Look at the Player of the Year, scrubbing his hands like a
surgeon--50, 100 times a day. How can the best athlete in school,
the most handsome, with a 4.15 GPA, have such filthy hands?
He begins to walk away from the sink, and now he spins back, sure
he's missed a spot, and starts all over again.
Look at Julian Swartz, the 1999 high school Player of the Year in
Wisconsin, 23.2 points a game, a full ride to the University of
Wisconsin, senior class president, doesn't like to miss church.
So why can't he sleep? Why does he keep getting out of bed in the
middle of the night, terrified that someone might break in, that
someone in the house might die in a fire, and whose fault would
it be except his? So he creeps through the halls, checking the
locks, the oven, the range top, the microwave, for crying out
loud. He begins to go back to bed, and now he spins back to check
it all again.
Look at him, freshman at Wisconsin, April 2000, just back from
the Final Four, girls doing backflips to get noticed. So why is
he sitting on the pier, on the lake, at sunset, writing his
suicide note? I cannot, nor anyone, take away the sadness, pain,
and undescribable feelings I battle every second of every minute
of every hour of every day.
Yeah, they have a name for it, but that doesn't make it any
easier--OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His obsessions were
that his germs, his actions and his imperfections would put
others at risk. His compulsions grew into ceaseless thoughts of
He'd been given Prozac. He'd been sent to a therapist. It was no
use. "My brain overpowers all of it," he told his friends. "It
overpowers everything." He stopped the therapy.
It's been this way for years. Look at him, fifth grade. He takes
a 10-minute shower and then spends a half hour wiping every tile
bone-dry so the next person won't slip. Sits on the playground
doing homework while the other boys play, checks his answers for
the 10th time, gets up to play, spins back to check them again.
Sits taking a test, innocent of cheating, yet so terrified he'll
be accused of copying that he takes a right answer and makes it
Look at him on the court--the high school star--6'6", 220 pounds,
with a sweet J and big ups. He'll get 23 points and 12 rebounds
in a win, but he'll skip the pizza party, go back to his bedroom
and brood about a turnover, fret about it all night, write about
it, analyze how he let everybody down, until he feels so ashamed
of himself that he aches to die.
Look at him, his first college season, winter 2000, staying for
hours after practice, can't go to his dorm until he's made 10
treys in a row or 25 straight free throws. Coaches, buddies left
long ago. He has to keep shooting because he's letting them down.
He's not starting. Shoots until he's bleary, starts to leave,
spins back to do it again.
His extra efforts are never enough, which is why, on the pier,
the suicide note is finished. Eight pages, perfectly neat, block
letters. He tucks it into his coat pocket and heads for
Walgreens, where he will buy a bottle of poison, chug it, and at
long last will come sleep.
So why doesn't he drive his moped to Walgreens? Why does he end
up back at his dorm room, vacant-eyed? What leads a female friend
to find the letter a week later, in his journal? After only a
half page she races to call Julian's brother, who calls his
parents, who calls their son, who, with work, finds a way not
just to stay alive but to live.
Look at him today, tight with his God. He's writing a book about
his life and his faith, speaking to groups around the state,
running a prison ministry's basketball games and working with
kids who have OCD. He's taking this hoops season off, this school
Yeah, he found a way to fight OCD: by helping 10 kids who have
it. Make it 11--he helps himself the most. He talks of next year,
of rejoining the Badgers. His best friend, Greg Monfre, worries
about what the vice of big-time college basketball could do to
him. "All it takes is one small incident," Monfre says.
"I'm keeping it under control this time," says Julian, now 20. He
promises he will finally make the game fun, play for himself,
dirty his hands and let them stay that way.
Look at Julian Swartz. He wants so badly to get better. Pray he
doesn't spin back.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA