How John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down helped me make sense of mental illness

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“The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keeps tightening, infinitely.”

Books have always had a calming effect on me. Before I could even read on my own, I loved to cuddle up under a blanket in my bed or the couch and have someone read me to sleep.

John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down calmed me in a different, maybe more realistic way. Rather than diving into a book that allowed me to escape reality, it forced me to understand reality better. We’re living in a world suffering from the effects of tainted mental health, and the general population needs to know what it’s like before it gets any better.

The ironic thing, though, is that this book is fictional. It follows 16-year-old Aza Holmes, who’s living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety. She constantly reopens a callus on her thumb to drain out pathogens in fear of infection, specifically C. diff.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, as the name implies, people with OCD may experience obsessions, compulsions, or both. Obsessions are unwanted, repetitive thoughts, urges or images that don’t go away. Compulsions, on the other hand, are meant to reduce the severe anxiety caused by the obsessions—this could be cleaning or ordering things in a certain way.

Aza’s symptoms of OCD and anxiety are prevalent, and almost painful to read, as Turtles All The Way Down continues.

Along with her friend Daisy, Aza tries to solve the disappearance of her childhood friend’s billionaire father Russell Pickett. She stumbles across her old friend, Davis Pickett, at the beginning of their investigation.

Aza’s fear of bacteria spirals when she starts developing a romantic relationship with Davis. Her OCD impedes on the relationship’s development as they kiss and Aza fears his germs will spread to her.

Following an anxiety attack later on in the novel, she also can’t shake the urge to drink hand sanitizer to kill off germs.

What amazes me about this book is that John Green was—surprisingly, I’ll admit—able to give an accurate representation of mental illness in a short 286 pages. Fictional works about mental illness, such as books or movies, often make me cringe because chances are they don’t present the realities of these hard-to-understand conditions.

I, myself, recognized my anxiety when I was 16 years old and got my driver’s license. I’ve been in minor car accidents and witnessed a more serious one, but other than that, I’m not sure where my extreme fear of collisions came from.

It started so early on. Of course, all of my friends would take advantage of being able to drive themselves and go out to the movies or for supper. I refused to go out, not just because of driving—my elevated fears aren’t specific to any one thing. I frequently experienced panic attacks over simple tasks like using the debit machine or walking into a restaurant and not being able to find my group.

Eventually, I got a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. Not dealing with it properly quickly caught up to me, leading to physical health issues and a stint of severe depression.

I’ve always struggled with explaining my feelings. I’ve become frustrated with myself for sitting in silence when someone asks what’s going on, or beat myself up after I do because it never comes across correctly.

I really did feel understood throughout this book, as I’m sure many other readers have. Because it’s true—living with a mental illness is like living in an infinitely down-winding spiral unless you address your stressors. Every part of Aza’s life appears to be complicated by her intense fear of germs, including the harmonious bond she has with Davis. And I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good love story, so the complications in their relationship had me on the edge of my seat.

The saying ‘Turtles all the way down,’ as I understand it, refers to infiniteness—it’s the mythological concept that the earth sits on the back of a turtle, which sits on another, which sits on another, and so on. Aza, as Daisy tells her, is struggling to find the bottom turtle. Instead, which strikes me as the root message of the novel, Daisy tells her to let it go because the system is simply incomprehensible.

John Green has a unique talent of telling stories of young characters in often relatable circumstances—yet the solution, or solutions, to these situations are not so much trying to understand them, but changing your perspective on them. His novels, though, are always mixed with compelling characters, concepts and humour. This one is no exception.

I’m truly amazed at how much John Green was able to accomplish in such a short novel, and everyone should take the time to read it. If you struggle with a mental illness, it will give you a sense of normalcy and, in turn, peace. If you don’t, maybe it will help you understand your partner, friend, sibling, or child’s condition better.

Not only is Turtles All The Way Down an entertaining way to spend your free time, it’s also beneficial because of its educational description of mental illness—something that many, including those that suffer from one, struggle to grasp.

Intrigued by this book? Buy the hard copy here or on Audible here.
Follow me on Instagram @creationsbyjayda

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