Review: OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu

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Some people say that OCD is a doubting disease. Though our obsessions manifest for various reasons, our compulsions are often characterized by doubt. We doubt that we will or can be okay without our corresponding behaviours. We engage in this way to relieve the anxiety that comes with our discomfort, a distress that is complicated and deep-rooted. The relief is always fleeting and the doubt persists, sometimes growing, sometimes reinventing itself in new forms.

O C D LOVE STORY at GoodreadsAt the risk of oversimplifying, we doubt ourselves deeply. In OCD Love Story, Corey Ann Haydu infuses her story about Bea, a teenage girl who gets diagnosed with OCD and doesn’t quite believe it, with the back-and-forth, pulsing presence of this doubt. The result is a first-person, insider’s account of what OCD feels like for many.

We are introduced to Bea in the form of a panic attack. While the power goes out in the middle of a school dance, Bea hears someone gasping for air, a “rhythm” she says she is familiar with, and finds her way toward the sound. She finds the boy experiencing the attack, Beck, and helps him through it. When Bea is forced to attend group therapy, Beck is there, and he remains a central figure for the remainder of the book.

A love story develops here, as the title suggests, but it is secondary to the portrayal of Bea navigating her OCD. It’s important to note that her relationship with Beck does not act as a “cure” as I was worried it would. Instead, all of Bea’s relationships (including her best friend and therapist) are complicated by her OCD, exposing the ways it informs her day-to-day life.

Beck’s character helps Bea understand OCD as both broad and specific; his experience is entirely different from hers, allowing her to acknowledge OCD’s breadth, and yet the idiosyncrasies embedded in Beck’s compulsions, the prior trauma that lingers on in his OCD, highlight how much specificity is a central part of the disease.

With that said, Bea’s self-understanding is stifled by common mental health stereotypes. She can’t possibly have OCD because she is not that “crazy.” Beck and Bea initially ostracize Jenny and Rudy, other members of the group, for the seemingly severe quality of their OCD. Jenny’s compulsions involve ripping her hair out, while Rudy compulsively picks at his face. There is a running false dichotomy present, sustained by Bea’s character, of “normal” versus “crazy.” Thinking of Jenny and Rudy as “freaks” helps to distinguish her from the truly abnormal. Though the main characters often engage in these stereotypes, the narrative itself tries to challenge them by painting a complicated portrait of OCD, bringing contradictions forward.

Does it do so successfully? It’s hard to say. I believe that any accurate account of OCD that is deeply in the first person is already expanding our collective understanding of OCD because it necessarily centers the experiences of people living with OCD. OCD Love Story certainly accomplishes this. However, Bea’s internalized ableism throughout the book makes it difficult at times to access moments of fruitful interrogation by the text. And I think that’s mostly what they are: moments.

One such moment is when Bea’s so-called best friend Lisha shames her for bringing Beck with her to her dance recital, angrily telling Bea that this is a no-freak zone. Up until this point, the narrative has treated Bea’s ableist attitudes as realistic, even commonsense. What we know a little bit about, too, is that Bea is dead-scared she is secretly not normal at all. To confront Lisha’s rage here puts Bea in a new position. Not only is the person she cares romantically about being vilified by someone she trusts, Lisha’s response allows Bea to see how she is seen from the outside.

This charged moment felt like the tipping point for Bea; the logic of ableism fails her. Though by the end of the book I feel there are too few moments, I realized that her earlier ableism is intimately connected to the kind of thinking her OCD later generates. She fears “being crazy” until very late in the book, but at this point I came to understand such thinking as an outgrowth of her deep fears around losing control. Her ableism is not so much outright addressed in the book as it is woven into Bea’s experience in general.

By incorporating group therapy into the novel, Haydu successfully articulates the diverse ways OCD manifests. Beck is concerned with hand washing and showering, while Bea pinches her leg. The more visible compulsions Jenny and Rudy experience are important elements of the story as they contribute to the reader’s understanding of OCD as highly variable and occurring along a spectrum. Narrative-wise, they force Bea to be necessarily uncomfortable, urging her to rethink everything she thinks she knows about what normal means.

Rethinking normal starts with Bea. She has a history of obsessing over people, mostly boyfriends. She also has a history of recording and journaling excessively and stalking. Stalking is a major part of how Bea’s OCD functions. Though I can’t relate to the expression of her OCD, many key aspects of her specific case resonate with me, like fearing that she may suddenly cause harm to someone, fearing that if she doesn’t act on her compulsions something terrible will happen, and feeling uncomfortable if there are sharp objects in the room.

She checks excessively while driving to make sure she hasn’t hurt anyone. She wonders why Lisha has a pair of scissors on her desk, intensely contemplating their sharpness. I am reminded of my OCD, which involves believing I am capable of doing bad things, thinking bad thoughts, and that I am therefore a bad person. Haydu’s depiction of what some people with OCD experience is refreshingly accurate.

Bea fears she is really “crazy” and is therefore a danger to everyone. Though there are obvious problems with that assertion, many people living with OCD fear that they will cause harm. Like me, Bea’s attention gravitates toward the news story of the ordinary-looking citizen who has committed an atrocity. This verifies our belief that we, too, are capable, that anyone is capable, and what if it’s me? Haydu does an excellent job of putting into words the lightning-quick way our obsessions present themselves. And the fierceness with which we believe.

You can’t really write a book about OCD without making it about connections. There are the connections we draw from life that can become obsessions. There are the connections between thought and action, how our thinking directly impacts how we respond to the world through meaningful behaviours. Haydu speaks to these connections truthfully.

People with OCD are very good at creating meaning. As much as OCD feels like losing control, our compulsions are deliberate. What is often difficult is unearthing the reasons or motives for them. Sometimes it’s too complicated, and that’s okay. For Bea, we don’t exactly find out the reasons, but we do come to understand OCD as a process, which is an important step toward demystifying the disease.

Though the book ends on a hopeful note, by the time I finished the book I had a lot of feelings to address, including how it ended. Reading always meant taking breaks in between chapters. Many times I would close the chapter feeling exhausted. Some feelings arose because I had read something that resonated, some because of the issues around stigma and trauma that were brought up, some because of the reminder that OCD can sometimes enter your life in an all-encompassing way.

In the final part of the book, Bea is back to journaling (for school-related activities only) but there is no mention of how this might be triggering. It seems idealistic to assume Bea has already learned to manage her OCD well enough to engage in an activity inherently tied to her compulsions. Similarly, the closing image is of Bea resisting one of her strongest compulsions. She does so successfully. At this point we know that she “dips” into her compulsions every now and then, but that they do not hold the same grip they once did. This is in large part due to exposure therapy. And yet.

It feels like a too-neat, too-fast way of ending a largely messy and painstaking read. People do learn to manage their OCD, of course. However, living with OCD in my experience is always messy and always about learning and relearning. I suppose I was looking for an ending that reflected that mess, even if it meant leaving the narrative at an awkward or half-articulated moment. With that said, the ending did not ruin the book for me. There is much to usefully take away and to reflect on. For young folks in particular, the book is a good introduction to thinking about mental health as complex and interrelated. I’d recommend OCD Love Story to readers of all ages interested in learning about how one person’s experience with OCD can take shape, how it can affect (and be affected by) life’s circumstances.



About Author

Fiorella Morzi

Fiorella Morzi has four copies of The Witches by Roald Dahl that she bought all at once at a second-hand shop. She appreciates Quentin Blake’s original cover art for the story, of which—lucky for her—he made several. She likes to divide her time between dreaming of ways to be a witch, thinking about self-care, and reading anything Audre Lorde has written.

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1 Comment

  1. Prepare yourself, this is a long one. I am a nerd and I tend to get caught up about things, sorry in advance.

    I’m going to start this off by saying upfront that I don’t have OCD. Consequently, I accept the grain of salt with which you may take this comment. I will add though, that I have struggled and still struggle with my own mental health issues.

    I came across this book at random and was intrigued by the title, so I picked it up. I eventually finished it, but as I put it back down I was left with an unsettled feeling. Normally when that happens I take to the internet to find other people’s responses to the story. Through agreeing or disagreeing with their thoughts, I’m usually able to more precisely suss out my own interpretation. Most of what I found regarding this book are people who, like you, mainly analyze the accuracy of the portrayal of OCD in the story. Which is important. I feel like the author did a strong job bringing the reader into a reality of obsessive, intrusive thoughts and extreme levels of anxiety without making the experience seem to “other-worldly” (humanizing the disease, in other words) and many of the reviews I read seem to agree. But something wasn’t tying together for me, neither in the actual story or the subsequent responses I read and I think if I had to put a wording to it, it would be this: too much power was given to the OCD part of An OCD Love Story.

    That might sound incredibly insensitive, but hear me out: Bea is a character with a lot of room for growth. Understandable. She’s dealing with a pretty complicated, consuming disease and top of that, she’s a 16 yo girl. No one is expecting perfection. But when I finished the book I couldn’t help but feel like a lot of the issues she had weren’t addressed in their own right, and instead were written off either as extensions of her OCD symptoms or as coming from the failure of others to properly understand and accept that part of her. It actually felt something of a disservice to the portrayal of OCD and for mental illness in general, like an implication that those who deal with such things can’t be held responsible for other parts of their personality or for damage done to relationships.

    I could go into a number of examples of this but for the sake of length I’ll stick to her relationships with Beck and Leesha. Both relationships (but especially that with Leesha) are exceedingly one-sided. In Beck’s case, he opens up early on about his specific struggles and compulsions remains pretty honest about them throughout their relationship. As a result, Bea is afforded the time and space to learn about them, get freaked out by them, get used to them, then become accepting of them and him and his process. She, however, chooses to maintain an air of mystery about her own compulsions and downplays their severity, mainly for the purpose of being able to feel and be seen as more “normal” than him. She enjoys this feeling so much that one day, when he comes to her all excited because he’s finally gotten to a place where he’s ready to start tackling his symptoms and get better, she deliberately attacks his self esteem so he’ll revert back to “weird” Beck and can keep making her feel normal. Not cool. Of course, he doesn’t realize what she’s doing and so she’s never called out on that behavior and never takes responsibility for it so they are able to continue on like nothing happened. How sweet. Later still, after catching her in a huge lie and having been manipulated into participating in one of her compulsions, Beck is shocked and upset. Before he can blink though, Bea has already turned the tables around and is yelling at him for judging her compulsions even though she has accepted his. An unfair guilt trip, in my opinion, but one that unfortunately works. Beck eventually ends up apologizing and Bea is not required to take ownership of her wrongdoing. And though their relationship does open up and become more two sided after that, it irks me that she never owns up to the faulty choices she makes and ultimately makes their relationship feel shallow.

    And then there’s Leesha. I feel for Leesha. During Bea’s argument with Beck, one of the things she says is that Beck had always been free to be himself while the same wasn’t true for her. (Another argument where I don’t really feel for Bea, specifically because she more or less set up the relationship to be that way in the first place in order to feel superior to Beck.) Ironically, that’s exactly how I would describe Bea and Leesha’s friendship. Leesha is the friend who has to say (or not say) just the right things, act just the right way, and consistently push aside her own feelings and frustrations in order to avoid making Bea feel like she’s weird or that she’s being judged. Otherwise, she risks seeming like a really shitty person. Bea gets to have moments of judgy-ness and impatience, moments of not being the most forward thinking and understanding person in the world. Leesha does not. Bea literally, with little exception, gets to say whatever pops into her mind to Leesha. Leesha needs to be much more restrained. On top of that, Leesha seems to be on call basically 24/7 for whenever Bea needs support, to the point where Bea actually muses on the fact that Leesha seems to not have much of a life outside of their friendship. But, as we see in the scene where Leesha confides in Bea about Harvard, Bea is just not great at being able to offer the same level of support in return. (It’s actually a pretty sad scene because Bea actually acknowledges her shortcomings in this area, and wishes she were better.) The fact is, though, keeping up that type of dynamic is exhausting, especially when you start getting the feeling that you’re friend doesn’t offer you the same consideration as you offer her. When it came to the stress of colleges and her home struggles, Leesha probably was in real need of someone to lean on and was angered by the fact that instead of being able to lean on Bea, she had to keep trying to find ways to be supportive of the same obsessive stalking habits that got them in trouble years ago. Cue the occasional drunken comments and heavy sighs as the supportive friend hat finally begins slipping. Then at the dance recital, things come to a head. Because, let’s be real, Bea should have known that that dance recital was a big deal to Leesha, and she should have been thinking of how to be there for her friend. Instead Bea was thinking how the recital was gonna be really boring and so she should bring Beck because that would make it more fun for her and decides this can be the time they meet. Without asking herself (or more importantly, asking Leesha) if Leesha would be ok with that. Unfortunately, the fact that Beck is so ostentatiously OCD makes it worse just because it highlights the fact that Bea never considered how that would make Leesha feel, when she really should have.

    Part of having a mental illness, and asking others to be patient with you and understand you, is giving that same patience and understanding back to others in return. It’s hypocritical to expect those close you to immediately and completely understand your perspective if you’re not in turn going to try and understand theirs. And I think that is an important lesson that often gets overlooked. So was Leesha being harsh and insensitive in that moment when she went off on them? Indeed she was. But over-vilifying her for that is dangerous because it’s important to realize that she’s human too, and humans burn out, and it is irresponsible to label those people as jerks without understanding their side.

    Giving Bea a free pass to be as thoughtless, impatient, and judgemental as she wants in her interactions with others while expecting all those around her to have endless consideration, patience, and understanding for her is not a productive mindset. You can have a mental illness and still be a great person and a great friend, those are not mutually exclusive. And it is important for those with mental illnesses that it is still important to recognize yourself within a context of people around you who are affected by your illness too. I guess all I’m trying to say with this long-behind comment is that I wished that had been explored more in the book because that aspect definitely left more to be desired for me.

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