I scribbled the drawing above in the winter of 1984. I was 20 years old. Something was wrong. The connection between my mind and my body had suddenly slackened, and at times it seemed to disappear. It seemed like I was no longer me. I described my thought process as follows:
The pictures in my head won’t go away: blue plastic in the sun, neon lights in a garage, a soft lamp in a rainy window… all within the boundaries of a moment, connected by strings my memory can’t trace.
“The pictures,” I called them, and they travelled in streams flowing softly from nowhere. They were not mine, but I couldn’t ignore them. Worse, the pictures were not neutral. Each carried a wisp of feeling, an emotional imprint—a tiny leash bound to the edges of my mood. Often, that leash led me around campus for hours.
It wasn’t long before I wandered into the library, where I started reading books about schizophrenia. Though I didn’t hear voices like the patients in the books, it seemed that I had suddenly tuned into a psychic frequency that I could not extinguish. The pictures were not like the intrusive thoughts I’d experienced before, the swear words that popped into my head during church, an OCD symptom that I blinked away even as I failed to recognize it for what it was. In fact, I’d never even seen a book about OCD. In 1984, Schizophrenia seemed to best describe the mystic stress into which I’d so silently fallen.
My problems only intensified when I indulged my preferred method of stress relief—smoking marijuana. The peculiar obstacle of my marijuana habit, which I challenged nightly, was the OCD thought that came with the first tingle of the high: “What if I forget how to breathe?”
Marijuana seemed so important that I found ways to distract myself from my breathing, like triggering compulsive laughter: “Remember when the dryer didn’t work last week and I wore those wet clothes to class when the temperature was below zero? How did my shirt and blue jeans freeze stiff so quickly? It took half an hour for me to thaw in class…. Professor Davis tried harder to avoid eye contact with me the wetter I got! Imagine the look on the face of the student who sat in that wet desk during the next class.”
I might as well have laughed at how ridiculous it was to worry about forgetting how to breathe. Bizarre as it seemed, I soon I began to consider something equally absurd: “What if I forget how to swallow?”
I soon felt the need to wash down every bite—just to be sure that I wouldn’t choke. I generally used milk. At the cafeteria table, nearby students stared every time I had an “emergency” and my hand jerked instinctively toward the glass. Soon, I developed a defensive thought ritual that distracted me from the mechanics of swallowing long enough to eat without panic. For example, at breakfast, I’d review Army ranks from private to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At lunch, I’d I recall the order of number one hits by the Beatles. At dinner, I’d climb Mount Olympus through the hierarchy of Greek gods.
One night in the summer of 1984, I got so distracted that I forgot to eat.
It happened while my friend Mitch was visiting from Colorado, when we decided that taking psychedelic mushrooms in an apartment on a Sunday night sounded like fun. When we took them, nothing happened—until we found ourselves in the kitchen on the other side of a time warp. Mitch stood by the refrigerator while I sat alone at the table, looking down over a soggy bowl of cereal. “Wow! When did I pour this?”
“I don’t even remember coming in here,” said Mitch. “I think we ate too many mushrooms.”
After that, we tried to watch a movie. The plot involved a murder mystery that took place in a large house. “Whoa,” we said, every time the characters returned to the same room and we simultaneously experienced a sinister sister of déjà vu. I suggested that we turn the TV off and play “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” instead.
“No,” said Mitch. “That’ll just make things worse.”
We finally turned the television off, and I tried to go to sleep in my room. I closed my eyes and saw a clown pinned to the ceiling of a dimly-lit basement. Never had a mental image seemed so vivid. When I closed my eyes again, a blue mask descended upon my face. I opened my eyes and reached for my cigarettes. My hand passed like a thousand hands, like cards shuffled by the devil. My hand had become an illusion. I got up and walked out to the living room where Mitch was trying to fall asleep on the couch. “Look at this,” I said, slowly waving my hand back and forth.
“Stop doing that,” said Mitch.
The “phantom hands” illusion fascinated me long after my first and only mushroom experience was over. “What if I could imagine that my actual hand was a phantom?” It amazed me when my imagination worked so well that my hand became a curiosity, an object detached from my soul. It looked as though the hand was not mine. I called my new mind-state relaxed concentration. In my journal, I described my dissociative state of looking at my own hand, “like being a conscious marble resting on a shelf along the back wall of my brain, looking through my own eyes as though they were distant windows.”
When the thought experiment was over, and my hand became my own again, marijuana provided a substitute for my sober trance. “But what if I forget how to breathe?” Now, in addition to that fear, marijuana made me worry that my heart would forget how to beat. I stayed awake at night, waiting for my heart to skip. Later that summer, after having an EKG taken in the emergency room, and after undergoing an echocardiogram performed by a cardiac specialist, I talked to another doctor about my inability to sleep. When I mentioned the vivid dreams I’d been having, he told me to stop smoking marijuana.
I dreamt that a rat the size of a dog lived in my garage. I dreamt that I stepped on a rattlesnake and it sprouted a second head. I dreamt that the sun set in the eastern sky. That was when I got the idea that my dreams were somehow unique, and I that needed to start keeping a journal. In the summer of 1986, I sent my preliminary journal to the celebrated dream researcher, J. Allan Hobson, at Harvard University. He advised me to add more detail. In December, I sent him my revised dream journal, a 71-page document typed single-spaced in three columns. I entitled the journal: “Episodic Memory and the Associative Relation of Cognitive Dream Elements.”
The mental effort required by my meticulous dream log extinguished “the pictures.” That was because I had to record every thought that triggered every dream. I also had to record the time of day that each and every one of those thoughts occurred to me. “Day Residue” was the heading of the first column of my journal, and it contained all waking memories that infected my dreams. The middle column of my journal described the dream itself. In the third column, I recorded older memories that my dreams recalled to me.
One night I dreamt that I was wandering around campus like usual. In the dream, the college bookstore closed. The administration assorted all the textbooks by subject and piled them outside of various buildings. I began searching for the books I needed. I walked towards a crowd of students gathered around a pile of books outside the athletic complex. I was sure that one of those books was mine. But as I drew closer, I realized that something was wrong. Upon reaching the pile, I recognized that these were algebra books—a class I didn’t have.
They were the wrong books.
The scene changed in the dream and I found myself inside the athletic complex, on the deck of the swimming pool. A student was swimming erratically, thrashing in the water. A woman standing on the deck beside me said that the swimmer was struggling because had taken the wrong medication that morning: he was supposed to have taken ACTH 4-10; instead, he’d taken ACTH 1-4.
Then I woke up.
After recording the dream in my journal, I began to analyze it. I immediately recognized the term ACTH 4-10 from a chapter of a psychology textbook I’d read on the day prior to the dream. ACTH 4-10 is also known as corticotrophin. It stimulates the adrenal cortex. But that was not how my sleeping brain recalled that information. Instead of remembering my reading from the previous day, my dream simply processed the idea of letters mixed with numbers. My dreaming brain decoded this information as algebra.
It was the wrong interpretation.
The setting of the dream quickly reminded me of an event from my childhood. I was a Vikings fan, and the Minnesota Vikings conducted their training camp every August at my college. The Vikings used the locker room in the athletic complex, and they practiced in the field across the street. I always joined the crowds of kids who waited for autographs just outside the door.
One day, I found myself standing alone outside that door. The other kids had grown impatient waiting for the players to come out, and they’d drifted away to play on the lawn. Suddenly, the legendary defensive lineman Gary Larsen opened the door. As I stepped toward him with my pen and pennant, another kid ran across the lawn and cut in front of me. The rude kid handed Gary Larsen a pen and a football card. As I stood there frustrated, I moved close enough to overhear their conversation.
“This is not me, kid,” said Gary Larsen, pointing to the football card.
“Yes it is. Just sign it,” said the rude kid.
“Don’t you think I know my own name, kid?” said Gary Larsen.
The wrong card, the wrong books, and the wrong medication: my dream was consistent. Triggered by the psychology text I’d read during the previous day, the events in the dream were merely a reflection of my brain’s effort to correct its own mistake: ACTH 4-10 is a hormone, not an equation. My brain made this mistake by dissociating previous information from its context, by subconsciously failing to recognize its own waking memories. Like the pictures, “ACTH 4-10” appeared in the dream as though it had come from nowhere.
This was the insight that hurtled me into a three-year obsession.
This obsession forced me to constantly think about my thinking. For instance, sometime between 9:00 and 9:10 AM on September 28, 1986, I remembered looking at my class schedule and then folding it in half. Shortly before 9:30 AM on the following morning, I dreamt that a waitress in a bar folded a dollar bill in half. Just after 10:00 AM on that same morning, while I smoked my first cigarette, I was mysteriously reminded of the 1936 Olympic Games. At approximately 2:30 AM on September 30, a news segment about economic sanctions reminded me of Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Later that night, I had a dream about Jesse Owens.
It was not until 1989 that my compulsion to remember my thoughts in chronological order finally exhausted me. That was when I began to keep a simpler journal. In it, I recorded only things that I actually did. Also, instead of writing about dreams, I started writing fiction. I read more. I quit smoking marijuana. I started lifting weights. I joined the college judo club. Then I started working odd jobs, hoping to save enough money to move to Colorado. I worked as a janitor at a truck stop, as a sign holder for the county highway department, and as a packager on the line at a meat-packing plant. But I could never save enough money.
Then one night at the gym, a security pin slipped out of a hole under the seat of the Roman Chair. I fell backwards onto the floor with a 25 pound weight on my chest, the disc slipped out of my hands, and the edge of it chopped my off finger when the two met at the floor. Luckily, since a strip of skin and a few blood vessels kept my hand precariously bound to that finger, I didn’t have to look around on the carpet to find it. I became a marble again. That familiar gulf opened between my body and mind. When I approached the woman at the front desk with my bloody finger cupped in my opposite palm, she turned shock white. She told me later that I calmly asked her for “a band-aid and an ambulance.”
The subsequent lawsuit settlement allowed me to move to Colorado.
I fixed up my Chrysler and headed west. My windfall gave me time to focus on my writing and spend more time reading. I counted every page I wrote (3795) and every book I read (100) the entire two years and seven months that I lived with my friends in quiet a suburb of Denver. My fiction writing slowly evolved into countless revisions of a single story about a boy who wandered around his middle-school corridors worrying—until he found himself in the library reading about symptoms of the measles.
One day in September of 1994, I wandered into a Barnes and Noble in Littleton and found a book filled with remarkably similar stories entitled, “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing.” This book explained a lot about the actions of that “fictional” boy in the story I’d been writing. It also explained the dream I had years earlier (the wrong medication, the wrong football card, the wrong books). I’d finally found the right book. It led me to psychologist, a psychiatrist, and the correct diagnosis. The book featured a story entitled, “My Mind on My Mind,” the story of a young man who also began his journey with the wrong diagnosis. Like him, I was not schizophrenic.
I had OCD.
From 1984-1994, I’d struggled to emerge from an altered state of mind that I couldn’t explain. My remedies, from marijuana to mushrooms, backfired. My symptoms, from experiencing intrusive imagery to recording the minutia of my brain, controlled my life. Now, with a foundation of actionable insight, I stood upon solid ground from which I could finally fight back.
Ten years later, in the autumn of 2004, my revised and expanded story about the boy who wandered into his middle-school library to research the measles was accepted for publication by The Bellevue Literary Review at the NYU School of Medicine. Entitled The Devil and a Pocketful of Glass, the essay told the story of my life with OCD. After the essay was published, it occurred to me that I would never have wandered into that Barnes and Noble had it not been for a loose pin on a Roman Chair. Now, whenever I need to reconnect the bond between mind and body, I simply rub my thumb against the side of my numb finger until it tingles.
The Reattached Finger: bent, crippled and mine.