What Do Mares Eat?
As I sat there in the surgeon’s chair, with pieces of my skull removed around the temples, I had a moment to reflect on exactly how I wound up in this position. I was actually happy to be here. In the last few months, there had been times when I wanted to tear open my skull myself.
Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to get rid of the tune out of my head. It crept into my consciousness slowly, insidiously, and I couldn’t tell exactly when it started. I began humming it, at first, and then added some syllables: “Bo-Pe-Dope and Bo-Pe Dope and Dum-dum-dum ta dada . . .” It became so ingrained into my everyday thinking that I desperately wanted to identify its source. Was it a Top 40 song? Elevator music from somewhere I went frequently? An annoying TV jingle for some kids’ cereal? A movie theme? A cell phone app?
Others noticed it even before I did. When I was at the library, the librarian looked over at me and put her finger to her lips before I was even aware of making any sound. A couple of times at work, someone peered over the wall of the cubicle and asked me to keep it down.
The tune began keeping me awake at night. And it was getting louder—in fact, sometimes it was so loud, I couldn’t really hear myself think. It got in the way of my writing.
I mentioned it to my primary care doctor. “Does it distress you at all?” she asked.
“Well, yeah!” I said, and she referred me to a psychiatrist.
When I told my psychiatrist about it, he shrugged and said, “I’ve never encountered that problem before, but I’ll bet some Zoloft would do the trick. It’s a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. It’s an antidepressant, but it’s used for obsessive compulsive disorder as well, so it might just work in this case.”
I took the Zoloft religiously for nearly two months. When I came back for a follow-up visit, I told him that things hadn’t really gotten any better. In fact, if anything, things had gotten worse: The tune had gotten louder and I found myself moving to its cadence. He went ahead and ordered me a “cocktail” of drugs, including a second SSRI called Wellbutrin and different kind of medication, a tricyclic antidepressant known as amitriptyline. When that didn’t work, he added risperidone, explaining that it was an antipsychotic.
“Are you saying I’m crazy?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he said. “We use it in Tourette’s syndrome, which is characterized by muscle tics, and it might just do the job in this case.”
None of these things worked. Furthermore, they caused me to salivate and seemed to make my finer motor skills a little off. It was considerably harder to type, as my fingers tended to hit the wrong keys almost as often as they hit the right ones. And, meanwhile, the tune in my head got worse. It was no longer on the edge of my conscious. It was smack dab in the middle now, and what once was background music was now a loud, blaring brass band. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and constantly found myself holding my ears, for all the good it did. I sometimes got drunk just to tune out the sound, and I woke up one morning with a terrible hangover, asking myself, “What kind of life is this?”
When I told my psychiatrist all this, he rubbed his eyes and said, “There’s another tool in my armamentarium, but I’m reluctant to use it. Do you think you’re at risk for suicide?”
“Well, I’m pretty distraught, but I wouldn’t say—”
“Just say yes—“ he prompted, and I did. “I’m going to recommend electroconvulsive shock therapy. Now, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We sedate you and anesthetize you first, and you’ll just go to sleep and wake up again—ideally, without the tune in your head.”
They had me put on a hospital johnny and lie down on one of those reclining tables with one of those easily removable folding sheets. The technicians placed a rubber bite guard in my mouth, put conductive gel on my temples, and then placed electrodes on either side. I didn’t notice any pain—I was just out. Unfortunately, when I awoke, the music was even louder than before. So loud, in fact, that the first thing I did when I came to was throw up all over my gown.
The psychiatrist called in a neurologist who, in turn, called in a neurosurgeon. They talked for a while in the corner and then came to me.
“It sounds as if you have some sort of micro-lesion in your auditory cortex,” the neurosurgeon said. “Here’s the game plan. We have to ablate—or destroy—that tiny portion of your brain where the tune is stored. What we’ll do is stimulate various regions of your auditory cortex with electrodes until we find the exact spot that elicits the tune. And then, and only then, we’ll destroy that tiny piece of tissue. You’ll be awake, but it’ll be completely painless because the scalp is anesthetized and the brain itself has no pain receptors.”
They shaved my scalp, applied topical anesthesia, and gave me a sedative. I was transported to a sterile-looking blue room with extremely bright lights—like the light in a dentist’s office, only much bigger. I got to watch the whole procedure on a small television monitor. They used a gizmo that looked like a portable fan to saw the top of my skull off. When they started stimulating things, I heard a host of different sounds: car horns, fireworks, bees buzzing, waterfalls. As disturbing as this sounds, it was a welcome relief from the tune. The sound was often accompanied by a faint vision or smell, and sometimes my fingers twitched.
After about an hour of this, I heard the tune. Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy . . . It was “Mairzy Doats And Dozy Doats,” a very silly little song I had heard as a kid. Over and over, in fact, because it was my favorite piece of music—a yellow 78 rpm record that my parents had given me for my fifth birthday and which I kept playing over and over again, much to my mother’s chagrin.
“That’s it! That’s the tune!” I explained.
Suddenly, I was overcome with sadness. I was five years old, it was a summer evening back in our old Victorian Park Street house in Bloomington, Indiana, and a humid breeze was wafting through the open living room windows. I could smell Mom making spaghetti sauce—my favorite! I looked everywhere for my beloved 78, and finally found it—broken—under the couch. It was still in one piece, but had a crack right down one side of it. Crying hysterically, I brought it over to my mother, who was stirring the sauce, and asked her to make it better.
“It can’t be fixed!” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
There was sympathy in her voice, but there was also something more. And now I realized what it was—guise. The broken record had been no accident!
“Great!” said the neurosurgeon, snapping me out of my reverie. “We’ve located the tune. Now it’s just a matter of using an electrified hair-thin needle to thermally ablate the tissue.”
She clamped some sort of guiding instrument to the side of my head and used it to insert the needle.
The tune faded from my head, as did the painful memory. I began to cry.