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.
At 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.