The nightmare changed everything for Allison Britz. One day, she was just your typical high school sophomore; she excelled in track and field, was an A-student set for the Ivy League path, and had loving parents and an assortment of close gal pals. One nightmare changed that. Awakening from a vivid dream in which she had terminal brain cancer, Britz decided it was a warning. A prophecy. And she would do everything within her will to make sure that never came true. It started with sidewalk cracks. The old childhood rhyme Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, roared in her mind with a vengeance. Avoiding sidewalk cracks would ensure the safety of both Britz and her parents. That was just the beginning. Soon, Britz was walking between classes on tiptoes, avoiding cracks, counting her footsteps out loud, having a certain number of steps to walk between locations. After obligatory driving lessons with a Christian driving instructor, Britz began believing her thoughts were religious in meaning, and began new religious rituals. Over the following weeks and months, the dangerous list lengthened: she avoided hair dryers, towels, most of her clothing, the colour green, certain foods (except foods she had bargained to herself were “okay” if she avoided walking on cracks), her mobile phone, and computer. She sabotaged friendships, believing the well-intentioned words by her friends were threats to her livelihood. Eventually, she got to the point where she believed that failing an exam worth 25% of her grade would delay the inevitable brain cancer. Her GPA and friendships all but obliterated, Britz in a moment of desperation called her mother, and eventually was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) by a local psychiatrist.
This paints the image of Obsessed: A Memoir of my life with OCD by Allison Britz. 2019 has been a bit of an interesting reading year for me. I’ve read more books than I did in 2018, but it’s been more nonfiction than fiction. Reading about mental illness, and learning how they are stigmatised by society, has been helpful and useful. So many mental illnesses are horribly portrayed and misinterpreted by the general public, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is no different. Most people picture someone washing their hands into red rawness, or even worse, as someone obsessed with alphabetising their books or pencils. I’m so OCD! is the catch-cry of the person who has no idea how debilitating OCD can really be. I learned many years ago how damaging these stereotypes are, and how the latter is indicative of a separate illness, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Of course, the compulsive hand-washer is still one of the many types of OCD, but it is far from the only, and it is great to find a book like Obsessed, which talks about another, yet still invasive, form of OCD.
Allison Britz’s 2017 book Obsessed: A Memoir of my life with OCD, came to me via an internet recommendation. I requested it out from the library, borrowed it on the Monday, and read it nonstop from Tuesday until I finished it on Thursday morning. It is really that captivating a memoir, that as someone who reads pretty on-and-off, I couldn’t stop reading. My library labelled it under Young Adult, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re young, old, or somewhere in between: if you want an emotional, gripping, real-life story about OCD and how horribly it can affect real human beings, this book will be great for you.
Britz’s emotional writing style kept me reading a hundred pages a day, and I read alongside her, as her monster (or “saviour”) took over her life more and more. Britz shows throughout the course of almost 400 pages how OCD is not all about purely the obsessions or the compulsions. Of course, it is more about the obsessions: the thought process, and we are there with Britz as she is stuck more and more inside her own head. When she faces a psychiatrist and psychologist for the first time, she is upset that her parents don’t “understand” what she is going through. They see the outward behaviour; the counting out loud and the wearing of raggedy clothes, but they don’t see what’s truly inside. This is what Obsessed shows. If you want to know what it is like to live day to day with a specific form of OCD—in Britz’s case, it is religious and harm/contamination OCD—then this is perfect for you. It may get a bit much at times, but that is the point. For a person with OCD, and her psychologist describes Britz’s OCD as one of the worst she’s seen in a teenager, it is relentless. There is no taking a break. This is perfectly shown in a scene where Britz is comfortable in her bed, relaxing against the cotton sheets, when her brain tells her everything she is touching causes cancer. To her mind, the only safe haven is sleeping naked on the blue rug in the hallway. To go against the thoughts and “just sleep” in the bed is to die. Deep down, she knew it was irrational; that bed sheets don’t just cause brain cancer, but we are there with Britz, and we know that the irrational OCD obsessions outweigh rationality.
This book wasn’t perfect of course, no book is. I didn’t like that there wasn’t much time spent on Britz’s recovery. We spent more time on her decline from perfect A-student to a barely functioning wreck, than on her psychologist sessions and her recovery. We have her starting to get over her compulsions—like her fear of pens, paper, and socks—and we have her befriending one of her old friends, Jenny, but the story just abruptly ends and there’s a brief note by Britz about her recovery and how she still battles her inner OCD demons to this day, but it was too short. I would’ve liked more on the recovery process, but I suppose that’s more the job of nonfiction like Brain Lock.
I also didn’t really enjoy the kind of romanticisation of the OCD “monster” in her thoughts. While it painted a dramatic, shocking scene about the reality of her OCD, it felt a bit overdone. There’s a bit where the earth shatters and moves and it’s like an earthquake that only Britz can feel…just because she touched a hairdryer, and while I do understand how extreme the OCD thoughts can be, how overwhelming and repetitive and invasive, it read like a dramatic scene in a popular action movie rather than a realistic portrayal of life with OCD. I do understand it’s creative nonfiction, and Britz wants to show the reader the true horror of the situation. I much preferred it in the parts of the novel, much like the scene shown on the book’s back cover, which I feel personally paints a more realistic portrait of the thoughts of someone with OCD: the repetition of Brain cracks cause cancer. But perhaps this is just a part of her religious OCD; the personification of God’s will in her mind appears more dramatic than other forms of OCD that don’t involve religion. I don’t think it really detracts from the book.
It was also nice to see that, even in her darkest moments, Britz still had a loving support network, especially her parents and her track teammate Jenny. Because of the emotional writing style employed, it was a particularly sad moment when her so-called friend Sara, her friend since childhood, never questioned Britz’s seemingly odd behaviour, and is shown giggling at her and eventually avoiding her instead of talking to and understanding her friend. I think Sara and Jenny show just how damaging OCD can be to someone like Allison Britz: the stigmatisation of mental illness shows people who their real friends are, and in Britz’s case, her track and field friend Jenny was willing to understand what was wrong. The relationships with her school-friends showed the stark contrast between Britz’s life before OCD and after it, and probably meant more than how her parents responded, which mostly annoyed me, because it was annoying how long it took her parents to realise something was different about their daughter. However, once she is diagnosed, we see a more positive portrayal of her mother; she is willing to work overtime at work simply so she can take her daughter to so many psychologist appointments. I know how expensive the U.S. healthcare system is, so that made the scenes with her mother typing away busily at a laptop while Britz is in her appointments, that much more poignant.
Obsessed: A memoir of my life with OCD by Allison Britz, is a memoir I wish I had discovered earlier, and I’d recommend it to people who want a simple, easily to read account about life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that focuses on some of the less common obsessions and compulsions that make up the disorder. While I wish it was longer and focused more on Britz’s recovery, I’m thankful I read this memoir, and hope more people will both read this book, and write their own stories, so we can end the stigma of debilitating mental illnesses.