Click the button and the clamshell of the pocket watch opens to reveal the time like an oyster revealing its pearl. Time may be less valuable than a pearl, but it is far more delicate. If left to its own devices, a pearl will remain a pearl. The time needs to be replaced every second of the day. And so underneath its calm metal surface a miniature factory churns away producing new seconds as fast as they come. The zig-zag edges of gears piece themselves together and at the same time unzip themselves apart. So many pieces all work within less than a centimeter of one another without ever colliding.
I envy this. The efficiency of the pocket watch. The gears in my mind don’t always turn in the right direction and they certainly don’t run so smoothly. I want my thoughts to move from A to B to C. My mind won’t have any of that. Instead it goes from A to C to ௹ to L to ∰. I mean, ten minutes ago I sat down to read Sir Philip Sydney’s Astrophil and Stella and now I’m two-hundred and twelve words into this essay.
With a mind like that, I would make a terrible watch. If people carried me around in their pockets or strapped me to their wrists, they’d always be late. I’d lose count and start guessing the time. I’d get into arguments with grandfather clocks about whether it was five-fifteen or five-seventeen. I’d fall in love with a digital alarm clock and switch to military time just to impress her. No one would keep me for long. I would be thrown away in disgust or returned to the store still in my original wrapping paper.
There’s no shame having a mind not suited to timekeeping. The machinery of the human brain was not designed for time keeping. That’s why watches exist in the first place. What’s terrifying, though, is being at the mercy of a mind that seems to have no logical order. A mind that controls you more than you could ever hope to control it. What does it look like when a person’s mind controls them? It looks like this: when she was in second grade, my mother had a death obsession. It began with two very different losses. One was the marriage of a beloved uncle. To my mother’s young mind his marriage was not a marriage at all, but a way of dying. My mother’s young mind felt that her uncle could never love her the same way now that he had this new wife to soak up all his affection. The other loss was that of an eighteen-year-old neighbor. The young woman’s death in a car crash rattled the whole community and my mother in particular. In the ensuing death obsession my mother never worried about her own mortality alone. Rather she worried about the death of her parents as well, of her siblings, of everyone she loved. She wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t stop asking questions. Did everyone die? Yes. Did that mean she would die? Yes. Was there any way for anyone to get out of it? No.
My mother wrote about this herself, saying, “Clear to me now is that I’ve had the disease forever. As a little girl I was called high strung, a sensitive child, who knew then that some greater demon was at play? Not my very own depressive mother and absent dad. My first breakdown came at ten. It passed and life went on.” When life went on, as my mother says, my grandmother bought her a present. It was a Timex wrist watch with blue straps. My grandmother, an aspiring author, somehow missed the irony of giving a watch to a child obsessed with mortality.
When I was in high school, my mom would often apologize for being a bad mother. She would start to cry, would beg for my forgiveness, which I would give. Then the next day, she would apologize for her apology and start to cry again. This became a routine. Saturday mornings she would come into my room, needing help, needing a psychologist, needing Valium. Like anyone would, I tried to become a psychologist, tried to be her Valium. I did my best to talk her into health, but I had no more success talking her out of this disease than I would have had talking her out of lung cancer. I simply wasn’t qualified to perform this operation. Of course, the people who were qualified weren’t any better than I was. In fact, they were worse. Often, much worse. Her psychologist back then was Dr. Griffin Hopkins and he accepted thousands of dollars for doing a tenth of what I did. Sure, he could talk about her inner-child and her goals and try to discuss her id, but he couldn’t change who she was any more than I could. The only difference was that he could prescribe her pills, which also didn’t work. My mom ended up with so many diagnoses—depression, bipolar disorder, monophobia, codependency, PTSD—that it was effectively the same as having no diagnosis. Her symptoms included daily panic attacks, a Match.com account, a self-inflicted puncture wound in her left lung, thirty-seven voicemails left on my phone, a fear of taking showers, and eighty-three dollars in library fines. Many of these do not seem like symptoms of a disease at all, but that was just the problem. It was impossible to tell where the disease ended and my mother began.
If a person’s bone is broken, you can put a cast on it. If their heart is malfunctioning, you can cut your way in and perform a bypass. If they have an open wound, you can sew it shut. But this is because the human body works something like a pocket watch: it is complicated to be sure, but we have had a good grasp on it since at least the publication of Grey’s Anatomy. But my mother’s problem was way beyond the reach of casts or scalpels or stitches. Through all our thousands mythologies, all our years of neuroscience, through all thirteen seasons of CBS’s Criminal Minds, no one has been able to satisfactorily figure it out. And all of this—the constant apologies, the refusals to shower, the afternoons playing ping pong in psychiatric wards—was the product of faulty dopamine receptors or low serotonin levels or something equally incomprehensible. It is terrifying to realize that the most personal facts of our lives are dictated by neurochemistry we would need several master’s degrees to understand.
Brains are dangerous. It would be far easier for you, for me, for my mom, for all of us to have gears instead. Because it’s my idea, and because recent studies suggest that my mother’s condition is likely inheritable, I’ll volunteer to be the first one to try it. Some kind horologist could gently remove my brain and place it in a canopic jar for use as a conversation piece. She’d then go to work replacing it with gears, axles, escapement wheels. She’d slot them all together with such expertise that no two pieces would ever rub up against each other. No oil would be necessary. It would be a frictionless mind.
Rachel doesn’t text me back? The gears and axles wouldn’t spend hours in bed wallowing in despair. Homework to do? Metal has no concept of procrastination, I’d have finished Astrophil and Stella by now and be on to writing my essay on Richard III. Mother tries to kill herself? There would be no mechanical failure, no tears, no terror. The gears would just keep turning, their metal teeth locking together and spinning apart.
© Daniel Olivieri
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Daniel’s interview]