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June 20th, 2012
11:48 AM ET

'American Idol' favorite James Durbin overcomes Tourettes, Aspergers and bullying

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.  James Durbin became a household name last year as the "American Idol" fan favorite who also has Tourette syndrome and Aspergers syndrome.  He also opens up about how music was not only a refuge from neurological disorders, but also years of bullying.

I believe it was December of '98 when my dad passed away of an overdose. A few weeks later, around my 10th birthday, I was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and Asperger syndrome.

It was a really rough time, especially at that age, being told I have a neurological "disease," when I already felt so different.

At that point I was being bullied for being different, having big ears, and now for having no dad AND for making weird faces and noises I couldn't control.  I was a walking target.

Then my mom discovered a musical interest in me after my older sister was in musical theater at her high school. I learned all the songs from the show "Damn Yankees" and at the final performance, the director let me go onstage (my first time onstage) and perform with the cast!  I was hooked instantly and for some reason it felt right.

Although I felt I had found "my place," I still had to go back to my own school. The bullying just kept getting worse. I didn't know what to do anymore. I remember I even had thoughts of suicide and hurting myself. 

When I turned 12, I was given a hand-me-down guitar and a chord book. I studied those basic chords and learned how to play the basic songs. Throughout this process, I figured out that no matter how bad of a day I had at school, I could come home and create my own world  within the music. I could make the music as happy or as sad as I wanted it to be. I used the pain from being bullied to transform me into who I was meant to be.

I knew where I was most comfortable - on stage. But I couldn't always be there and not everyone respected my happiness. 

The bullying didn't end there. It just kept happening. It got so bad that I dropped out of high school. I got to the point where I couldn't even focus in class because of the pestering. I told the school officials about the bullying and they did what they could, but I would rather be sittin' on my butt at home than being bullied and beat up at school.

A couple of years later, I met an angel who would turn out to be my beautiful wife, Heidi.

I was a dropout: No job, no license, no car, no aspirations. She had a diploma, three jobs, a car AND goals. Having someone in my life who really believed in me made me believe in myself. We started dating and I started to progress. I started a band and found a job, got my license, and soon afterwards got my GED!  In the midst of it all, we found out that we were expecting our sweet son Hunter. That right there is the proudest moment of my life and no famous game show or extravaganza concert can top that. EVER!!

Heidi and Hunter balance me. Throughout my adventures and heartache on "American Idol" to the adventures and heartache on the road of rock 'n roll, they have always supported me. 

And when I'm home, I'm just Daddy.

With whatever "celebrity status" I have thanks to "American Idol," I really wanted to use it for a good purpose.

I've always been a huge fan of WWE and pro wrestling and I was approached by them after Idol to be a part of their anti-bullying campaign B.A. Star. Since then I have participated in several in school rallies to talk to kids about my experiences being bullied and how I've overcome them to be the man I am today.

Regrets? I've had a few... but then again, too few to mention, haha.


soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. Marissa Erickson

    I like this and tis making me cry for James Durbin to this to him and Im sanding up for this for a stop to this and I not like ti all And I wish we can stop this now and we can do ti all and I just not like this and that is not happen now and I wish I can make ti stop to ti and I not like this from Bullying and I wish and all of us make a a stop for James Durbin and we can do ti and I konw ri all from us to James Durbin and we can do ti all of are harts for this to a stop and we can do ti all

    June 20, 2012 at 12:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. nansaidh

    What a terrific interview – thank you Dr. Gupta for showing more and more people the beauty (inside and out) of James Durbin. As a die-hard fan, I know what an incredible inspiration he is to me and many others. I am so happy that opportunities like your show are able to spread the word. James' story is to me, what life is all about. Helping others and being helped – loving and being loved – inspiring and being inspired in return. We are all here for each other – and James is one of those rare people who affect everyone around him with his energy and joy. Beautiful interview, beautiful voice, beautiful soul. <3

    June 20, 2012 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Marissa Erickson

      I'm so with you on your and. Ilike ti and from and fans make a stop ti and we do ti and do ti all

      June 20, 2012 at 12:56 | Report abuse |
    • Durbinator 1077

      Beautifully said nansaidh! Love James and what he stands for! 🙂

      June 20, 2012 at 13:02 | Report abuse |
  3. DesignRealtor

    Thank You Dr. Gupta for inviting James to share his story with millions! I bet you were touched greatly, just as we all were! He is such an Charismatic individual that clearly is on the path to a great Destiny! I thank you from the bottom of my heart! I only wish it could go on for longer...not enough time spent with James! Can't get enough of this captivating young Man and his life story, family, bandmates, etc!

    June 20, 2012 at 13:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Durbinator 1077

    James is a real person with real feelings. One of the hardest things to do in life is put yourself out there for all to see and risk being ridiculed and bullied for being different! Some how James has found the strength to do just that because He cares about others who may be going through the same Hell that he has gone through. God Bless James and his family for their part in making the world a much better place to live!

    June 20, 2012 at 13:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nansaidh

      You're so right – it is so hard to have the COURAGE James does to show your vulnerability and open yourself up to the world. For him, it has turned into a huge strength – that's so inspiring and uplifting!! James and Heidi are an amazing team – I am very thankful they found each other!! They have found and cultivated the blessings of being positive – a lesson we all can learn from in huge portion! They have both made MY life a better place to be. :o)

      June 20, 2012 at 16:47 | Report abuse |
  5. Frances

    Thank you for showcasing the beautiful human soul and amazingly talented James Durbin. a true survivor of childhood events beyond his control! James and his "story" have inspired 100s maybe even1000s to "hang in there" and change their situation especially when someone comes along that believes in you and encourages with love, compassion and understanding like his beautiful wife Heidi. If you get a chance to see James and his rocking band live on tour, you will absolutely love them!! A fan for life...I love James and his precious family...............

    June 20, 2012 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Crystal Wright

    Thank you Dr.Gupta for doing this interview of James ! It goes to show all the kids out there having a hard time that they too can have a successful life!! Both my children have endured some of the same things he went through & I know how hard that can be.I have always been a fan of James ,his voice,heart & soul ! Thank you James for just being YOU -We all love you sooo much!!! Big thanks to Heidi as well for always being there & believing in James!

    June 20, 2012 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Barbara

    Thank you Dr Gupta for featuring this amazing young man in your interview. I have followed James since his tryouts at Idol Iand have never looked back. He has such an amazing voice and has such a talent to engage his audience. If you ever get the chance to attend one of his concerts, you will not be sorry. Also his CD, "Memories of ABeautiful Disaster" is the best money you will ever spend for your listening pleasure. He is only 23 years old but has the heart and soul of an old man, He and his beautiful Heidi are a tremendous team!!!

    June 20, 2012 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. wendyucliu

    Thank You Dr. Gupta for profiling James in the interview. Like many others, I have followed James since his first audition with American Idol. I was deeply drawn to not only his voice, but his soul, which just shined through when he sang. As I learn more and more about him, the more admiration I have for this young man, who went through so so much adversity, and still maintains such an optimistic and beautiful view about life. I too bought his CD, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster. I loved it, it's a beautiful piece of work that shows who James Durbin is. Thanks again for showcasing this wonderful musician and person.

    June 21, 2012 at 00:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. aspergers 

    Thanks for sharing the video of aspergers,it inspired me that one should love their life and enjoy it.It can give inspiration to all people.

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    June 21, 2012 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. stephen dijoseph

    So happy to see this interview, James and DR Gupta! Thanks for your courage. I can relate. I've lived with Tourettes for nearly 40 years. Undiagnosed for 10. Please visit and share my website dedicated to TS awareness and Education. Keep up the great music and work!
    http://www.synapTicadventure.com

    June 21, 2012 at 12:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Agrav8td

    People need to learn that people with disabilties have something to offer too. They should not be shunned, bullied or dismissed. They have alot more to deal with and overcome than a 'normal' person, therefore what they have to offer can be so much more beautiful & meaningful, than from someone who has it all.

    June 21, 2012 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Marylyn

    Dr Gupta thank you for this interview it was insightful ...James Durbin was an American Idol for many reasons to introduce us to an incredible artist, human being, and hero to alot of people who say never give up on dreams and goals. Happy that James is achieving his dream with the support of his wife and child Hunter.

    June 21, 2012 at 13:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Joanne Villasana

    Thank you so much for this amazing interview and for allowing James to share his sweet soul and inspiration with so many! James has such an honest, loving soul and mind blowing talent to boot! His story inspires everyone to become a better person and it reminds us all to treasure each person in this world. James inspires us all to press forward, no matter what, and keep our dreams in our hearts. Thank you, James, for giving us all hope. Thank you, Heidi & Hunter, for being James' rock and compass in this world. Thank you, Dr. Gupta, for sharing James & his story with so many!

    June 21, 2012 at 15:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Geoff

    What happened to James Durbin is Obama's fault. That's what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity said on their shows. If they say something we know it has to be true, so say the little minded people.

    June 25, 2012 at 04:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. maryam

    Thanks to California Voters for putting AB9-Seth's Law Anti-Bullying into vote. It is a law now as of July 1st. James Durbin keep ROCKING! You are awsome.

    July 4, 2012 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. Adrieanne Pearce

    Wish he could come to my sons school. Asher has aspergers and is constantly bullied. We have had to hire an advocate lawyer to deal with so many things with the school 1 of which is the constant bullying. He is taking guitar lessons, he's only 7. He's an amazing boy and we both jam to James Durbin n the car and he says that's who he wants to be when he grows up into a rock star is James Durbin. Thanks and congrats go to James Durbin on overcoming it all and succeeding!!!

    August 5, 2012 at 01:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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    American Idol is simply the best singing TV show ever. i always watch it. .

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    merican Idol was created based on the British show Pop Idol, which was in turn inspired by Popstars, a show TV producer Nigel Lythgoe saw in Australia and brought over to Britain. Using the idea from Popstars of employing a panel of judges to select singers in audition, then adding other elements such as telephone voting by the viewing public (which at the time was already in use in shows such as the Eurovision Song *

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.