My favorite kind of books are those that act as mirrors, reflecting the world back at the reader and illuminating new truths and ideas. Turtles All the Way Down, John Green’s newest novel, is one those rare books.
During my flight home to San Francisco over Thanksgiving break, I sat bent over my tray table for six hours, reading it with tear-blurred eyes.
The narrator, 16-year-old Aza Holmes, like me, suffers from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Her condition is much more extreme than mine: She fears her body will be colonized by microbes and succumb to bacterial infection; she has a self-inflicted wound that she continually reopens and drains; she drinks hand sanitizer.
Aza cannot escape the infinite regression of her thoughts, the spiral of the mind that “keeps tightening, infinitely,” as Green puts it. Aza’s worries, at times, make it difficult for her to stay present with her vivacious best friend or to fall in love and have a relationship or to simply navigate the daily stresses of being human.
Reading about Aza is disturbing and difficult, not only because of the severity of her problems, but also because I see the worst version of myself in her: being self-absorbed, manic and a constant source of stress.
I often struggle to describe what anxiety is like, how one worrisome thought can take over and rule the mind, how the fear refuses to relax its grip. For example, I often think that I forgot to turn the stove off. So I go back to my apartment, take the elevator up to the fifth floor, unlock the double doors and check the stove. The dial is always switched to the off setting.
I leave the apartment and go back to class or to the library. But then the thought arrives again, more insistent: Are you sure you turned the stove off? Is there any chance that it could be on?
No, I tell myself. I checked. I did turn the stove off. But there is still a needling inside my stomach, a spinning inside my mind. So I go back home again.
I’ve learned to write a note down or take a picture of the stove before I leave for class in the morning. But the anxiety takes other forms, too. I chew on my bottom lip obsessively. I jolt myself awake on a nightly basis from bad dreams.
Worst of all are the panic attacks. My heartbeat accelerates, my breath shortens, and I become hyper aware of my surroundings. But I am also paralyzed.
It’s a terrible and frightening thing: not being able to trust your own mind, not feeling safe in your own body.
Lately, I’ve felt that my anxiety has not only has become more debilitating but has also made me bad at being a person.
I made an appointment at the Counseling Center and slept through it. I woke up late for course registration. I forgot to email an assignment in. I missed a celebration for my roommate.
Last month, I was meeting with a professor, and he asked me about my semester. I replied honestly.
“I can’t stop fixating on my problems. I don’t want to obsess, but I can’t stop, and I don’t know how to,” I said.
He reflected on this for a moment and then looked at me.
“You don’t want to care about the small things,” he said. “You want to care about the bigger, more important things in life, like finding love or achieving world peace.”
I nodded. But it’s more simple than that. I want to be a good friend and coworker and student. But I don’t know if I can be, and I don’t know how to get better or if I ever will.
For years, I’ve asked myself: How can I overcome this problem? How can I get rid of it? This year, especially after reading Turtles, I realized I’ve been asking the wrong questions. Mental illness doesn’t work that way. It’s an ongoing process of learning to manage your problems.
Green, who has long struggled with mental illness, has said he wanted to paint an accurate picture of what mental illness is really like, and I think he does. He shows us that though mental illness is something that people may have to cope with their entire lives, they need not be hopeless.
“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out,” he writes.
That’s the key to coping with anxiety and living a fulfilling life. Follow the spiral out. You will find places that ground you, interests that electrify you and people who will pull you out of your mind. Sometimes it won’t be possible, and you’ll be stuck for hours, days, maybe even weeks. But when that happens, focus on the external.
Focus on your friends who bring you coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches when you’re too busy to eat, who make your stomach hurt from laughing, who Skype you from six time zones away, who text you when you’re at the library studying just to check in.
Focus on your family who live on the opposite side of the country but will always welcome you home with open arms, people who are only a phone call away. Focus on yourself, too. Focus on the issues and interests that stir up a desire to do good in the world.
In the midst of focusing on things outside of my head, I have come to accept myself more. Not completely. I’m still working on that. I am not better. But what I am is growing. Changing. Learning. Spiraling outwards.