2015 has been quite a year for YA diversity. We’ve been shouting about it, demanding it, panelling it, and, finally, writing about it. Diversity comes in all forms; an important facet of diversity that has been widely absent from mainstream YA books (not suggesting for a moment that it was never there; it just was not as prevalent in the bestsellers’ sections) is mental illness.
This year, I read two books that deal with OCD. They were Patrick Ness’s The Rest of us Just Live Here, and Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet?. The beauty of these books was that, irrespective of each other (The chances that both authors knew the other was writing a book about a character with OCD are as likely as me winning the lottery three days ago with a ticket I don’t have) these books dealt with OCD from the standpoint of a male and a female sufferer. This is incredibly important as OCD, although relatively well-known, is not very well understood. As with every single mental illness, OCD falls on a spectrum and the disorder affects every OCD sufferer differently, but can also be suffered by anyone at any age. Mental illness is one of the few non-discriminatory entities we have in this world today. Not only that, often people are under the impression that OCD means ‘being extremely organised’ or ‘washing hands thoroughly’ or ‘being a bit weird about germs’ or ‘liking a tidy room’ – major assumptions, all of which are incredibly invalidating to a person who actually suffers from OCD.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a beautiful book that contrasts a realistic premise of a boy almost finished high school, and a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek fantasy subplot that essentially pokes fun at every single indie novel about ‘the chosen one’ ever written. Mikey’s struggle with the prospect of the unknown future after high school is documented in tangent with the additional struggles of suffering from OCD. For Mikey, that involved counting, compulsive hand washing and repeatedly tapping things. OCD, by definition, goes far beyond the stereotype of ‘excessive hand washing’; it encompasses a string of thoughts a person cannot stop and a need to act out on certain compulsions that may be ritualistic in nature. There are a variety of reasons why a person may develop OCD, or why an OCD sufferer may relapse. For Mikey, the stress of venturing into the unknown, leaving the safety of his friends and the familiarity of his hometown, prompted a relapse into OCD behaviours that are peppered throughout The Rest of Us. Although the book is primarily about Mikey, we also gain insight into the lives of his friends and family. His father is an alcoholic; his mother a determined, career-focused politician (her character flaw not being her determination, but rather her seemingly accidental disregard for how her career aspirations emotionally affect her family). His sister suffered with anorexia to the point of actual death (by cardiac arrest from the strain the disorder put on her organs), and Mikey is struggling with the pressure of it all. Beautifully, The Rest of Us shows the fear all mental illness sufferers have when faced with the prospect of relapse: denial features strongly. Mikey fears losing control. The Rest of Us gives a wonderfully clear, funny, yet poignant view into the live of someone suffering with OCD – it does not sugar coat anything, but still gives a humorous twist on the execution of the story. It also pushed a focus onto the fact that although mental illness does not always have a ‘reason’, for someone with a diagnosed illness, it can be triggered by what are simply life milestones. Everyone handles the transitional period from the end of school into college or work differently, but Mikey takes readers diligently through the struggles he faces at this almost insurmountable period in time. I’d imagine if you are a fan of Ness you’ve already picked this one up, but on the off chance you haven’t – it won’t disappoint.
Most recently, I read Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet?. I was rather hesitant starting it, simply because the hype was so big around it that I was worried I would read it with a far more critical eye than it deserved. I need not have fretted. Am I Normal Yet? is one of the best books written about living with a mental illness that I have read to date. Evie is quirky, lovable and a brilliant choice for a character with OCD. I feel the reason I loved her so much is because she is just a regular teenager, who wants to do regular teenage things, such as make friends, have a boyfriend and attend college. Am I Normal coasts through Evie’s recovery, and subsequent relapse, at a breathless pace that almost leaves readers wondering how they, too, missed Evie’s loss of control as she winds up back in hospital for treatment. Where Mikey’s illness focused mainly on counting and repetition, Evie’s illness was mainly about a fear of germs and contamination. Holly Bourne recounts Evie’s therapy sessions, exposure therapy and experience with medication in a frank, realistic manner which circumvents mainstream
(and quite frankly, incorrect) representation of what attending therapy is actually like. Not only that, Holly chose to write Evie as a character with the ‘most common’ form of OCD to make a remarkable point on just how badly OCD is represented in the media, and just how misunderstood OCD as an illness is. A friend of mine and I had engaged in lengthy discussions on many an occasion regarding the way people have assimilated mental diagnoses into everyday speech, and will sometimes use colloquialisms which grossly undermine the severity of the diagnosis itself for someone who actually suffers from it. I was delighted to see Holly bring this into the actual text of the book, with my favourite quote to end all quotes from the book being ‘SHUT UP YOU IGNORANT BUMFACE’, in response to someone saying ‘I’m feeling so hormonal today, I’m so bipolar’. Am I Normal? sheds an unbelievable amount of light on the concept of ‘normality’ and will serve to make any reader who has ever felt alienated by the way their illness, or any of their differences really, is represented socially, just that tiny bit more accepted. (Not only that, Holly has some kick-ass feminist characters that cause the book to serve as a sort of hybrid mental-health-myth-busting, feminist-lesson-learning, awesome book that you should definitely make everyone ever read).
We’re a long way off having everyone understand how to not offend each other, but every time I put down a book that tackles head-on issues that are faced by teens and young people today, I feel just that tiniest bit safer within the YA community.
Have you read any other books with OCD as a theme? Shout them out in the comments below!
(I’m on a 100 books in 2016 challenge, help a gal out)