How OCD Killed Joey Ramone

By Cat Jones



Ah, Joey. We all miss the Ramones, and this one most of all. There’s never been a band like them, before or since, though many (much more commercially successful) bands have been influenced and inspired by them, have even tried their best to copy the Ramones. But they were something unique, and Joey was their soul. There’s a lot to say about them, and a lot that already has been said by others. I’m not a music critic, and I don’t really feel qualified to add to the conversation concerning either their music or their contribution to the punk scene or the culture in general. My words regarding Joey are of a much more personal nature. They concern a pain I know very well, a secret suffering that very few of his fans could ever have understood. 


Joey Ramone had OCD. It was an affliction so severe that his mother was once told by doctors that he would never be able to care for himself, that he would never amount to anything. He was hospitalized for it on at least one occasion, and it impacted his life greatly. But like many people with OCD, he was artistically gifted, and like most who have it, he was embarrassed by it, he struggled to keep it to himself, and he tapped a reservoir of superhuman strength, resiliency, and creativity to rise above this strangling disability. His brother, who had a front row seat to Joey’s struggles, has often been quoted saying, “There is a little genius in every madman.” Make that a lot. Joey was a lot of self effacing, gentle, quiet genius.

It’s this facet of his character that I find most touching. I feel this way because I have it too, and I know how much it hurts. I understand precisely how disabling it is, how everything you do when you have this is thousands of times harder than it is for everybody else. I know what a feat of strength it was for him to rise above this disability and do what he did. No small thing. A little over 2% of the population suffers from OCD. Of those, many are artists, most are intellectually gifted, and many either attempt or succeed at suicide. It’s not an easy path.

So when I see Joey standing up there, hiding under all that hair, behind those shades, the king of the geeks and the nerds, singing his heart out in comic-book battle punk staccato, I see a kind of victory and beauty that only about 2.3% of us can ever really comprehend. That boy was a warrior. ramones-joey.jpg

And I feel this surging love for him, this mixed up boy I never met. I am connected to him through the cracking of my teeth. Yes. It’s this one odd manifestation of OCD in me… There are many flavors of this strange dis-ease, and I have had them all… but it’s this one flavor that brings Joey to my side as we walk along. Let me try to tell you what this feels like.

A year or two ago, I was walking my dog at night, and I stumbled over a row of dark rocks outside a churchyard that I hadn’t seen in the darkness. I fell over the top of my dog, landed on him in fact, and only that saved me from a much greater injury. I’ve never liked falling, that sense of being utterly powerless in the grasp of gravity, not knowing where or how you might land, not knowing what might be left of you once you hit. And that one hurt. Something about it sparked off a syndrome of OCD that’s never gone away since. (This illness is like that. It grabs hold of you in the strangest ways. This is only one of many manifestations of it for me.)

Ever since that happened, I cannot take a step without feeling myself falling. Vividly, starkly, in lurid detail, I fall in my mind with every step I take. I literally feel my bones breaking, my teeth cracking against the pavement. I hear the soft thud of my cheekbones, muted through the flesh of my face, hitting concrete. I feel the pain, I see the wounds. Every. Fucking. Step I take.

I hide it, like Joey did. I walk along, I smile, I try to follow conversations… all the while, feeling my teeth shattering, clattering against the concrete. There’s no choice except to keep on walking. The only alternative is complete and utter disability. So I just keep walking. I just keep pretending I can’t hear the sound of ivory against pavement, can’t feel flesh breaking apart between concrete and bone.

Sometimes, I imagine Joey walking along next to me. Sadly, it was OCD and a walk that killed him, in a way. Although the official cause of death was complications from lymphoma, a disease he’d been battling for at least half a decade, the thing is, he had been in remission. And one snowy, icy new years eve in 2001, he should have been resting, I suppose. But he was restless and anxious, and apparently, his OCD was insisting he had not closed a door properly on the other side of town. He tried to resist the urge to listen to the OCD for awhile, but eventually he couldn’t stand it any more, and he took off walking across town to check that God damned door.

Joey’s bones were brittle from years of cancer and chemo, and he slipped and fell on that New York ice, and broke his hip. The stress of the fracture brought the lymphoma screaming back out of remission, and three months later, he was dead.

1302659712179_ORIGINALSo I think of that, too, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, listening to my own teeth shatter, and Joey’s hip shattering, and OCD shattering the peace of our lives.

One last thought about the ending of Joey Ramone, and then I’ll get to bed. I heard that, on the day he died, he nodded toward the boom box by his bed, directing his brother to turn it on and play the U2 song, In a Little While.

“In a little while / This hurt will hurt no more / I’ll be home, love / In a little while….”

They say that when the song was over, Joey was gone.

And I wonder at that. How do people know when it’s time for them to leave here? How does the music help them find their way? I remember when my lover was dying of cancer, I wanted so much for him to live. I begged him to stay. Made him promise me he would live (the only promise to me he ever broke). And he tried so hard to live. I remember everyone telling me I had to let him go, but I would not. For days, the doctors had been telling me he probably only had hours left to live. I refused to hear them, I chased them from his room, and I kept trying to make him live.

One afternoon, a close friend who loved us both came into his room for a visit. “I have a song I want to sing for him,” she said. Great, I thought. I expected something, I don’t know, maybe uplifting, maybe inspiring. I don’t know what I was expecting. But when she began to sing, it was Michael Row the Boat Ashore. For the first time, I heard that song for what it really was. I’d always thought of it as a children’s song, something we learned in kindergarten, nothing I’d really thought about much since. But the clear, high notes rang through that antiseptic white… and I heard it for the very first time. It was a song about death. Permission to die.

I felt so inexplicably angry and betrayed. She had been one who’d gently been trying to get me to let him go. She saw him suffering, saw him trying to fight this futile battle, reluctant to break his promise to me. I think she’d had enough, and in her gentle way, she wanted to help him out of all that pain. But I was so upset. Part of that was my OCD… I’d been working so hard to find just the right things to say and do to make him live… and to me, that song meant he would die. She was giving him permission to go. I wanted to shut her up and chase her from the room. But when I looked at Sid, he was smiling in relief. He heard it too. He knew what it was, and he was so relieved.

He closed his eyes and listened, and after she was finished, he asked us to sing Amazing Grace. And that’s when I knew, it was real. He was really going to die. Nothing I could do was going to stop this. He was going to die, and he knew it, and we all knew it, and he needed some strength to get there. God, I’d have done anything to save him. But I could not. So we all just started singing Amazing Grace. We sang and sang that stupid song. And later that night, when everyone else was gone, he opened his eyes and told me he had to go. Go where, I stupidly asked. He pointed upward. Out, he said. Out there.

He asked me for some miso soup. I made some, and was feeding him spoons of it when he died. It was like he knew he had to go somehow, but didn’t quite have the strength or know how to get there. Until he was nourished a little, with music and miso, and then he found his wings.

What a strange thing life is. And death.

“In a little while / This hurt will hurt no more / I’ll be home, love / In a little while….”

Life’s a gas, life’s a gas, life’s a gas, a gas, oh yeah
Life’s a gas, life’s a gas, life’s a gas, a gas, oh yeah

So don’t be sad
‘Cause I’ll be there
Don’t be sad at all

Life’s a gas, life’s a gas, life’s a gas, a gas, oh yeah
Life’s a gas, life’s a gas, life’s a gas, a gas, oh yeah

So don’t be sad
‘Cause I’ll be there
Don’t be sad at all”


EDITORS NOTE: After a year up on this site, I’ve noticed that this article gets constant traffic. So I want to add just a little more for people who might have found it because they, themselves, have OCD. You don’t have to die of this devastating illness. There really is hope for it. I wrote this because I’m always interested in how OCD has impacted people’s lives, because as I said above, I have it myself. Having tried a lot of different treatments, here’s what has worked for me. First, I found 5htp helpful – a supplement you can get at the healthfood store. It worked so well that I thought maybe an SSRI would work even better, so I tried one. It did, but it came with *horrendous* side effects, and consequently I would never, ever recommend that to anyone. I stopped taking them, but the side effects persisted.

So I went to a clinic that specializes in OCD, and weirdly enough, the thing I’ve found that is more helpful than anything, is mindfulness. OCD seems to be, at its heart, an anxiety disorder. I did not realize that early on, as it seems so much more complicated. But it’s intense anxiety about the world, with the mind throwing up all these weird obsessions and compulsions in a desperate (and desperately unhelpful) attempt to control the situation and alleviate the anxiety. Learning techniques to relax, and to recognize and observe the mind at work, without struggling against it, is really helpful for me. Also, group therapy specifically for people with OCD is a great experience. You can finally talk about all the weird things no one else would understand, and you discover that, like you, people with OCD tend to be really intelligent, creative, interesting people. The stigma and shame you might have had for years falls away, and you’re around people who are actively seeking and finding solutions.

And that brings me to the other thing that has helped me more than anything. P. Cubensis. Psilocybin mushrooms. Yes, shrooms. Small studies have, for years, been suggesting that Psilocybin mushrooms alleviate depression, anxiety, and OCD. So, I tried them. And yes, I have found them to be very helpful. Yes, they are hallucinogenic, and should you want to try them, I’d suggest doing some research and probably not being by yourself the first time you try them. I’m not saying you should, I’m just saying that they’re really helpful for me. I don’t need to do them a lot. Just every now and then, and they help for a long time.

So that’s what has worked for me. And you will find something that will help you. This was an illness nobody discussed and nobody understood, until very recently. But a lot of progress has been made since Joey struggled with it. It took people who have it, getting together to talk about it, to finally begin to solve this puzzle. In the event you found this page because you, too, are struggling with OCD, may I recommend this book, that introduces ACT, a form of mindfulness therapy. (I’m not getting paid to advertise it or anything, I just found it *really* helpful and you might too.) It’s called The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris, and you can probably find it at the library. Otherwise, you can get it online, but go somewhere like thriftbooks or amazon, where you can find it for under $10, rather than ordering it through a mental health site, where they routinely charge $35.

Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.



11 thoughts on “How OCD Killed Joey Ramone

  1. Did not know that about Joey. RIP. 😦

    Do you have a good link on information about OCD? Sadly, the one person I knew who claimed to have this turned out to be a con artist using OCD as an excuse to hide her inconsistencies(and/or get sympathy). I suppose it’s possible to be a lying sleaze and have OCD, but since this person’s relationship with the truth was passable at best, Imma assuming everything they said on the subject was BS.

    • There are lots of sources of info, but it’s a big and strange illness with a lot of different “flavors.” It’s really not all about the stereotypical obsession with cleanliness that it’s usually portrayed as. While some people with OCD do experience that manifestation, many more do not.

      Most sources I’ve seen cover one or another “flavors” of the disease very well and don’t cover the others at all, or they cover a lot of different manifestations in a surface way.

      I just came across this, which I haven’t checked out yet so I hope it’s good, but most things from this source are good, and it looks compelling.

      Some time when I have the time, I’ll look for more if you like.

      • Thanks for those. Very insightful. It sounds a bit like the repeated thoughts one has in a hyper-vigalent state, coming up with and rehearsing a plan for fight/flight/safety. The difference being that the thoughts don’t stop once the situation is resolved.

        Holy shit, that would be exhausting.


  2. This really touched me. I have had OCD for most of my life, it runs genetically in my family. I mostly struggle with primarily obsessive OCD, though it does like to slip in to every part of my life. When I started getting really sick in my early teen years, and my life revolved around constant hospitalization, I found the Ramones, and something clicked. I leaned on Joey, and still do a lot of the time, because although he was on SSI and very ill for most of his life, he made it for a long time. When I read his brother’s book, I was devastated when I found out that compulsive behavior contributed to his death. And when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and wasted away, I so badly tried to control it, while leaning on Joey again. I listened to his posthumous solo releases a lot toward the end of her life. I’ve managed to find hope in his life of tragedy.
    Dialectical behavioral therapy changed my life, and I so wish the research for that had been completed and popularized before Joey’s death. I do a lot of mindfulness, radical acceptance, and urge surfing. It kind of works to restructure your pathological thought processes, in a way.
    Thank you for writing this.

  3. I was a huge fan of the Ramones even before i accepted that I had a mental disease (When you have OCD, you know there’s something very wrong with even though no one else knows). Then, i find about Joey had OCD and started appreciating and admiring him even more. It’s a hard time living whit this, and only we that have it, know how difficult it is to perform basic task that not OCD people do like it is nothing. I just wanted to say that I’m about to start a new treatment for this horrible illness and I really wish it helps me, reading that mindfulness has helped you makes me have a little hope for myself.

    • May the treatment work for you. Yes, I find mindfulness vey helpful. Psilocybin mushrooms also help, as does 5htp, which you can find in any health food store. Those are what I’ve found most helpful. ACT therapy is vey effective – it’s a mindfilness- based technique. Keep us posted!

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