What I’m Reading: Compulsion

Compulsion, by Heidi Ayarbe, is a YA novel about Jake, a senior in high school with a serious case of obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD).  Jake is a standout soccer player being recruited by several colleges, but except for those brief periods of time when he’s on the field and they disappear, his life is completely dominated by a number of compulsions: a need to manipulate numbers in his head, to obsessively track the time, to brush his teeth a certain way, chew his food a certain number of times, take a precise number of steps to descend a stairway, etc.

His compulsions get in the way of his social life, and only Luc, a fellow soccer player he’s known since kindergarten, puts up with his bizarre behavior.  Jake is routinely late to class because he can’t leave his house until he’s performed his waking ritual a certain way.  Despite the fact that pretty girls  practically throw themselves at him as the school’s star athlete, he has never had a romantic relationship–touching other people is too germy.

Still, there is one person who could help: Mera, a weird girl who used to play with Luc and Jake when they were kids, but is now a school outcast due to her aggressive vegetarianism and take-no-bull attitude. She seems to understand his problems and instinctively does the right things to calm him. It’s too bad she’s not one of the popular kids.

He can’t even describe his problem to anybody–he feels he has to maintain his image as an athlete with a perfect life, and his OCD in no way fits into that agenda.  Anyway, he’s not aware that his compulsions are a disease.  His family is working-class and even though his mother is positively crippled by her own OCD, she’s apparently never been to a doctor about it.  This was actually the weakest point in the book for me–surely at some point somebody in the family would have seen an episode of Oprah or some other television show about OCD and realize it can be treated?

Other than that point, which can probably be explained away though it wasn’t addressed, the book is powerful and emotionally affecting.  It really resonated with me because I’ve had OCD tendencies all my life.  In late elementary school, I even suffered from mental number manipulation in my head, just like Jake.  I suppose I have/had a mild case, but there was a point when much of my time and energy was taken up with this compulsion.  I thought it was a bad habit, and at one point decided to break myself of it.  Over a period of weeks I forced myself to stop manipulating numbers whenever my brain would start to do it, an exhausting effort which became easier over time.  Maybe if Jake had fought it earlier on, his OCD wouldn’t later have become so all-consuming?

I assume my wife brought this home from the library because of my own OCD issues.  Nevertheless, I could recommend this book to anybody who wants to learn what it’s like to have OCD from inside the head of a sufferer.  I can attest from personal experience that the book’s treatment of it is realistic.  It’s not a “fun” book, indeed it’s fairly harrowing, but it’s quite accessible and readable.  It’s aimed at teens but I think adults interested in the issue, or who simply want a powerful, well-written story, could read it as well.

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