Magazine article Newsweek

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the Half-Mad Mind; Lena Dunham Is Living with It. John Kelly Couldn't. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Isn't Funny, and It's Finally Emerging from the Shadows

Magazine article Newsweek

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the Half-Mad Mind; Lena Dunham Is Living with It. John Kelly Couldn't. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Isn't Funny, and It's Finally Emerging from the Shadows

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

It ended with a drive to Staples to buy a fax machine. That was the last time Dr. Stephen P. Kelly saw his son alive. It was the afternoon of March 28, 2011, and John Cleaver Kelly was a week shy of turning 25. He had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) while in middle school and had fought the affliction--marked by crippling fears and equally crippling repetitive behaviors--through the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan and then Colgate University, where he majored in psychology and wrote for the college newspaper.

Now he was back home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, marinating in the psychic unease that had lapped at him since childhood. In the journals in which he had been chronicling his disorder since the ninth grade, Kelly wrote that the last time he remembered feeling "somewhat normal" was during a study abroad term in China. That had been in 2006. The last time he felt fully normal was in 2001, when he was 15.

By 2010, his condition had become unbearable. On December 1 of that year, he tried to commit suicide by mixing booze and prescription pills, then plowing his car into a tree. His father, a genial small-town doctor who projects seasoned solidity, had his son committed at Yale-New Haven Hospital the next day, figuring that the quality of care would be first-rate. He regrets that decision, calling the experience "horrendous." It was the holiday season, Kelly says, and only inexperienced medical residents were on hand to treat his son. (The hospital did not respond to a request for comment.) John got out on leave on December 17, checked into a hotel and tried to hang himself in the shower with shoestrings. Back he went into Yale-New Haven.

"I don't have any faith I am going to get better here," John wrote in his journal at Yale-New Haven after the second suicide attempt. "I feel like the hospital is contaminated." In another entry, he wrote, "I'm scared my OCD is telling me I won't get better until I leave here."

About 2.2 million American adults suffer from OCD, an anxiety disorder that appears during the teenage years (the average age of onset is 19). While the symptoms are myriad, a single pattern is common: intrusive thoughts of impending doom (the O) can only be staved off through repetitive actions (the C) that offer but temporary relief. Therein lies the D. In her landmark 1989 study, The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing: The Experience and Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Dr. Judith L. Rapoport writes that for people with OCD, "everyday life becomes tyrannized by doubts, leading to senseless repetition and ritual."

On January 26, 2011, John came home to Dobbs Ferry, a town nestled on the banks of the Hudson River. It is a suburb of ethnic whites with city roots, a place where traces of the old immigrant toughness remain, where a few years ago, admitting to psychic distress might have been occasion for hoots and jeers. When Kelly returned, he resumed working as a psychiatric assistant at a well-known psychiatric center in Connecticut. He also began outpatient treatment on Long Island, at an out-of-pocket cost his father estimates to have been $250 per hour. The drive was 75 miles each way, and John made it on his own, in the same car he'd used to try to kill himself.

In March, Kelly decided to send his son to McLean Hospital, in Boston, often regarded as the finest psychiatric hospital in the nation. John was admitted but needed to fax some materials to McLean. The Kellys didn't have a fax machine in their house, so father and son decided to go to a nearby Staples to buy one. John drove. The Staples, in Scarsdale, New York, was near the Planet Fitness where John exercised. He dropped his father off at the store. They arranged to reunite at the gym.

"I never saw him again until the wake," Steve Kelly told me. When Steve arrived at Planet Fitness, John wasn't there, so he had his wife, Janet, a nurse, pick him up. …

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