I was a sad teen. I hated my disloyal, unpredictable skin, and I feared God was about to tally up all my sinful thoughts and drop an old testament rock on my head. My miseries and fears got so bad, my mother bought me a book called Brain Lock. It’s about obsessive compulsive disorder. I loved that book. It was fascinating to read the stories of people enslaved by their loud brains.
- One man’s mind suggested that he bring his coffeemaker to work with him in a bag. He did this so he could open the bag fifty times a day and see the coffeemaker in there, unplugged. Innocent. This was the only way he knew for sure the coffeemaker wasn’t at home, gleefully burning down his house.
- One woman had to cover all her mirrors. Once she was face to face with herself, she couldn’t escape. It’s like her brain was a great code-breaker and there was a message hidden in the arrangement of her features. Her brain engaged in the puzzle and would not let her go. If cracking the code meant breaking her, it would happily do so.
- One man would wake up in the middle of the night if he heard emergency-vehicle sirens. He would rush to his car and chase the sound. If it led him to a car accident, he would wait for the emergency crew to clean up the scene, wait for everyone to leave, and then he would gather the cleaning supplies always ready in his trunk, and scrub the pavement. He feared battery acid. His mind had convinced him that if the acid was left alone, allowed to run into the Earth, it would find its way into his food, slip into his milk and juice containers, and rain from the little storm cloud floating over his head.
I was thrilled. I had found my tribe. These were my people, and they remain my people.
I have this problem with my fly. The zipper on my pants. I’m terrified that one day it’s going to be wide open while I’m standing in front of the classroom. I check my fly ten to fifty-seven times on the way to every class.
Occasionally, my mind asks me to stop walking, lean down, pull the little zipper flap to the side, and stare at the closed zipper, and think something like, “You are closed. You are closed for business.”
This has produced another fear: the fear of getting fired for reaching for my crotch ten to fifty-seven times on the way to class, reaching for it, fiddling with the tag, trying to zip it up more (I would zip it up over my head if I could), and also getting fired for leaning down and whispering to my crotch, “You are closed for business.”
People with OCD aren’t crazy, they just have intrusive thoughts that can become too powerful to ignore. If I’m remembering Brain Lock correctly, the book said I could control the voices by ignoring them. They wouldn’t get any worse if I didn’t do what they ordered. If I did do what they ordered, they would soon suggest other things. “Don’t step on a crack” might lead to this: “Plug your ears when you hear airplanes.”
ME: You got it, old friend. But…why?
BRAIN: Because your ears will send static.
ME: Of course. That makes sense. And the static is bad?
BRAIN: I’ll say.
ME: What does it do?
BRAIN: Clearly, you know nothing about engines. The static shorts them out.
BRAIN: Causing the plane to crash!
ME: Woah, I had no idea —
BRAIN: And it will crash into someone you love!
BRAIN: Exactly. You want to be a hero?
ME: That’s all I want.
BRAIN: Never listen to airplanes.
It was exciting to me, the prospect of helping the voice in my mind become more powerful, more eccentric. Today, it wants me to make sure I push down extra hard on light switches so they don’t cause an electrical fire that melts my cats when I’m away from home; tomorrow, my brain might say, “To encourage positive extra-terrestrial communication, have only positive thoughts when considering stars.”
ME: What if I have negative thoughts?
BRAIN: Then you will be probed. Hard.
So when you discover me smiling at the night sky, slow-blinking like a cat in love, I’m just trying to keep myself from being cavity searched. And I’m trying to keep you from being cavity searched. One day, when you think, “You know what? All my cavities remain unsearched,” if you’re happy about this, look at a star and thank me.
Like I said, OCD was exciting (before I really got to know it). I loved that I had the power to make myself behave in more interesting ways. In other words, if I obeyed the orders of my brain, I would increasingly act like an artist.
PEOPLE OF THE WORLD: That Dan. What a character. Did you know he doesn’t speak anymore?
MORE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD: Really? Why not?
PEOPLE: He sings. Everything he says, he sings it.
MORE PEOPLE: Why?
PEOPLE: To prevent global economic collapse.
MORE PEOPLE: Holy crap. Should I sing too?
PEOPLE: Do you have perfect pitch like Dan? Are you an artist?
MORE PEOPLE: I see your point.
All my life, I’ve wanted to stand out like this, to be chosen, and I’m guilty of looking to my OCD as proof that I’m uncommon enough to be worthy, to be special.
My gut says I’m not alone. I think the whole world joins me in the hope of being recognized as unique. I see us all standing against the great wall of kickball, waiting for unseen forces to speak out of darkness, saying, “Step forth, my child. I choose you.”
Seven billion people say, “Me?”
“No,” says the unseen force, “You,” and by that, it means me.
There are scenes in movies that take my breath away, and they always have to do with the discovery of greatness.
Whenever one character says to another, “You are the one,” I find I am no longer sitting down. I am standing. I am drifting toward the TV. I am rewinding the movie so I can hear the line again and again.
A janitor named Will Hunting solves the impossible equation and hurries away. Professor Lambeau of MIT looks at the boy’s work on the chalkboard and says, “Oh my God.”
Galadriel says to Frodo, “And if you do not find a way, no one will.”
I am crying.
“What’s the matter with you?” my wife says.
“I am crying.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Why are you crying?”
“Sometimes,” I tell her, “the fate the world comes down to one person.”
“Can we just watch hobbits do stuff without you worshiping yourself?”
But it is difficult.
After suffering for a long time, the genius John Nash produces a theory that has something to do with math. His advisor at Princeton says, “Well Mr. Nash, with a breakthrough of this magnitude, I’m confident you will get any placement you like…”
By “placement” he means Mr. Nash gets his pick of work assignments. In other words, “You get to work wherever you want. Everyone in the world wants to hire you, you sexy, sexy man.”
I dream of this happening to me. In the dream, I say, “I want to work on a hill.”
HARVARD: We can arrange that.
ME: I’m not finished.
HARVARD: Please forgive me.
ME: A hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I want my office to be a pirate ship. But the ship is on the hill, do you understand? And I want my basement to be an empty missile silo…are you writing this down?
HARVARD: Sorry for staring; your mind is just so fascinating.
ME: Forgiven. Just try to keep up. Now, when I raise the skull and crossbones, that means I’m in the great cabin, at work. Not to be disturbed.
HARVARD: Consider it done. Anything else?
ME: Fill the silo with water and sharks, and I’ll need a mini-submarine.
HARVARD: Of course, but…why?
ME: Hmm. Maybe I’ll look into Oxford. They did promise me hobbit holes.
HARVARD: Forgive me for questioning you. Water and sharks and a mini-submarine. What else do you require?
ME: Hobbit holes. And I don’t want to go to meetings. Or teach classes. And no student is allowed to approach me.
HARVARD: Very good, sir.
ME: Call me “doctor.” No….captain.
HARVARD: Very good, captain.
How do I know the whole world is with me on the quest to stand out, to be noticed?
I told my students not long ago, “I cracked Harry Potter!”
“What do you mean you cracked it?” they asked, disrespectfully.
“I cracked it! Solved it. I know why it’s so popular.”
As an aside, this is what people always do with profoundly popular things. They try to explain them in order to position themselves above the masses. They attempt to fit their arms around mainstream wonders, to feel their fingertips touching on the far side. Then they can say, “This has no power over me. Look, I’m holding the entire thing in my arms, in the palm of my hand. Therefore, I too could capture the mind of the entire world, if I felt like it.”
But, yes, I solved Harry Potter.
My students, lounging at their desks, smoking cigarettes, tattooing each other, practicing with butterfly knives and throwing stars, said with great sassiness, “Whatever, just tell us.”
I said, “Think about what happens to Harry. He’s chosen. He’s picked because he’s special. Then Harry is taken to a better world, a more magical one, and there he discovers he’s famous. This, my beloved students, is what everyone on earth wants to happen to them. Harry Potter holds a truth that everyone believes in. Everyone.”
One student asked, “What truth?” then he threw a knife at me.
I caught the knife. “The truth that there is no one else like you.”
A dull light filled my students’ eyes. They tried to muffle the light beneath death-metal thoughts. They could not.
“There’s more,” I said. “No one else is like you, and if the world was better, a more magical place, everyone would know it. You’d be famous. It’s just that our world isn’t good enough, isn’t magical enough to recognize your worth. You know it’s true. Everyone believes it in their heart. We’re underrated. We’re meant for somewhere so much better. You see? Harry Potter is 100% accurate when it comes to the human heart, yours and mine.”
They stopped lounging. They quit their tattoos half-finished, leaving only half the face of Death on their arms and necks. The cigarettes dropped from of their mouths, and their knives and stars fell to the floor, sticking in with a dramatic thud. Then they stood on their desks and chorused, “Oh Captain! my Captain!”
While weeping, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. I knew who it was by the high quality of the buzz: Harvard.
I let it buzz.
Two hours later, after my students finally finished calling me captain, I allowed them to complete their tattoos, filling in the other half of Death’s face, using my face as a model. Yin and Yang. Light and darkness. Death and Dan.
Then I called Harvard back:
“Correct, my child. We have good news: we choose you.”
“How did you find out about me?”
“My dear boy. At Harvard, you’re famous. We’ll send a plane immediately.”
“No!” I said. “No planes.” Then, because they would never understand the truth, I lied: “I have a fear of flying. I’ve been diagnosed.”
“Very good. We’ll send the limousine.”
I danced for joy then went home, packed up my coffeemaker, and waited on the sidewalk. Night fell. I gazed up at the stars, and while I watched them, I had the most positive thought of my life:
“I think I’m finally in control.”