#MHYALit: Reflections on an OCD Sufferer’s Sabbatical Study of YA Novels of Mental Illness

Today for the #MHYALit Discussion we are honored to host librarian Diane Scrofano I remember the day my symptoms began. It was during the spring of the eighth grade. It was 1991 in a suburb north of Los Angeles. I had woken up with a foreboding feeling. By the time school was over at 3:10p.m., […]

Today for the #MHYALit Discussion we are honored to host librarian Diane Scrofano

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I remember the day my symptoms began. It was during the spring of the eighth grade. It was 1991 in a suburb north of Los Angeles. I had woken up with a foreboding feeling. By the time school was over at 3:10p.m., I couldn’t stop thinking about the admittedly unlikely scenario that one of my schoolmates may have pricked me with a hypodermic needle as we passed one another in the crowded junior high school hallway. Being poked with a needle would certainly cause AIDS.

The symptoms waxed and waned over the years, as they often do. By high school, I opened doors with my sleeves, had peeling skin from over-washing, and avoided getting too close to people in the crowded hallways. Now my fear had morphed from needles to the idea that a strand of my long hair might brush a classmate’s acne-covered face and the bloody contact would result in, of course, AIDS. When I learned to drive, I would change lanes to avoid bicyclists even though they were clearly within the bike lane. I feared the morning commute; Westlake High began at 7:25 a.m. for everyone in those days, and I just knew that the angle of the sun was going to make me crash into something I couldn’t see or run a red light. I claimed “headaches” to get my mom or my aunt to drive me and my brother and cousin to school. It only occasionally worked, though, so I suppose you could say driving to school most mornings was my unwittingly imposed exposure therapy. By senior year, I was spending the first few minutes of first period putting Bandaids on almost all my cuticles because sometimes a little piece of skin pulled there, and so, if I touched anything, I might contract…yup, AIDS.

Luckily (or so I thought), nobody knew me in that first-period economics class in the twelfth grade because it wasn’t one of my usual Honors courses. If anyone noticed my Bandaid ritual, nobody said anything. Nobody said much of anything at any point; in fact, I remained undiagnosed until after college and part of graduate school.

This probably would’ve gone on for who-knows-how-long, if a family member who also suffered the disorder hadn’t finally been diagnosed. Where was it that I found out that persistent fears of having run someone over without realizing it was part of a treatable medical condition? A book, of course.

Several years later, in 2005, I went back to Westlake High School to work as a librarian. I was fresh out of library school and had been newly initiated into the joys of young adult literature. As a teen, I had never read any—Honors courses, you know. One day I noticed on the shelf a novel called Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser. While I wouldn’t read it until many years later, I remember reading the back and realizing that OCD (and mental illness in general) was now an acceptable problem to feature in problem novels.

This memory would stick with me over the years as people began to become more aware of mental illness in general. Soon, you could hear “You’re so bipolar!” or “That’s so OCD” called out in casual jest.

By 2010, I was married and wanted a baby. I was a happy, almost-tenured English professor at a community college near my hometown in Ventura County, California. I was a functioning adult. I could certainly manage this disorder better than my teenage self could, and it would certainly be better for my hypothetical baby if I stopped the SSRI that had been helping me for years. It had helped me so much that I didn’t even see a therapist regularly anymore. Despite tapering off the medication gradually, under the care of a psychiatrist, I experienced the notoriously nasty Paxil withdrawal for about six weeks. When the physical symptoms subsided, all my OCD symptoms came rushing back. They plagued me for eighteen miserable months. It felt worse than I remembered, so bad that I made sure not to get pregnant during that time.

A few years after Prozac and therapy had come to the rescue and I had gotten my life back, I realized that I was eligible for sabbatical at my college. Having seen mental illness affect numerous students over the years and still recovering from a recent bout with it myself, I knew almost immediately what the topic of my project would be: young adult fiction of mental illness.

So, in the spring of 2014, contentedly medicated, in therapy, and about six months pregnant, I finally read Kissing Doorknobs. So, I’d like to start my discussion of the OCD-related YA fiction there.

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Published in 1998, Kissing Doorknobs, by Terry Spencer Hesser was the earliest OCD novel I found, and it did have the feel of a problem novel in that problems caused by protagonist Tara’s OCD drove the plot and the right answer at the end of the story was to get help from a professional grown-up. There’s a resource guide at the end of the book so that the teen who recognizes him- or herself in Tara can get help, too.  Despite the didacticism, I enjoyed the novel because the descriptions of OCD symptoms and their consequences were detailed and realistic. For example, Tara becomes so dedicated to her compulsions that she would rather push her friends and family away than interrupt her rituals. Hesser shows how Tara rationalizes her behavior as “for their own good,” as I remember doing. I knew people got frustrated with me, but I convinced myself that performing a compulsion to prevent something bad happening to me or a loved one was more important than that person’s temporary inconvenience or annoyance.

Less relatable was Matt Blackstone’s A Scary Scene from a Scary Movie (2011). On the one hand, main character Rene demonstrates well the domino effect of catastrophic thinking and the inflated sense of responsibility for others that OCD sufferers can have. When you’re convinced that the slightest move can avert a huge crisis, you begin to overestimate the importance of your actions. You might worry that one missed compulsion, something you didn’t do or say will have serious consequences for someone else. My own therapist said that often people with anxiety or OCD are “guardian” personalities. Rene, for example, believes that it’s up to him to stop his English teacher from quitting his job. But while Rene’s thoughts seemed realistic, I thought it was strange that a fourteen-year-old boy would hide in his room wearing a superhero costume. While anxiety or OCD could keep you hiding in your house, I don’t think most sufferers would do so in costume. This seems more of a quirk of Rene in particular than a symptom of OCD.

A male character who I did relate to somewhat was spunky Devon, narrator of Not As Crazy As I Seem, by George Harrar (2003). As someone who is a fan of medication plus therapy as opposed to therapy alone, I loved it when Devon exclaimed, “I should use my mind to control my impulses, but I don’t see how that would work. If I’m not thinking right to begin with, how is thinking going to help me straighten myself out?” (Ch. 6). I have felt the frustration of redirecting my thinking like a good little CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) patient, only to have to use the same technique seconds later when the obsession strikes again. For me, the medication reduces the number of obsessions and reduces the panicked feeling of the obsessions that persist despite medication. In my experience, having fewer symptoms means that when I do get them it’s not so often that I’d be doing thought redirection techniques all day. Devon’s level of insight into his illness isn’t always as high as it might be, though, as he proclaims, “the things I do don’t bother me half as much as they bother other people” (Ch. 10). Devon just wants to be left alone to do his compulsions, a sentiment shared by one of my own loved ones who suffers from OCD. Other people with OCD, however, are very aware that something isn’t right and they yearn for help, like I did. In the end of the novel, we find out that Devon’s OCD was triggered by a trauma. This detail bothered me because often OCD is genetic and not the result of any one horrible incident. For example, OCD seems to run in my family, and my particular case seemed to be triggered by plain old puberty, although I suppose you could argue that puberty is pretty traumatic!

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Another novel that locates the cause of the characters’ OCD in trauma is Corey Ann Haydu’s OCD Love Story (2013). I suppose that for narrative purposes, it’s more interesting and satisfying if we have an answer, a reason why something dreadful has happened. In this novel, the main character’s symptoms start after she witnesses a violent crime. Her boyfriend works out compulsively because when he was younger he wasn’t strong enough to save his younger sister from drowning. But besides the problematic issue of trauma as the cause of the characters’ OCD, I really enjoyed this novel. In this recent novel, Haydu shows just how various the manifestations of OCD can be, and that makes this book notable compared to the others on OCD. Rather than giving OCD to only the protagonist, Haydu places protagonist Bea in an OCD therapy group with teens whose compulsions include washing, working out, picking at skin, and pulling hair. Main character Bea and her love interest, Beck, have different OCD compulsions that carry different levels of stigma, and that becomes an important factor in negotiating the relationship. Haydu depicts the disease and its treatment and the characters who have it as complex. At over three hundred pages, longer than many other YA books, this novel takes the time to explore the gruesome particulars of Bea’s OCD in depth, which makes them feel authentic and not stereotyped. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) and its ups and downs and the characters’ progress as well as setbacks play a significant role in the plot.

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While Haydu mentions the therapy technique of ERP and the medication Zoloft by name and her characters are both aware of their diagnoses and working on their symptoms, a sharply contrasting situation is presented to us by Matt de la Peña in Ball Don’t Lie (2007). Main character Sticky is the child of a prostitute who committed suicide. He then goes through a series of heartbreaking situations in foster care. As is a common problem for low-income people, Sticky’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is never treated. It is never even diagnosed, and because of that, the term OCD is never used in the book. As far as literary endeavors go, I suppose you can’t fall into the problem novel trap if you don’t even name the problem! Furthermore, this book stands out from other YA novels of mental illness in that the protagonist is the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. Also, though he is white, he is completely immersed in the African-American basketball community in urban Los Angeles. As such, he provides the nearest thing to a step toward cultural diversity in young adult novels of mental illness.

Of course, I’ve tried to keep abreast of new novels of OCD that come out. I recently read Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word (2015), but I won’t go into that since she’s covered quite well and you can hear from the author herself on the Teen Librarian Toolbox #MHYALit hub page. Another neat thing about the hub page is that, through it, I learned of Jackie Lea Sommers’ work and am eager to read Truest (2015), as I’ve never heard of Solipsism Syndrome, which Sommers said co-occurred with the OCD she herself suffered as a teen. I also look forward to the publication of her new novel, scheduled for 2017, about a character whose OCD is undiagnosed because its symptoms, as in the case of the author, didn’t fit the stereotypes of washing and counting. If you know of additional novels of OCD, I’d love to read them! Please recommend them in the Comments or e-mail me at dscrofano@vcccd.edu. For example, I haven’t come across (and so would like to know about) novels in which the person with OCD isn’t the protagonist; are any novels from the point of view of a child of a parent with OCD or the sibling of a person with OCD?

As a result of my research, I’ve determined some good issues to think about when evaluating (for collection development) or discussing novels of OCD with teens:

  • how the symptoms are portrayed (stereotypical and shallow or nuanced and complex),
  • how the cause is portrayed (nature or nurture or both),
  • to what extent does the story read as a problem novel (a thinly disguised self-help guide) versus an organic, well-developed work of literature,
  • what level of awareness, insight, and access to treatment the character has (does the novel follow a symptoms-crisis-treatment narrative arc or does it start or end with the character in an unusual place on their OCD journey),
  • whether that character wants help or not,
  • and how medication and therapy are presented (are chemical or behavioral solutions or both recommended).

Finally, if you haven’t had enough of my reflections and would like to read more, please see my article in the Winter 2015 issue of Young Adult Library Services at http://yalsdigital.ala.org/i/465799-vol-13-no-2-winter-2015/16. I’ve also put together a sortable-by-category Google Spreadsheet of all the mental illness novels I’ve read so that I can continue gathering and sharing the type of information that was covered by my June 2015 VOYA Booklist on the young adult literature of mental illness. The link to the Google spreadsheet is https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1s8lgGe1WreKapj47MZKooZqCpRlR-FOplr0UyrpNUzc/edit#gid=0.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Diane Scrofano teaches English at Moorpark College in southern California. She holds an MA in English and an MLIS as well as teaching credentials in English and Library Media Services. Prior to her current position, she has worked as a high school English teacher and a high school librarian. This article is drawn from a recently completed sabbatical project on mental illness in young adult fiction and memoir.

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