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Weightlifting provides psychological strength for Utahn battling Tourette's

By John Hollenhorst | Posted - Apr 30th, 2013 @ 10:29pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Librarians are quiet and bookish, not generally known for feats of strength. That's the stereotype anyway. But a Salt Lake librarian explodes the stereotype.

Josh Hanagarne has not only written a memoir called "The World's Strongest Librarian," he also interrupts the quiet of the library — sometimes every few seconds — with whoops and grunts; other noises that sound like sneezes and hiccups; and even the sounds of his teeth loudly snapping together.

Patrons at Salt Lake City's main downtown library often notice. Hanagarne's involuntary sounds, accompanied by physical gyrations and spasms, are known as "tics." They're the hallmarks of Tourette syndrome, an ailment Hanagarne has been forced to live with since he was eight years old.

"The World's Strongest Librarian"
Book signing
  • Where: King's English Bookshop, 1511 South 1500 East Salt Lake City
  • When: Thursday May 30, 7 p.m.
  • What: Salt Lake City librarian and author Josh Hanagarne will read from and sign his new memoir

"My reality," Hanagarne said, "is that my body does whatever it wants, generally in spite of whatever I want."

Hanagarne's memoir — set for publication this week — is attracting national attention. "The World's Strongest Librarian" portrays his long-running wrestling match with the bizarre and troubling disorder. It's also a coming-of-age story filled with comic incident, brimming with insights about Utah culture and yes, the joys of a public library.

Hanagarne's tics are often worse in staff-only areas of the library when he is not interacting with patrons.

"When I'm talking I'm fine," Hanagarne said between spasms of hiccuping and snapping noises. "That is one of the challenges of this place is that I don't get to spend the whole day chatting."

"It also helps that I work with nice people who don't tell me to shut up," he continued. "I almost bought them all headphones for Christmas, but they said I don't need to."

Hanagarne can sometimes suppress the tics. But he pays a price later with even more severe ones.


I'd say it's harder than ever right now. But I'd say my life is also better than it's ever been.

–Josh Hanagarne, author and librarian


"The urge doesn't go away," Hanagarne explained. "If you think about it like a sneeze, it kind of always feels like a sneeze on the brink. Yeah, you can hold it in, but you let a sneeze out to have some relief. It's like a sneeze located in a million different places."

Pointing first at his own shoulder and then at the ceiling, Hanagarne said, "It's here. It's here. It's in my voice box."

He divides his time between serving patrons at an information desk, shelving books in the non-fiction section and working at a computer in staff-only areas.

But most days he finds time to visit an employee exercise room where something interesting happens. Hanagarne has developed an impressive repertoire involving feats of strength.

He can dead lift nearly 600 pounds and can even bend frying pans and heavy nails.

Hanagarne discovered weightlifting at age 20. After the anxiety and despair of his teenage years, the workouts helped him find hope.

"When I would go to lift, that was the only time I felt I was actually in control of my body," Hanagarne said. "I was weak as a kitten. But I could make my body do what I wanted it to for a while because while I lifted, the tics would go away."

What is...
... Tourette syndrome?
  • A neurological disorder that starts in childhood
  • Symptoms include unusual repetitive movements or unwanted sounds that can't be controlled (tics)
  • Symptoms often lessen or become quiet and controlled after the teen years
  • Males are about three to four times more likely to develop Tourette's than females
  • No cure
(Source: Mayo Clinic)

He created a blog called "The World's Strongest Librarian" and frequently speaks to classes and community groups. His message: life is better if you latch on to something like weightlifting that gives you direction and a way to measure your progress.

His book is a poignant story of hope wrapped in a born librarian's delight over books and witty observations about life. But don't expect a completely happy ending.

"I mean, a year ago I thought I was cured," Hanaganre said. "I went almost a year without any tics."

But the tics came back later and stronger. Tourette syndrome still makes Hanagarne pay a price for suppressing his tics, even with weightlifting.

"It's way worse now than it ever was during the darkest days," Hanagarne said. "I'd say it's harder than ever right now. But I'd say my life is also better than it's ever been."

That's because of the psychological benefits of weightlifting.

"It's an ongoing fight," Hanagarne said. "I feel like it's kind of a grim truce right now. (Tourette's) no longer makes my decisions for me."

He admits, too, that he's not really the world's strongest librarian. He knows of a medical librarian in Tennessee who can lift more weight. But as Hanagarne said, it's all a matter of context.

He's not just lifting weights, he's lifting spirits. And sometimes, that can take some pretty heavy lifting.

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