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How 'Turtles All the Way Down' Perfectly Explained My OCD

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When you’re a “partially irrational” person, your life can sometimes feel like a wobbly line scribbled between truth and fiction. You know the difference between the two, but at the same time, maybe you don’t. It’s a constant battle for your perceived reality.

That’s why it’s almost ironic when you can find pieces of your truth laid out in fiction, as I did through my tumultuous, cathartic and weird journey reading John Green’s latest book, “Turtles All the Way Down.”

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very cliché place to start. My aunt called me one sunny October morning. I picked up my phone right away, despite being aware of all the public places it had been in the last 24 hours and the subsequent strains of contamination it could be carrying. I could feel germs as I held it in my hand, but I pushed the thought aside. I was sometimes good at that. Besides, I was just feet away from the bathroom at the time and knew I could wash my hands immediately following the conversation.

“Have you heard of John Green?” She asked without a “hello.”

As it so happened, I had. (What young adult hadn’t?) At that point in my life, my relationship to the author consisted of the following: I had read exactly two and a half John Green novels. I had walked by the NYC premiere of the star-studded film adaptation of his book, “Paper Towns.” I had encountered my fair share of “DFTBA” graffiti scrawled in bathroom stalls at school, courtesy of Vlog Bothers fans. I was no stranger.

“You have to go out tonight and get this new book of his,’ Turtles All the Way Down,’” my aunt continued. “And get a hardcover!” She believed in the luxury of a hardcover.

I was immediately wary of the request. Just last week, a number of my friends had been excitedly asking one another if they had preordered the already famous book yet. I myself had been wondering dully if I was ready to handle another of Mr. Green’s stories, which promised to be a torrid exploration of love, life and death, all topics that pose great potential to freak me out. This is in no way a criticism of his writing — actually, he is one of the few authors whose books I can devour in a day. However, I was still burnt out from reading “The Fault in Our Stars” five years ago. Every time I’d gone to pick up that book, I’d have to clean the cover with a baby wipe. I couldn’t sleep with it in my room. I had been semi-sure that if I didn’t wash my hands after reading, I would somehow contract cancer like the two main characters. It was inexplicable behavior, but I couldn’t forget the overwhelming panic that coincided with my otherwise genuine enjoyment of the story.

I told my aunt I would think about reading his latest, even though I had no idea what it was about. Somewhere down the line I might be strong enough to try. In the back of my mind, I thought about the risks of a holding a hardcopy book: paper cuts. Innocent to most, hazardous to me. I once heard about a woman who fell severely ill and no one could figure out why. When she was on her deathbed, they realized she’d contracted Hantavirus from a cut she’d received from some mouse poop infested paper. There was always the chance it could happen to me, no matter how rare the instance had been. My other option was waiting until it came out as an e-book, but I remembered I was still afraid to touch my Kindle after the last novel I’d read on it — which happened to be “Looking for Alaska,” another one of Green’s works. That had been the book of his I couldn’t finish, because I feared if I spent too long with it, I (spoilers) might “catch” the same gruesome fate as the titular character. In the end, I could foresee reading a physical book if I was sure to use a boatload of hydrogen peroxide in the event of a page-related wound.

This is how I have to approach many seemingly standard tasks of living; by proceeding normally only after a series of thoroughly concocted plans to best keep me “safe.” These plans are time-consuming and annoying, but a bargain for what is otherwise a fairly functional life.

As it turned out, my aunt had a solid reason to insist I read the book.

“Maia,” She sounded thrilled. “It’s about a girl with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Apparently Green’s got it, too.”

My family was always trying to expose me to media concerning people who shared my disorder. I watched one episode of Monk and blanched at the sight of murder. I watched Glee and saw OCD reduced to a quirk on numerous occasions. I read Lena Dunham’s autobiography and many personal narratives of folks struggling with OCD, and I couldn’t fully relate to any of them. I didn’t expect to. I knew that the whirlwind of my mind was near impossible to describe, and I couldn’t foresee anyone else having an easier time.

Thus, I’d stubbornly concluded long ago that knowing you are not alone does not make you feel any less alone. Like snowflakes, no two brains are alike, even if they do share the same DSM diagnosis. No one would understand all of me, and I simply did not have the language to explain myself. I was a contrarian, and I was lazy. Maybe part of me didn’t want to be understood. Still, I had no excuse not to try. I went out and bought the book as directed.

And lo and behold, Aza Holmes made me feel heard. Aza, the protagonist, is an unconventional detective of sorts, much like her surname sake. The advertised plot of her finding a missing billionaire took a backseat to her personal mystery — the question, “is she ‘fiction?’” It’s something I think everyone asks themselves to some degree. Do we determine our own path? If not us, then who? Are our thoughts are own? Most people fear a lack of control in their lives, but for people like me and Aza, sometimes it’s all we can think about. For a while, that was how I defended my OCD. It made me feel in control of the uncontrollable.

After the first night of reading, I unconsciously started googling all the symptoms of c.diff, just like Aza did periodically throughout the book to ensure she didn’t have it. Then, I felt silly.

With every chapter, I pictured myself as Aza (which tends to happen when reading in first person). She was a lot of what I liked about myself, and a lot of what I didn’t. She wasn’t exactly like me, but she didn’t have to be. The feelings she chronicled were ones I knew so well.

It felt like I experienced something more than empathy. Truly, I was right there with Aza when she could feel her romantic interest’s spit in her mouth and realized his microbes would be inside her forever. It was the same anxiety I felt after I kissed anyone. I was right there with her when she looked at her routinely cleaned cut on her hand, realized this time it may have been infected and that this time it was all over. It was the same, pit-in-my-stomach feeling I got when I “realized” I hadn’t washed my hands in time. Yet, I was also right there with her when she went to school, when she functioned “normally,” and when she made time for her friends even when she didn’t want to.

I was right there with John Green when I imagined what it must be like to have to shake so many different and new hands at every book signing and celebrity event. It would have been torture for me, especially because I knew I would have powered through, too, despite the traumatic thought spiral convincing me the wrong exposure might end my life.

Lastly, I was there with Aza’s mom and best friend, Daisy, who loved her so much but just couldn’t understand. The people she “couldn’t stay sane for,” but she was still doing her best.

Like Aza, I was frequently told by many therapists that my rituals and beliefs were “not uncommon,” as though the assurance that I wasn’t an anomaly would make me feel less “crazy.” It didn’t.

In the liberal arts filled portion of my life, I had learned the word “crazy” was offensive and degrading to myself and others. However, when Aza unashamedly used it to describe herself, I felt almost like I could begin to reclaim it. I liked to know that I was crazy. If I didn’t think I was crazy, I would be hopeless. I would be lost, completely, to the terrifying part of me. It’s not normal, and I don’t want it normalized.

I am in awe of John Green, for finding the language to explain my OCD. Not once did he label Aza’s fearful self as “OCD,” but instead unpacked the chaos flawlessly through metaphor. To quote Aza, ”The words used to describe it — despair, fear, anxiety, obsession — do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain.”

A week after finishing the book, I found myself beginning to develop new ways to scrutinize the fiction of my mind and give it shape. I wanted to be able to explain myself too, now that I knew it could be done.

It’s like when you suddenly feel sad or angry for no apparent reason. Then, in order to justify the feeling, you try to tie it to something tangible, maybe a person or an experience. I feel the fear first, then automatically assign an imaginary reason to it.

It’s like getting a song stuck in your head, only the song always starts with “what if” and ends in your demise. The only way to get unstuck is through partaking in some curse-breaking ritual like hand washing or counting. Some people think that those actions are the OCD, when actually they are the relief.

It’s like being high up on a mountain, looking over the edge and knowing that one wrong step could end it all.

It’s like being a broken record.

It’s like being stuck in a dream.

I felt like a failure for being a 22-year-old who still consistently struggled with “invasive thoughts.” When I was younger, I thought it was curable. I thought if I went to therapy like I was told and tried the medications, I would eventually become completely “normal.” Yet, there was a part of me that didn’t want to get better. This was the “me” that I had always known. If my OCD demon was gone, what would be left? Who would protect me?

Now, I’m beginning to feel validated. Sometimes it makes me feel anxious to be validated. You understand that you’re not a freak and that maybe there’s some actual truth behind your fiction. At the same time, it’s a relief to see someone recognizing the war within and acknowledging that it can get better. I was nothing short of inspired by Aza’s words, even if it was difficult to see my fears in her eyes.

My interpretation of the end to Aza’s story is that life does go on. Seriously. No matter what. And so will my wacky brain. I can’t let OCD stunt my living, but I also don’t have to beat it out of me. I have a responsibility to myself and to those who love me to get better, but I don’t have to erase this huge part of who I am. It’s a balance. A careful balance, where the scales will be tipped at times. It’s my job to tip them to the rational side most often.

I am learning to wade through the confusion of my mind in order to make better sense of it. Little by little, I will understand myself and help others to understand. Only then will I feel less alone.

I would recommend this book to those who, like me, struggle with finding the words to explain their pain. It isn’t as impossible as you may think.

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Image via John Green Instagram

Originally published: November 26, 2017
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