Panicked, she called the specialist to confirm the appointment, only to discover that she wouldn’t be seeing him at all. The office had no record of her.
“I was really scared,” said Ecola, who called it the lowest moment in her quest for a diagnosis. “I was convinced I had a brain tumor.” Her problem turned out to be far less serious and far more easily treated. The following day she lucked into an appointment with another specialist, who explained the odd constellation of symptoms that had left her unable to leave her house.
For several years, Ecola had suffered an unexplained, intermittent facial tic, in which she scrunched up her face as if she were tasting something awful. Because it seemed linked to stress, Ecola consulted a behavioral therapist in an effort to banish it through habit reversal training — using relaxation exercises and making a conscious effort to stop the tic. Until early 2010, the treatment usually worked, and Ecola seemed able to control it.
That summer, as the tic worsened, she also noticed a frequent unusual tightness in her face, as though “a string was tied in a circle through my eyebrows, cheeks and jaw, and someone was gently pulling it.” By the end of the day, her face ached.
A few months later, she got a huge new computer monitor at work and noticed she was squinting when she looked at it. Her eyes seemed more light-sensitive than usual. “I figured it was just so shiny, but then I noticed I was squinting at night,” Ecola recalled.
But it was her nearly nonstop yawning that attracted the most attention. Although she wasn’t tired, Ecola yawned as often as 200 times per day. She yawned through meetings at work and at dinner with her husband. Friends and co-workers, and sometimes perfect strangers, asked her whether she was getting enough sleep; she assured them she was. Ecola was particularly mortified when a candidate for a high-level job apologized for boring her.
She decided to see whether acupuncture might reduce the squinting or yawning while she waited to see the neuro-opthalmologist recommended by her optometrist.
After six failed treatments, the acupuncturist suggested she keep a log and notice if something seemed to trigger the yawning or squinting. A few weeks later, after having trouble keeping her eyes open during a meeting, Ecola dropped by a friend’s office at work and discovered that the squinting diminished dramatically once she began talking. Worried that she would look crazy if she talked to herself, she began walking to the Metro with her cellphone clapped to her ear, chattering away even if no one was on the other end. When she got tired of the phone, she sang Christmas carols, since it was November.