Entrepreneur won’t let Tourette’s get in his way
During a conversation with Kurt Dolley, the untrained eye would probably never know he has Tourette’s syndrome. The quiet 29-year-old would most likely come off as a little nervous.
That’s because Dolley, like most people with Tourette’s, doesn’t swear uncontrollably. His tics are subtle – twitching, grunting, hand gestures, head jerking – and he has learned with age to control them in public.
Still, for a good chunk of his life, the Merrimack native preferred to keep the disorder a secret. He avoided social situations, skipping his high school prom and shying away from dating. But a recent business venture has changed that.
The New Boston resident is trying to break into massage therapy, a profession that demands not only social interaction, but also some level of intimacy. He isn’t worried about Tourette’s interfering with his chair massages, but does worry that his clients who don’t know will think he’s nervous – or strange.
So after a more than decade of trying to hide his condition, Dolley has started speaking frankly about his disorder.
“Trying to get people to understand this illness is pretty difficult,” he said. “The one time people think I’m nervous, that’s all it takes to ruin it.”
As far back as the 3rd grade, Dolley remembers knowing he was different from other kids and trying to pretend he wasn’t.
It all started with a school fire drill – routine for most, but excruciating for a kid whose condition made him hypersensitive to loud noises. On this day, he had a substitute teacher who didn’t know to let him leave the building early.
Surprised by the alarms, Dolley remembers lying on the ground in the fetal position, shaking uncontrollably, his hands covering his ears.
Fueled by the embarrassment of that day, Dolley slowly taught himself how to control the symptoms doctors couldn’t diagnose.
“I vowed never to let anyone see me like that again,” Dolley said.
He tried to manipulate tics to look like intentional gestures, such as reaching for an object. That went on for 20 years.
“I hid it. I completely hid it,” he said.
It wasn’t until 17 that Dolley found out his symptoms were caused by Tourette’s.
According to the Tourette Syndrome Association, most people with the disorder do have some control over their symptoms. The nonprofit, which considers part of its mission to fight stereotypes, also notes only about 15 percent of people with Tourette’s have tics that involve obscene words or gestures. Most symptoms are relatively minor.
Fighting stereotypes about Tourette’s is also one of Dolley’s goals in speaking openly about his disorder to clients.
This is Dolley’s second attempt at running a massage business, five years after getting certified.
He opened a shop in Manchester a couple years back but had to close down four months later. Afraid of the networking that could have helped get his business off the ground, he hadn’t been able to build a solid client base.
“For me, it was like climbing Mount Everest,” he said.
Now he has joined the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce to meet fellow business owners and potential clients, and is contacting businesses all over the state to promote his on-site chair massage service. His old business plan was to advertise and wait for the clients to come to him, he said.
The turning point came last September, when Dolley was working for a vending company in between this attempt at a massage career and last. In that job, Dolley was forced to interact with people because he made deliveries all day.
Dolley still doesn’t have many clients, but he’s hoping a change in his social skills will give him the boost he needs. He equates his experience right now to learning to grow up – something most people did years ago.
“Where I should have been at 18, that’s where I am now,” he said. – ASHLEY SMITH/THE TELEGRAPH