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OCD: The Boss of Me

How A Humble TV Theme Saved My Life

Trigger warning: The following blog contains mention of suicidal thoughts and ideation, which some readers may find distressing.

When They Might Be Giants rehashed one of their old radio jingles about finding a dead guy in an envelope to a more family-friendly ditty for a new kid’s TV show, I doubt they thought much of it. The duo made up of John Flansburghand and John Linnell, rewrote the song as ‘Boss of Me’ for noughties TV show Malcolm in the Middle. I doubt they kicked back with a beer after finishing the song and discussed how it would become one of the most iconic themes of all time.

They probably didn’t dream ahead to the track peaking at number 21 on the UK singles charts and earning them an appearance on Top Of The Tops. But it happened. Their performance was sandwiched between turns from Gerri Halliwell and Sisco on TOTP in July 2001 and came less than an hour after it would have been heard on Malcolm in the Middle. John F didn’t sip a Budweiser and say to John L “I think we’ll win a Grammy for ‘Who’s Gonna Find The Dead Guy 2.0’”, but it happened. The ‘Boss of Me’ even defeated ‘My Furry Friend And Me’, the song written by Sting for Disney’s Emperor’s New Groove which almost definitely came with the request that Mickey would quite like a Grammy.

Maybe the two Johns did send off ‘Boss of Me’ and pat each other on the back and dream it would bring worldwide acclaim.

What they without question never thought was that it would provide the vital first step to helping a 14-year-old OCD sufferer gain control of his life. But it happened.

You would have clicked by now that I was that 14-year-old OCD sufferer. 20 years have passed since They Might Be Giants’ song revolutionised my mindset and triggered me being able to live my life. Thanks to the lesson I learned, I’ve been able to tour the world as a professional magician and work as a freelance journalist for 15 years.

Rock Bottom

I was at rock bottom and unable to stop washing my hands. I had suffered from OCD for about six years and got by with a handwashing ritual that involved counting for four minutes. But I was losing count. Second-guessing myself. Unable to feel like I had completed my ritual. Constantly feeling unclean. Forever rushing back to the sink. Something had to change.

My parents had tried locking the bathroom door to force me to explain why I needed to wash my hands each time. If it seemed logical, I was allowed in. If it sounded crazy, they sent me away. This tough love didn’t help as I simply sat with my hands in front of my face and refused to touch anything. I was so frustrated I contemplated throwing myself off the railway bridge adjacent to my house. When I got to the bridge I didn’t want to get my hands dirty to lift myself over and off it. In the most poetic sense of irony, the one thing making me want to die was the one thing keeping me alive.

Then, one Saturday everything changed. I had just gone to the toilet in anticipation of spending the afternoon beating my brother Ed on WWF SmackDown on the Playstation. I was hoping I could wash my hands for four minutes and feel they were clean enough to truly enjoy watching my chosen character, The Rock, ‘Rock Bottom’ my brother’s Kane through a succession of poorly animated tables. But, I had been struggling with my handwashing at this time. The previous day, it took me 73 minutes of constant hand washing until they felt clean. I was wasting my valuable youth indoors washing my hands when I should have been indoors playing video games.

Just as I started washing my hands I heard the theme tune of Malcolm in the Middle blaring from the TV. Ed had become bored waiting for me to return to our room to lay the virtual smackdown and popped on a VHS of Malcolm in the Middle. As I began to count the seconds in my head, words came from They Might Be Giants’ mouths and travelled down the hallway:

Yes, no, maybe

I don’t know

Can you repeat the question?

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now, and you’re not so big

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now

You’re not the boss of me now, and you’re not so big

Life is unfair

With that, life was a little less unfair. I had counted exactly 30 seconds whilst the theme song had played. I stopped my routine and ran down the hallway to force Ed to replay the theme music and watch the numbers tick by on the stopwatch. 30 seconds exactly. With that, I had unlocked a trick that would prevent me from losing count. To complete a four-minute hand wash, I no longer had to count to 240 without being distracted. All I had to do was sing ‘Boss Of Me’ eight glorious times. So I did. Believe it or not, my routine started to become fun. I’d sway from side-to-side of the sink whispering “you’re not the boss of me now” to myself. Sure, I looked insane but who cared. Not me, this was my first win over OCD. The first time I’d controlled it, managed it, and proven that it was not the boss of me.

Me, Me and Blunt

As time moved on, I realised that if I knew the length of other songs I could replace one or even seven ‘Boss Of Me’ renditions and only sing it once. I did this. Remy Zero’s uber-angst ‘Save Me’ — the theme from Smallville — fitted in perfectly and with a running time of 50 seconds took the place of two ‘Boss Of Me’ recitals. Plus, it helped me cut 10 seconds from my routine.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Sometimes I still doubt myself and worry I’ve sung a song too quickly. This forces me to sing all the songs again. The biggest mistake I made was starting my routine at the same time my mum played her new James Blunt CD. As a result, since 2004, I have compulsively scrubbed my hands in pub toilets while singing ‘goodbye my lover’ to myself.

But I’d take a lifetime of singing James Blunt and the feeling that I’m controlling my mental illness over the dark despair of standing on a railway bridge. I hope you can use this to see that we are all different in our battle with OCD and that there’s a way we can all control it better. You may not know your way yet but that could just be because someone hasn’t put the TV on excessively loud when you’re trying to carry out your ritual.


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