Julian's Journey - Basketball is friend, foe to player with OCD

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

WAUKESHA, Wis. -- Basketball is more than a game to Julian Swartz.

It's a tightrope that both protects and torments the 22-year-old sophomore who has battled obsession, compulsion, panic and depression since childhood.

Swartz is on his third comeback attempt after taking a sabbatical from the sport following Wisconsin's trip to the Final Four in 2000.

The other two comebacks almost killed him.

He left school and enrolled in a psychiatric program after he tried to commit suicide twice in one day upon his return to the Badgers in 2001.

Last fall, he gave hoops another try at Wisconsin-Green Bay, but that comeback also ended in the emergency room. Doctors told him he was lucky to be alive after an overdose of antidepressants.

He quit taking his medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder and he swore off basketball, which had so richly blessed yet so dearly burdened Swartz since he bounced his first ball with the natural talent befitting a former college player's son.

Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Tod Kowalczyk made Swartz a student assistant coach. But because they were short on bodies, especially big bodies, the 6-foot-7 forward spent six weeks practicing with his former teammates.

And the lure of the hardwood simply proved too great for the 1999 Wisconsin high school player of the year.

He moved back home with his parents in Waukesha so he could play at Carroll College, a Division III school just down the road.

"My first thought was, 'Why?"' said Greg Monfre, a junior at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Swartz's best friend since seventh grade. "Why do you want to put yourself through this again? Just be a regular college student, get your degree."

But Swartz wanted to keep playing. The only place he felt he could safely do that was back home, sheltered by his family and friends and steeled by his faith in God and basketball.

He is still shedding the rust and the 15 pounds he collected during his 2 1/2-year furlough from college competition.

And Swartz knows it's a big risk, playing again.

But if there's anything more powerful than the mental illness that traps him in a cycle of repetitive thoughts and multiplying worries, it's his love for the game.

When he was a boy, OCD made Swartz wash his hands hundreds of times, get up at all hours of the night to check the locks on the doors and wipe down the bathroom for an hour after showering, lest anybody slip and fall.

Now, intrusive thoughts, which can last hours and even days, swipe his focus and concentration or steal away his sleep.

"I don't know how other people's minds work, but I have nonstop thoughts in my head," Swartz said. "It's like a clock. From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, it just keeps ticking."

And it ticks loudest when he's playing basketball.

"Without the game, it's a whole lot easier, I'll be honest with that," Swartz said. "But basketball is something I've done ever since I was born and I think the love I have for it is illustrated by the number of times I've come back."

And the powerful pull of the disease is evidenced by the equal number of times he's been forced to retreat.

"The nature of the illness is one never knows what's going to happen the next day," said his mother, Kathleen.

OCD affects, to varying degrees, one in 50 Americans. Sufferers become trapped in a cycle of repetitive thoughts and behavior that they might realize are irrational but which they find difficult to curb.

What's to say Swartz's latest comeback won't end like the others, in another hospital room? Or worse?

There are no such guarantees, Swartz attests.

"I really want to say -- probably not at 100 percent, but I'm working for that -- that suicide in all realms is not an option any longer," Swartz said. "That's something I'm really working hard at."

He swears he wasn't trying to kill himself when he swallowed two bottles of pills last fall.

"I couldn't bring myself to go to a morning workout and I just felt like I needed to do something, you know?" Swartz said, still struggling to understand it all himself.

"That illustrates the power of the illness. You end up doing things that later you look back on and wonder, 'Why?"'

But Swartz readily admits he had every intention of dying two years ago when he returned to Madison.

"I was going to try to make it look accidental. And I tried and I couldn't do it," he said. "It's not a decision I made. It was a result of not being able really to stop my mind. You look at it, there's only one way to stop that mind from ticking."

Kathleen Swartz and her husband, William, who ran track and played basketball at Wisconsin-River Falls from 1959-64, welcomed their son's return home and to basketball with a mixture of pride and prayer.

"Sure, as a mom it scares me. But I think it's exciting to see him doing something he truly loves to do," Kathleen said.

Last month, Swartz had terrific games on successive nights, scoring a combined 44 points as Carroll beat Lake Forrest College and Monmouth College, but he described the weekend as "absolutely miserable."

The one memory he takes from his 18-point performance against Lake Forrest is the lone free throw he missed, which he blames on a meddlesome idea rattling around his head.

It stayed with him as he tossed and turned all night.

"I had to get my mom out of bed a few times just to calm me down," he said.

It helps that his new coach, David Schultz, is no stranger to Swartz's game or his illness.

Swartz was 6 when he and Schultz first met. Schultz coached against Swartz in some epic matchups between the city's West and South High School powerhouses in the 1990s.

"That's a big reason why I feel so comfortable at Carroll," Swartz said. "I remember playing one-on-one with him when I was a kid."

Any small college coach who had a Division I player drop into his lap at midseason would be thrilled. Schultz, who took over the Pioneers' program this season, sure was.

"There was a mixture of excitement in terms of what he could bring to the team but also some uncertainty in terms of where he was at a personal level," Schultz said.

After all, it had been 32 months since Swartz last played a game, against Michigan State in the 2000 national semifinals.

"But since he's gotten here, he's like every other player," Schultz said. "He wants to do well, he wants the team to do well and he wants to fit in."

His versatility also made for a smooth transition.

"He's not just a low-post guy, he's not just a shooter," point guard David Jooss said. "He does a little bit of everything and it's pretty easy to mix in a new guy when he's a complete player like that.

"He has told us, 'I'm 15-20 pounds overweight,"' Jooss added. "And we're like, 'You're pretty darn good right now."'

Just wait until next year, after a summer of conditioning, his coach said.

But Swartz's goals are more immediate: Get through today, then tonight, then tomorrow.

"As long as I play the game of basketball it's going to be difficult," he said. "It doesn't matter what level. It doesn't matter where.

"OCD is something I'm going to battle every day. I guess it's my life work, my project."


On the Net:

Obsessive-compulsive Foundation: http://www.ocfoundation.org

OCD Resource Center: http://www.ocdresourse.com

Anxiety Disorders Association of America: http://www.adaa.org

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