Category Archives: Book review

Review: Payton Is Afraid of Dirt

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Suggested age range 6 to 11 years old

Kids with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—and their parents—will feel less alone and more empowered after they’ve curled up with Payton Is Afraid of Dirt by Shanna Simpson, illustrated by Idmary Hernandez (Future Horizons, 2017). Payton isn’t afraid of just dirt: He’s worried germs will make him sick, and he’ll get others sick, so he cleans his room, washes his hands, and avoids touching “dirty” objects. Compulsive hand-washing is perhaps the most widely known symptoms of OCD, and Payton performs this compulsion enough that his parents notice.

Payton’s family worried. Dad said, “Why are you cleaning your room so much?”

While no kid is lucky to have OCD, Payton is lucky that his compulsions were visible to his family and they were able to get him the right help. Too often family members don’t have any idea that kids are suffering because they’re dealing with mental compulsions they don’t know how to explain. Payton has a head start! His parents have been concerned for a while, and when it gets to the point that Payton no longer enjoys his favorite activity, playing baseball with his best friend, they decide to take him to a psychiatrist.

The scene with the diagnosing psychiatrist is a little long, but it’s thorough and helpful. It’s used to explain what OCD is and how it’s treated, and it should give young readers an idea of what an appointment with a psychiatrist will be like. Several strategies are noted, and medication is mentioned as a possibility as well. While the gold standard of exposure and response prevention (ERP) isn’t spelled out, it was hinted at when Payton slowly built up to touching a baseball, and readers may also like the ideas to put worries in a special box or to “shrink” obsessions in a machine.

I highly recommend that teachers and parents read Payton Is Afraid of Dirt; parents can read it themselves as well as to their child. The book ends on a hopeful note, and while the overall message may not reflect reality for many with OCD (as it takes an average of 14 to 17 years to get a proper diagnosis), it is positive: Payton is diagnosed early, his family is supportive, and he gets better, which is really the goal of spreading OCD awareness.

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Review of Turtles All the Way Down

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Oh, boy. John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down was the first fiction book I’ve read about OCD, and it didn’t disappoint. It did, however, take me a month to finish—and not because it was too long or because the story dragged, but because it was a little painful to read such a perfectly rendered description of what it’s like to have unwanted thoughts on a loop. It was upsetting and triggering but beautiful, too.

Once it reached the climax about three-fourths through I put the book down and couldn’t bring myself to pick it up for another two weeks. A co-worker who’d finished it told me it would all be okay, and that I had to finish it. Of course I did! Not only did I need to know what happened to our heroine Aza, I’d been planning on writing this review.

Just a note to all of you who are currently struggling or who relate to Aza’s contamination obsessions, you may not be ready for this book yet. However, you may find that you feel less alone because you can identify with the character. 

As I read I mentally noted a bazillion lines I wanted to write about here, but since Turtles All the Way Down is fiction, I want to make sure I don’t spoil anything! So I’ll keep it relatively light and say this: If you’ve ever felt like a burden to your friends, wished your parents would stop asking if you’re okay, thought you didn’t really need your medication, or had a hard time dating and getting intimate, this book will speak to you. Plus, it’s not all about OCD; there’s an intriguing mystery and some romance!

But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.

Those of us with OCD so often tell others how debilitating the disorder can be, trying to make people understand that it’s not a joke and that we don’t all love cleaning. John Green captures what it can mean to live with OCD, how your intrusive thoughts can eat away at you, threaten to destroy you—but somehow you get up the next morning and go about your day. Turtles All the Way Down could go a long way toward helping people understand that, yes, maybe someone with OCD can get out of bed, go to work, and keep one’s life in some semblance of order, but that doesn’t mean OCD shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Review of Because We Are Bad: OCD and a Girl Lost in Thought

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Because We Are Bad (Canbury Press, May 2016) is an apt title for this charming yet heartbreaking and gripping memoir: Author Lily Bailey thought that she had to be perfect to keep her family safe, and part of being perfect was performing rituals the “right” way every time and keeping a log of everything she’d done wrong and had to atone for later that day. It’s clear how time-consuming and distressing Bailey’s obsessions and compulsions were, and it’s a reminder that no one wants OCD. Who could?

Bailey guides us through years of her life, including her childhood when OCD symptoms first surfaced. Lots of kids have imaginary friends – they’re fun to play with when everyone else is busy, and they’re easy enough to boss around. But in Lily Bailey’s case, her imaginary companion is no friend: It’s OCD, and it’s the bossy one. While Bailey’s relationship with OCD is cleverly woven into the memoir, there were some confusing scenes. Take this passage, for example:

We make our way back to our room and check it’s safe for us to go to sleep. We open our drawers, feeling around the insides with our hands. We worry that there might be someone, or something, hiding inside. We check our wardrobe and under the bunk bed.

The “we” in the above scenario doesn’t refer to two people – Bailey’s talking about her herself and her “friend,” OCD. When I would sit down to read for a reasonably long stretch of time, this strategy worked well for me. Other times, I had to reread a couple times, especially if the scene involved other people, such as her younger sister or a school friend. If this bothers you, hang in there through the whole book. It’s worth it.

Although it didn’t take quite as long for Bailey to be diagnosed as so many of us, her road to recovery was still long and bumpy. She attached too strongly to her therapist and felt she had to please her by being perfect; she was admitted to a terrible psychiatric hospital where doctors changed her medication multiple times with no explanation and group activities were more valued than actual cognitive-behavioral therapy; and after her hospital stay she was often triggered by daily life. You’ll be right there with her through the peaks and valleys – and for a while there are mostly valleys – wanting the best for her.

Bailey’s life turned around when she started to open up about her symptoms to others, and not just family members and therapists. Being open about our disorder can be hard, but it can also be freeing, and Because We Are Bad illustrates this beautifully.

Review of When a Family Member Has OCD

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Since I have OCD myself, I’m not the target audience of When a Family Member Has OCD: Mindfulness & Cognitive Behavioral Skills to Help Families Affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, December 2015) by Jon Hershfield. Loved ones are. That said, I highly recommend this book for both family members and individuals with OCD.

Using anecdotes, charts, and bulleted lists, Hershfield does an incredible job breaking down this often infuriating and confusing disorder into terms family members and loved ones can understand. In fact, Part 1: Understanding OCD is devoted to explaining what OCD is. Hershfield illustrates for the non-OCD reader what having OCD feels like, with passages such as the following, in which he invites the reader to imagine her worst fear in detail:

Put yourself right at the edge of your fear coming true. How would you feel? How would you know that you felt that way? Consider what your body would tell you. Would your heart be pounding furiously? Would your skin feel clammy or right? How would your stomach feel in that moment? …

Consider now that what you may have felt for that moment is what your family member with OCD feels on a regular basis—anywhere from one hour a day (the OCD diagnostic minimum) to not just every waking moment but also in his dreams.

Wow. This is why this book is so important for loved ones to read — an essentially neutral third party is helping them put themselves in a sufferer’s shoes, without any of the history or baggage of the relationship. You’ll also find Mindfulness Tips peppered throughout the book, and each chapter of parts 1 and 2 ends with two sidebars, Consider This, which helps the reader see obsessions and compulsions through his loved one’s eyes, and Your Struggle, which pinpoints how OCD affects the reader as well as the sufferer.

Hershfield is an expert OCD therapist who gets what his patients go through, but he acknowledges — again and again — how difficult OCD is for the reader, the family member. And with this in mind, he offers concrete tips for not only helping people with OCD cope, but also their loved ones. What should you do, for example, when your spouse asks you to check to make sure the stove is off? Are you helping by taking over this compulsion, or are you hurting? (Spoiler: You’re not helping.) Hershfield feels compassion for everyone in the OCD cycle, and it shows.

While the book is organized in such a way that you can hop around and read a section here and a section there, Hershfield recommends that you read it from beginning to end — and I agree with this recommendation. You may come across a tip in Part 2 that will make more sense if you’ve read Part 1, and you don’t have to page back through trying to find an explanation you’d otherwise already have. And it’s a joy to read! I know I’m a little biased in that I have OCD and consider it an interesting topic, but Hershfield is so engaging you’ll be pulled in and will want to soak up all of his wisdom.