Rarely do I read a book that talks about mental illness in a way that’s both accurate and relatable. Am I Normal Yet? is such a book.
It’s about a girl with OCD. Her name is Evie and she just wants to be normal, whatever that means. She’s been working towards it with her therapist and making good progress since being discharged from hospital, where she’d stayed for a while due to her mental health problems.
Now Evie is at sixth form college, and since it’s not the same place where she went to school, she’s able to start anew. She makes a couple of friends and doesn’t tell them she has OCD. She definitely doesn’t tell them she’s been hospitalised for it in the past. What if they laugh at her?
But the road to recovery isn’t straightforward, and soon Evie finds herself struggling. As she fights to keep her OCD at bay, she feels hopeless and wonders if she’ll ever be normal.
The way Holly Bourne talks, via Evie, about OCD makes me think she truly understands the condition. It’s a mindset that’s difficult to comprehend for people who have never been there. “We’re all a bit OCD!” they say, “I like my pens to be in a straight line too!” But until you’ve cancelled plans because you can’t leave the house; until you’ve spent eight hours on your hands and knees getting carpet burns because you have to get up every last speck of dust, you can’t call it that. Not really.
OCD pervades every aspect of life. It doesn’t leave you alone. It doesn’t let you fully devote your attention to anything, because it’s always there, hovering in the background.
It can manifest in a lot of ways. Like Evie, I was always annoyed with myself for having the most clichéd kind of OCD: the kind where I’d spend all day cleaning my house and not be able to work. Where I’d clean for sixteen hours on a Saturday, then think “oh thank god it’s clean, I’ll have a nice bath” but not be able to get in the bath in case I contaminated myself.
I’d think about spiders an average of 125 times per day. I’d compulsively do things in a certain order, or a certain number of times.
I’m much better than I used to be. Currently I’m renovating, and my flat is a mess. This bothers me only as much as it’d bother most people who don’t have OCD. That’s a big step forward. I still think about spiders a lot, but it no longer stops me doing things. I still prefer to do stuff in a certain order, but I no longer freak out if I can’t. I still count the number of times I’m doing everything, but less desperately. Now it’s just a personality quirk.
But it might grow again in the future. It comes in waves, like the ocean. Sometimes it’s calm and the only real action is happening in the depths, which I can ignore most of the time. Sometimes, though, something whips it into a frenzy and it turns into a choppy sea of rip currents and danger. Occasionally it’s a tsunami.
This was one of the things I loved about Am I Normal Yet? – it presents a realistic view of recovery. Lots of books that look at mental health end with their protagonists recovering, and that’s that. Done. Finished.
In real life, that’s rarely how it works. Every so often you’ll have a setback, and if all the books you’ve read don’t prepare you for that, it can make you feel like even more of a failure than you already did. We need to make people aware of this stuff, and to do it in a way that’s helpful rather than helpless, because saying “recovery isn’t eternal” doesn’t mean “your life will never be good.” It just means sometimes there will be bumps along the way, like there are for everybody, but some of yours will probably relate to whatever health issues you’ve had in the past.
It’s not just a book about OCD, though. It’s also an important book about feminism and what that means for young women in the 21st century.
I recently read I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, which is being hailed as a feminist masterpiece, and I did not agree. Am I Normal Yet? is much more of a feminist work, not least because it explains a lot of what feminism’s about. Evie and her friends set up the Spinster Club: a group of young women who meet to discuss feminist issues. And they do so realistically, as well. Their conversations are similar to those I’ve had about feminism with my friends.
Am I Normal Yet? takes a realistic look at mental health, feminism and the intersection of the two. It’s apparently ‘The Spinster Club #1’, which I hope means there will be many more. I look forward to reading them.