I tried to exclude any plot twists from this post, but there may be some spoilers. You’ve been warned.
It is hard to describe what the struggles of mental illness feel like to those who have never experienced them. Although I may not always have the words, John Green seems to. In his new book, Turtles All the Way Down, he not only crafts a phenomenal work of fiction,
but accurately portrays mental illness better than anything I have read or heard. Drawing on his own Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the main character, Aza, faces the same illness. While I myself have never dealt with OCD, I can very much relate to the internal struggles that Green captures because of my eating disorder and depression. What appears to be a mystery about the fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, goes much deeper. And I am all about going deep here, especially about mental health, so I was compelled to share my thoughts on this novel.
The book opens with a lunchroom scene where Aza is battling her thoughts as she eats because she fears the bacteria within and around her. Aza is stuck in her thoughts, not being able to engage in the conversation around her. Her consciousness lies within her mind, not in her present body and those around her. I can very much relate to this scene because it is something I have experienced countless times myself. Having an eating disorder means I am faced with this many times a day because unlike some mental health issues, like alcoholism, my remedy is engaging with the host of my illness: eating. Aza shows just how difficult it can be to engage with others while fighting with mental illness.
“These demons we face are called illnesses for a reason”
Aza maintains what could seem like a semi-normal life, but she calls herself “crazy” many times. I myself am not a huge fan of the word crazy because of the connotations and history of the word, but to some extent it is true. These demons we face are called illnesses for a reason, because our minds think in very abnormal ways. Despite this, Aza and I both go to school and have friends and family who care about us, helping us hold some shred of normality.
However, maintaining these relationships is no easy feat when you have a mental illness. Green is able to display many of the struggles of being with someone who has a mental illness through Aza. Aza struggles to be a good friend, daughter, and girlfriend. Her intrusive thoughts can make it hard to be a good friend to Daisy. Aza wants to shield her mother because she hates seeing Aza in pain from her anxiety. And then there is Davis, the necessary love interest of the John Green novel. While Davis and Aza do fall in love, Aza’s fear of bacteria means she can never be close to Davis. Aza’s mental illness inhibits her ability to have strong relationships, something that anyone struggling with a disorder can relate to.
“My mental illnesses are definitely the antagonists to the plot of my life”
By far my favorite thing about the book is how Aza’s anxiety is the antagonist of the plot. Usually plots have a specific character who is the antagonist, but in the real world that often is not the case. My mental illnesses are definitely the antagonists to the plot of my life. So I appreciate how John Green wrote a conflict between one’s self and one’s mind. Jennifer Senior wrote in her review in the New York Times that Aza’s “mind is in the throes of a civil war.” That is a great articulation of what it often feels like. It is hard to know who is going to win each battle and even harder to see the end of the war.
John Green is able to portray this “civil war” by how he writes Aza’s thoughts. He has her OCD written in italics and her more sane thoughts in normal text. This helps the reader get into Aza’s mind, and more generally the mind of someone with a mental illness. Some reviews critique this, saying that her thought spirals occurred too often, but I never felt that way. If anything they could’ve happened more because once per chapter or so is unrealistic of how often they really occur per day. These thoughts are almost omnipresent. I am glad if I can go an hour without my eating disorder or depression telling me what to think. Of course, for a novel there needs to be more than just one’s thoughts, but given that the disorder is the antagonist, the thought spirals are vital to the book.
Because I loved Green’s writing style in Turtles All the Way Down, I thought I would share some of my own thoughts in the same way. Below are three situations I often find myself in, where most people would just go about their day, but my mental illnesses make things more challenging. I have written my eating disorder in italics, while depression is underlined, and normal text is whatever sanity is found within me:
Situation: getting up in the morning (often after insomnia)
Ugh it’s finally morning, but I don’t want to get up. I’m too tired. Yeah you are too tired to do anything worthwhile today. And this is nothing worthwhile to do anyways. Just another monotonous day full of things that don’t matter. You should just stay in bed. I guess I can lay in bed for a while. Yeah that’s good because then you can skip breakfast too! I mean you don’t have the energy to get up, shower, get dressed, brush your teeth, do your makeup, and get yourself to the dining hall anyways. Fine I will stay here for a while a watch something. But I do need to get up and eat something before class.
Situation: at the library
That girl is so much thinner than you. You shouldn’t eat lunch today. She is thin, but that doesn’t mean I should skip lunch. I need to focus on my work now. But you could be so thin again. Remember how thin you were. You can have that back. I could, but I was miserable and don’t want that life back. Yes but you are still miserable. You are always depressed, so at least you can be depressed AND thin. I know if I listen to you ED then it will only make me go backwards on the progress I have made. You are always depressed, so why not just give in? Everything is hopeless anyway. No, everything is not hopeless, I can still have a productive and fulfilling life. But it takes so much effort and you have no energy. I will just continue to do what I can and push through this.
Situation: In the cafeteria after a fear food
Wow I can’t believe you just ate that. You are going to be so fat now. Shut up, ED. I wanted to eat it and it was good. Yeah, but it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t even that good so you shouldn’t have had it. Maybe not, but I did. And I need to challenge you. You are so much bigger now, you need to check your waist to make sure it isn’t above your ribs. Okay fine. Oh your waist is too big, you need to exercise now! You are so lazy. Everyone else here exercises and you should too. But you don’t have any energy. And it won’t matter anyway. I don’t want to exercise, I need to focus on my studies. Exercising won’t make me happy and it will just make ED worse. But you need me, what would you do without me. And besides you will never be recovered. Yeah, it takes too long and too much effort. And what does it matter anyways, we are all going to die and it won’t matter what you do. I ate what I wanted to and it’s fine.
If you made it to the end of this, thanks for reading! If you haven’t already, I hope you will take the time to read Turtles All the Way Down. I promise, you won’t regret it!