne that while he is “not a real star-struck person,” he was looking forward to lunch with King, an experience he thought “could be really cool.”

And tonight he’ll be working security at the Bushnell for King’s conversation with Colin McEnroe – so we’d all better keep in line.

Raised Mormon, a religion in which all 19-year-old males go on a two-year mission, Hanagarne was sent to Washington, D.C., where attempted to convert people.

His true challenge, however, was only beginning.

Hanagarne’s first memory of Tourette’s is from a Thanksgiving school play. At age six, playing a tree on stage, he began to blink, rapidly and involuntarily. No one thought much of it, at the time or for several years thereafter – until seventh grade, when the tics started becoming vocal and gave rise to bullying.

Things worsened steadily through ninth grade, when he joined the basketball team and discovered an athletic talent. At a game against their biggest rival, the win came down to Hanagarne’s free throw.

Fans in the stands from the opposing side had lost all sense of sportsmanship and respect and were shouting, “Twitch! Twitch!”

His tear-stained face contorted in concentration, Hanagarne made the basket, won the game for his team, and promptly flipped off the crowd, causing quite an uproar. That was the night he realized he had to find out what was wrong with him.

On the Mormon mission in Washington, Hanagarne could name and explain his condition, but that didn’t soften its toll.

During his mission, his worst tic to date flared up: he would hit himself sharply in the face. His outbursts of screaming became as frequent as every two or three seconds. By the end of one day, he returned to his hotel with three self-inflicted gashes down his face.

My blood was running cold as Josh described this. He left D.C. a year early, he said, because the tics interfered with his life and mission. He could not go out in public and his convulsions were so intense they gave him hernias.

To curb his screaming tic, doctors gave him Botox injections in his vocal cords, which stopped his voice entirely. He did not speak again for two years.

The sensation of a Tourette’s tic, he said, is “like the worst you’ve ever had to sneeze.” It obviously doesn’t feel good, even if you can suppress the urge, and it’s how he felt all the time.

He experienced a crisis of faith. What was his purpose in life? How could he come to terms with the fact that he no longer believed what he had been raised to believe? His break with the Mormon faith was becoming scarily real.

The problem, he said, was that according to what his family believed, “I would be in a different part of Heaven than they would be.”

His mother’s favorite thing was gathering the family together and having a good laugh. If he broke from the faith, the rest of the family would be in heaven – gathered and having a laugh – and Josh would be separated from them.

It broke his mother’s heart, he said, but she determined “not to let the small picture destroy the big picture.”

He knows that his family’s love and support is unconditional.

Today, Hanagarne is physically worse than ever, and it doesn’t necessarily involve hitting himself in the face. It must be terrifying to never know how one’s body is going to act from one minute to the next, but this is his life.

His tics are relatively under control, thanks to Adam T. Glass, a specially gifted friend.

Glass, an Air Force officer who suffered a brain crushing injury, has an extrasensory understanding of people’s movements, Hanagarne said, and can take one look at someone and instantly identify their physical ailments and the motions that can fix them.

He went along with it.

“Pain makes you stupid,” admitted Hanagarne. “You will try anything.”

But Glass’s exercises really do seem to have magical healing powers. And maybe that is one reason Hanagarne is mentally better than ever.

He is probably the only person I’ve met to truly live in the moment, “from tic to tic.” He chose to be a librarian because a library forces him to ask questions of himself, just as “a library should force everyone who walks in to ask questions.”

He was confronted with himself, with the sources behind his tics.

He loves his job dearly – hardly a surprise, given his appetite for books. “I don’t sleep much,” he said, and he wasn’t kidding: three hours a night.

“I read a book every day,” he said.

His favorite book is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which he reads annually. “It becomes a new book every year.”

Eventually he was inspired to write his own story. At a friend’s suggestion, Josh began a blog called “The World’s Strongest Librarian.” One morning, a couple months and many online conversations into the blog, he woke up to an offer from a literary agent.

Before he knew it, he had a book, The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

“You learn a lot about yourself,” he said, when writing a memoir. In writing about himself, he said, he found flaws in his reasoning.

He said he felt “so horribly exposed, so fast.”

But it’s helped improve him day by day.

“It’s hard not to feel confident if you’re always getting better at something, and if you can prove it.”

He believes success is measurable, and better is something he is relentlessly striving for.

And there is plenty in his life to help him along the way. He laughed as he told us the self-proclaimed “lame” story of how he met his wife, Janette: “My mom came home from church and said, ‘I found the perfect girl for you!’ And she was right.”

They met during one of his most difficult periods, the two silent years. He said she didn’t hear his full speaking voice until eight months into their marriage; until then, he could do no more than whisper.

He tried to talk her out of the wedding just two weeks before they married.

“You haven’t seen how bad it is,” he insisted. She turned to him and said, “Not being with you is so much harder than being with you when it’s bad.”

If that is not the truest love on earth, I don’t know what is.

That true love, along with the love of his family, sustains him.

The couple have a five-year-old son named Max. While she is still Mormon, he’s an agnostic. They’ve deliberated how to raise Max from different religious viewpoints.

He’s not concerned as long as he gives his son the foundation to decide his beliefs for himself.

“I am confident that I taught Max how to think,” he told us.

With a dad as incredible as Josh Hanagarne, and a mother who must be just as outstanding, Max has a dazzlingly bright future ahead.

As someone who has fought and overcome, but still has to live with, a disability, I was deeply moved by Hanagarne’s story.

The homepage of the National Tourette Syndrome Association website says, “I have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s doesn’t have me.”

It is possible not to let an illness define you. Kudos to him.

I wish him, and everyone else on this planet struggling against an adversary bigger than themselves, all the blessings they deserve.

Leaving His Faith Behind, He Kept His Family in Mind

By Ambriel Johnson

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Josh Hanagarne, a Salt Lake City librarian, keeps a delicate balance between his former Mormon religion and his family, who remain devoted to the faith.

Hanagarne said he first started to question his religion when he had to stop attending church due to his Tourette Syndrome.

As a young man, he was unable to be out in public for about two years because the Tourette’s caused him to have loud vocal tics. Hanagarne said it was the first time he was away from the church and its influence on his life.

Until that moment, he said, he wasn’t really thinking for himself.

“I was taught to believe as much as I was taught how to think,” Hanagarne said. “We are all the products of how we are raised.”

He met his wife Jeanette during the difficult time when he couldn’t speak over a whisper. His mother, who met her through the church, set them up.

Hanagarne said he tried to talk his wife out of going through with the marriage. He told her she didn’t know how bad it would get. Still, she wouldn’t listen.

She told him that not being with him would be harder than being with him, even when the Tourette’s was at its worst, he said.

The two now live together with their 5-year-old son, Max, a boy who is learning to think for himself.

Despite the huge role that religion played in his family, Hanagarne chose to leave it.  It’s a decision that wasn’t easy for his relatives to take in.

“My family are my best friends,” he said. “Me leaving the faith was heartbreaking for them.”

Standing 6-feet, 7 inches tall, and weighing around 260 pounds, Hanagarne uses bodybuilding to deal with his Tourette’s. He recently published his memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength and the Power of Family.

During a visit to The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford last week, the ‘strongman’ was reminded of his love for reading, something that blossomed when he was just a small boy.

One of Hanagarne’s favorite authors, Stephen King, wrote more than 50 books. He was excited to be part of the security detail at King’s fundraising appearance for the Twain House that night.

“I read my first Stephen King book when I was in fifth grade – way too early,” Hanagarne said. “I was looking around the bookmobile and I found this big book, Misery…”

He said he’s always had the philosophy that the bigger the book, the better.

But Hanagarne’s Mormon mother banned King’s gut-wrenching stories.

“I started having tics when I was six,” Hanagarne said. “Tourette’s feels like you have to sneeze and you can’t let it out. You don’t know what it’s gonna look or sound like.”

It was not until he was a freshman in high school that his parents acknowledged his life-changing syndrome and took him to see a specialist.

“It took them about three minutes to diagnose me with Tourette’s,” he said.

Hanagarne enjoys working in libraries because they help him to control his body, and keep his syndrome under control, something he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

He also likes them, he said, because they allow him to think.

Librarian With The Strength to Cope with Tourette Syndrome

By Ashaya Nelson

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

“Twitch! Twitch! Twitch!” the crowd screamed when high school freshman Josh Hanagarne stood at the free throw line.

The game depended on him making the shot.

Hanagarne, who had physical and vocal tics that would later be identified as Tourette Syndrome, stood in front of the basket with tears running down his face.

The ball made it into the basket and his team went home with a win. But he didn’t leave without flipping off the crowd.

Hanagarne shares his story with people all around the world.

He visited the Mark Twain House & Museum Thursday to talk about his book, The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

Hanagarne, a bodybuilder, said he learned a lot about himself by writing a memoir.

“Wasn’t trying to be a writer, this never was supposed to happen,” said Hanagarne.

Now a librarian in Salt Lake City, Hanagarne always was engrossed in books, and as a kid, tried to find the largest book to read.

He read his first Stephen King book in fifth grade and though his mother banned King’s book from their home, he continued to sneak them in.

Now, Hanagarne said, he barely sleeps, reading a book each day.

The night of that basketball game, Hanagarne asked his parents what was wrong with him, and he got the diagnosis of Tourette’s.

During his childhood, it wasn’t a big deal, he said. In eighth grade it became vocal, and he began to get bullied. As he got older, his condition worsened, and even became violent.

Trying to hold in his Tourette’s, he said, “feels like that most intense sneeze.”

A mysterious man had an impact on his life. Adam T. Glass, a U.S. Air Force veteran who suffered a brain crushing injury, helped him learn to move his body in ways that brought relief.

Hanagarne explained that Glass could somehow see where the pain came from in someone’s body, and how to fix it. Glass helped Hanagarne by having him use a five-pound dumbbell, and by moving his wrist.

Today, Hanagarne is a happy family man. He said his mother came home from church one day and told him she’d found the perfect wife for him. When he met his wife, he could barely speak.

She did not hear his true voice until eight months after their wedding.

After trying for years to have a child, they had Max, a son who is now five years old.

Bodybuilding Librarian With a Soft Spot for His Wife and Son

By Indira Senderovic

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

The world’s strongest librarian, Josh Hanagarne, hails from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Raised as a Mormon, he later changed his faith when his curiosity about the church caused him to question it.

Hanagarne said he can rip a deck of cards in eight pieces, break a horseshoe with his hands and pick up 500 pounds with his finger.

He was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome in his freshman year in high school, but symptoms came earlier. It was hard for him in middle school because the Tourette’s started progressing and he developed vocal tics.

Hanagarne said he met Adam T. Glass, a survivor of a massive brain injury, who helped him with his Tourette’s. Glass has a gift, Hanagarne said, that enables him to help direct body movements toward healing.

He sleeps about three hours a night, Hanagarne said, and stays up most of the time reading.

When he was younger, his mother tried to ban books from the house but he snuck them in whenever he could. He read his first Stephen King book in fifth grade and last week was excited to serve as part of the security when King appeared at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

Hanagarne choked up when he talked about his family. He said marrying his wife was the smartest thing he ever did. Because of his troubles with Tourette’s, he said, he wasn’t sure she should marry him.

But before their wedding, she told him she was happier with him than without him. Today, they have a five-year-old son Max, a boy he said is a miracle baby because they weren’t expected to be able to conceive.

Strongman Librarian Crushes Stereotypes

By Molly Miller

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

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.

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