Thirty minutes into reading Don’t Touch, I went to look up the author’s bio and confirm what I already suspected: like me, Rachel M. Wilson has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to write well about a disability if you don’t have it. I certainly hope not; I write characters with disabilities I don’t have. But there was something in this story—some intimate, intangible Knowing—that made me believe, This author has been here. This author has walked in these shoes.
The story follows Caddie, a freshman at Birmingham Arts Academy who dreams of being an actress. Years ago, her severe OCD put her in therapy; she clings to the narrative that she’s better now, even as her parents’ failing marriage drives her deep into obsessive thought and compulsive behavior. Her primary compulsion is avoiding touch: If she doesn’t touch anyone’s skin, maybe her distant father will come back home. Caddie knows this likely isn’t logical behavior, but she can’t stop—even as it rips away at her life, damaging her rekindled friendship with former best friend Mandy, her maybe-romance with magnetic Peter, and her chance at playing the dream role of Ophelia.
Despite the many differences between my life and Caddie’s, the general pattern of her illness—early onset, temporary improvement, and teenage relapse—was eerily like mine. And as someone who has lived with active OCD for most of my life, I can say that this book’s portrayal of the illness rang incredibly true. Caddie’s obsessive fears and intense anxiety attacks are so vivid that I often had to put the book down and take a break to let my own echoes of sympathetic panic ebb away. And I loved the main character: Despite her constant, exhausting background roar of fear, Caddie is empathetic, a good listener and good friend when she isn’t in the grip of panic. Her passion for acting, even when it conflicts with her severe anxiety, permeates nearly every page. She is a complex, well-drawn character, far more than just “a girl with OCD”—but as her illness worsens, it tangles into everything she does, affecting all her decisions. My anxiety did that, left untreated. It narrowed the world and it ate at the sky until I had fewer and fewer options left.
Caddie obsesses over feeling safe, which has little to do with being objectively safe—the idea of touching another person’s skin sends her into complete panic, while certain kinds of actual physical danger might evoke no such response. She hides her compulsions from friends and family, weaving a series of lies and half-truths, building herself a quirky persona to cover the fear. She sometimes hurts the people closest to her, shoving them away when they try to help, pushing harder the closer they get. All these things were like seeing pieces of my own history, set down on a page in black and white.
I live in a world where my friends laughingly say they’re “so OCD” when they line up objects neatly on their shelves. I live in a world where popular media often presents superficial “OCD” characters who count things, worry about germs, memorize details as an almost-superpower, have “quirks” we’re all supposed to find funny, and rarely get to be real people whose minds are collapsing under the weight of crippling anxiety. Here, finally, is a book I can give to friends and family and say: “If you want a glimpse of what it’s actually like inside my head, read this.”