Despite Tourette's, he hopes to lead and inspire others
// Story by Thrina Tham
// Photos by Ong Ji Xuan
The uncontrollable twitches first started for 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Dexter Choo at the age of 14. Back then, he did not understand what it was – and neither did his family and friends.
"It was very hard, because they would say, 'Dexter, why are you doing this? It's a bad habit, just control yourself.'"
He was eventually diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome a year later. This neurological disorder causes a person to make involuntary and repetitive movements or noises, known as tics.
His condition made him stand out and he was picked on by his schoolmates.
In fact, his tics were so disruptive that he requested to take his exams in a separate room so as not to affect others.
When he enlisted for National Service (NS), 3SG Choo resolved to not let his condition get the better of him. He focused on being an asset to his section mates in whatever task he did.
On 17 Feb, he graduated from the 46th Specialist Cadet Course (SCC) in a small-scale parade held at Pasir Laba Camp. Following his graduation, 3SG Choo will lead a section as a Turret Mechanic Specialist.
A total of 1,091 specialist cadets will graduate from the multiple ceremonies being held from 15 to 18 Feb.
The appointment was an important achievement for the 20-year-old, who was struggling with his condition just a few years back.
"When I first started displaying tics, I didn't understand it. It would just happen and I didn't know how to explain it to my classmates or my parents," recalled 3SG Choo.
Teachers would call him out for fidgeting in class, and he would often hear his schoolmates talking about him.
Things were not easier at home. 3SG Choo shared a few heated arguments with his father over his inability to control his "bad habit".
"I must admit that I've shed a few tears. It was hard because my dad had expectations of how he wanted me to be...and as much as I wanted to control myself, I didn't have to ability to," said 3SG Choo, who is the elder of two siblings.
He finally got diagnosed at 15 when a friend of his father – who was aware of the disorder – referred him to a specialist.
"It was a big sigh of relief, I could finally rest easy knowing what it is all about."
Coming to terms
By the time 3SG Choo entered Basic Military Training (BMT) in April 2020, he had come to terms with his condition and learnt to manage it.
His common tics such as coughing, clearing his throat and twitching, remain. He also found that they were triggered when he was stressed or focused on something.
"Apart from that, I think I've been managing it pretty well. Every time I enter a new environment, be it junior college or NS, I've tried to make my condition secondary to who I am," said 3SG Choo.
Still, he admitted to getting called out for fidgeting during parades.
"I really tried my best to suppress my condition on my first day of BMT, but people still noticed," he recalled with an embarrassed laugh.
"After that I thought, 'it's fine that they know', and I focused on trying my best to be helpful to my section and to be a valuable person instead of a liability."
He went on to 1st Army Maintenance Base to train as an Armament Technician, where he was later selected to attend the SCC at the Army Logistics Training Institute (ALTI).
Thriving with Tourette's
At ALTI, proper planning helped 3SG Choo do well in training.
"Our section always goes through table-top exercises. So when it comes to a task, even if I suffer from tics at one point, once I snap out of it, I'm clear of what role I play and I know where to start again," he explained.
3SG Choo also volunteered as the Media In-Charge (photography has been his passion since secondary school), where he found that capturing his course mates through a lens helped him to interact with them on another level.
Towards the end of the course, the group did an activity where they wrote feedback for each other. On 3SG Choo's list was a comment that said: "When I first met you I didn't really like you, but after a while I realised you're a really nice and kind guy."
3SG Choo casually talked to his course mate about it, where the latter admitted that his first impression of 3SG Choo was that he was weird.
"(The chat) was really comforting to me because it showed that if you treat people with due respect and prove yourself to be an asset, they'll put aside all these small details and focus on the bigger picture."
Looking back, if there was something 3SG Choo could say to his younger self, it would be: "To believe in yourself.
"When people are not comfortable around you, you need to comfort yourself and believe that they will see through your condition and get over it eventually.
"I remember times when I really needed a hug from someone because I felt so conflicted about what was happening," he shared.
He added that the key to helping others with Tourette's was simply to be understanding: "Ultimately, we all need to be supportive to people who suffer from Tourette's syndrome, and give them more time to show them who they really are."