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Book Review: Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

Book Review: Girl Against the UniverseSummary:
Maguire is bad luck.
No matter how many charms she buys off the internet or good luck rituals she performs each morning, horrible things happen when Maguire is around. Like that time the rollercoaster jumped off its tracks. Or the time the house next door caught on fire. Or that time her brother, father, and uncle were all killed in a car crash—and Maguire walked away with barely a scratch.
It’s safest for Maguire to hide out in her room, where she can cause less damage and avoid meeting new people who she could hurt. But then she meets Jordy, an aspiring tennis star. Jordy is confident, talented, and lucky, and he’s convinced he can help Maguire break her unlucky streak. Maguire knows that the best thing she can do for Jordy is to stay away. But it turns out staying away is harder than she thought.

Review:
I picked this up because I heard it featured mental illness in a realistic manner, and I think that’s something that’s important, particularly in YA. I was not disappointed.

Maguire has a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that developed in response to trauma. She’s been around when some very bad things happened, and her survivor’s guilt has kind of gotten out of control. The reader meets Maguire initially through her therapy session, where she is definitely a sullen teenager. Maguire’s approach to her mental illness is one of the more realistic parts of the book. She at first very firmly believes that everyone else is crazy in refusing to acknowledge her “bad luck.” But slowly with the help of her therapist she comes to see that maybe it’s all in how she’s perceiving the random universe, and that her magical thinking won’t really fix anything.

While I didn’t think having a love interest was necessary (why couldn’t it be a friend for once), I get why Jordy was included and I liked him beyond the love interest part. Jordy’s existence shows that therapy can be useful for things beyond more serious mental illnesses, such as relearning coping mechanisms or dealing with issues in your family. I also appreciated that for once there wasn’t a love triangle.

I did think the writing was a little bit too simplistic for the audience, and I also thought that sometimes the descriptions were rocky. Some sentences read early first draft with the list of descriptors that are then repeated every time characters show up again. But I also think that YA readers who aren’t used to seeing themselves (or their loved ones) in literature will be so enthralled by Maguire and her realistic therapy assignments and issues that they will quickly gloss over that.

Recommended to fans to contemporary YA lit looking for a realistic mental illness depiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

February 24, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost & Gail SteketeeSummary:
It may be difficult to describe a hoard, but you know one when you see one. Maybe you have a neighbor who keeps their shades drawn but when you enter their home you see piles and piles of stuff that either they keep for a project they’ll do one day or because every scrap of it contains important information (according to them). Maybe you’ve only encountered hoarding through reality tv shows focused around the forced clean-up of homes that immediately appear unlivable to you but yet that the person on the show insists is full of treasures. Or maybe you grew up in a home where the hoard slowly encroached on your own room

Between 2 and 5 percent of the population suffers from Hoarding Disorder. Frost and Steketee were the first to begin scientifically studying it. Here, couched in tales of real interactions with and homes of clients (who granted their permission to be featured in an anonymized fashion) Frost and Steketee present both what we know and what we don’t know about hoarding, as well as best practices for helping someone with the disorder.

Review:
As an outside observer of a hoard, it can often be difficult to imagine what leads a person to believe trash is treasure. But of course it’s more complicated than someone just being unable to recognize trash. After all…one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The authors attack this head-on by first giving a true definition to what counts as hoarding and then talking about various causes and possible presentations of the disorder. So what counts as hoarding?

It hardly matters how much stuff anyone owns as long as it doesn’t interfere with his or her health or happiness or that of others….Hoarding is not defined by the number of possessions, but by how the acquisition and management of those possessions affects their owner. (page 58)

So basically, it counts as hoarding if the collection of items interferes with the person’s health or happiness or the health or happiness of others nearby. The complicated gray area of course is that the sufferer may not realize that the hoard is interfering with their happiness and health. That is the point of conflict for many loved ones of people who hoard.

After establishing and defining what hoarding disorder is and is not, the authors continue on to analyze the behavior and mind of someone suffering from hoarding. Fascinatingly, hoarding shares commonalities with many other mental illnesses, seeming to a certain extent to defy categorization, although the DSM 5 currently lists it among “Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders.” Are you shocked? Did you think that OCD always means cleanliness? The fact is that is often not what OCD means. It’s a misunderstanding spurred on by popular culture. OCD is an obsession. It can be with cleaning and germs but it can also be with anything. It also often features repetitive behaviors. If you think about it, you can see what hoarding has in common with this. People who hoard become obsessed with the idea of not losing something important, of collecting everything relevant to a certain idea, of not wasting things. They also can come to establish repetitive behaviors such as maybe always buying a newspaper from a certain store on the way home from work. Another similarity with OCD is that hoarders often are perfectionists. Part of why their homes become cluttered is they are obsessed with only doing a perfect job of cleaning up or of fixing something or using some item for a project, and they become paralyzed with the fear that they can’t do it good enough, so they never start.

The authors also talk about how hoarding has commonalities with Impulse-Control Disorders, such as gambling and compulsive buying. Many people who hoard also struggle with both of these ICDs, and it’s easy to see the relationship here. Similarly, many hoarders show symptoms of ADD. They often do much better cleaning up if there is simply someone there to help them maintain focus, rather than being easily distracted.

Hoarding is also often a result of trauma. People suffer a trauma and essentially attempt to build a protective space around themselves by hoarding.

Compared to people who do not suffer from hoarding problems, clutterers report a greater variety of traumatic events (an average of six versus three), as well as a greater frequency (an average of fourteen versus five) of such events. The type of trauma most often experienced by hoarders include having had something taken by threat or force, being forced into sexual activity, and being physically assaulted. (page 87)

Interestingly, there’s a comparatively low incidence of PTSD among hoarders, in spite of such a high incidence of trauma. (A 2006 study found only 6% of hoarders had PTSD, page 91). It is possible that hoarding prevents the development of PTSD. Many hoarders also report a childhood devoid of warmth and support, so even if they were not traumatized, it is still likely that they had a cold, distant childhood. In contrast to PTSD, the majority of hoarders (nearly 60%) meet the criteria for major depression, and it is posited that this depression could be in response to the hoarding itself.

People draw conclusions about their worth and competence based on their inability to control their living space, and not being able to entertain people in their homes isolates them and limits their social lives. (loc 532)

The authors then talk about what may be going on in the heads of people who hoard. People don’t do things completely irrationally. There are reasons for it. There are multiple possibilities for hoarding of what may be going on. No single aspect has been determined yet.  However, in general, hoarders suffer from a different type of threat signal. They fear something being removed, rather than the presence of something. It has also been posited that they have the opposite of claustrophobia. They feel safer in small, tight spaces, so they artificially create them. Hoarders also frequently struggle with identity. Rather than knowing who they are, they often are defined by the question “Who am I?” and collect items to try to show who they are. In addition to the aforementioned perfectionism, hoarders also seem to view items differently from the rest of us. They are generally very optimistic about future usefulness and can be quite creative as to reusing things. It has been posited that hoarding may be creativity run amok. However, many hoarders also gamble compulsively and the relationship between a hoarder’s positive thinking and a gambler’s is interesting.

“Seeing the scratch tickets over the counter at the convenience store leads me to think, One of those tickets is surely a winner, maybe a million-dollar winner. How can I walk away when the opportunity is there?” Our hoarders have said similar things about items they’ve wanted to acquire. (loc 202)

Distress avoidance is also often a common feature. Distress avoidance is when a person seeks to avoid a situation that they think will cause them distress. They then build up that situation in their heads to be more of a stressor than it actually would be. Continual avoidance of these types of situations also weakens a person’s ability to deal with them (due to lack of practice), so it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Animal hoarding is its own special subcategory, and it seems that in addition to all of the other possible hoarding issues, animal hoarders may suffer from a form of an attachment disorder where their bonds with other humans are frayed and easily broken and replaced by bonds with animals.

So, essentially, hoarders are often people who are perfectionists who tend to perform rituals and struggle with impulse control. They may compulsively shop and/or gamble in addition to hoarding. They often had cold, distant childhoods and/or suffered a trauma (or traumas). They tend to come at life from a basis of fear and feel safer in tight, closed spaces, and their fear is heightened by removal of things, rather than appearance of new things. At some point, they started avoiding distress, and this distress avoidance became a self-fulfilling cycle. They also frequently struggle with knowing who they are internally, rather looking outward to possessions for identity signals.  In addition to these compulsions and fears, hoarders also often see things differently or in more detail than non-hoarders, and they also struggle to focus or concentrate, making cleaning up even more difficult for them.

The authors conclude by discussing both how to treat hoarding and effects on family members and loved ones (as well as on communities). The authors stress repeatedly that forced clean-ups are the absolute worst possible solution or treatment option. A forced clean-up just fulfills the person’s fear that people are out to get them, and simply makes them cling on to their possessions even more aggressively. It also can make them more depressed. Since their identity is wrapped up in their possessions, getting rid of them by force can cause emotional trauma akin to someone chopping off your hair by force. I was stunned to learn that there have been cases of people who hoard committing suicide after a forced clean-up. The authors strongly advocate for the much slower, but with more long-term positive results, method of going through the hoard with the person slowly and basically teaching them new ways to think about both their possessions and their identity. They also state that it’s easier to treat compulsive buying and gambling than hoarding, so when possible treat that first to prevent the arrival of new items into the hoard. It is a long, difficult treatment plan to go through a hoard slowly, and sometimes it may be necessary to remove the person from the home for safety but then to return with them repeatedly to work on cleaning out the hoard.

The fact that forced clean-ups are the worst possible solution for the sufferer and the fact that hoards get worse over time leads me to believe that early interventions are absolutely critical to render the most help to those suffering from hoarding. But this is a complex thing. Since many cases of hoarding start due to a cold home environment or from trauma, it may be difficult to get parents behind addressing the situation early. Many people who hoard interviewed in the book talk about their hoarding beginning to get out of control by late in their freshman year of college. Perhaps this is something colleges should be keeping an eye out and offering help for. Additionally, shame is often mentioned as a factor in keeping the problem hidden. Perhaps PSAs and other public service campaigns could both lessen the stigma and offer help to people early on in the development of a hoard.

So much of hoarding is stigmatized. To a certain extent this is understandable. It often isn’t seen by the public until it has reached a public health crisis level or in situations where animal hoarders are keeping their hoards in deplorable conditions. Often loved ones of those who hoard feel trapped and frustrated by the hoarding. They feel as if the loved one loves their stuff more than them. These are complex issues and professional help is required to address them. I honestly don’t think this is a situation that is easily handled one family at a time. A family member must be well-informed and patient and empathetic enough to wait through the long treatment process. Often that family member is the child of the hoarder and therefore a minor with no power, which makes the issue even more complex. This is definitely a situation in which public health education campaigns on things like early warning signs of hoarding tendencies and ways to seek help could be extremely helpful long-term. I do believe the authors could have taken things one step further at the end of the book to this connection to public health, rather than mostly focusing on individual therapy. They do mention less consumerism would be helpful, but that simply is not much of an observation. It is a small complaint, but I do feel that this interdisciplinary leap is important.

Overall, this was a fascinating, enlightening book. The authors have conducted extensive scientific research for years, and they do an awesome job of writing this information at the consumer level, as well as humanizing it by bringing in real cases with clients who they render in a three-dimensional fashion. I know I for one will never be able to stomach watching forced clean-ups on the tv show “Hoarders” again. Recommended to really everyone. Anyone could potentially know someone who struggles with hoarding, whether now or in the future, and the book is very readable.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Illness(es) featured: Hoarding Disorder

Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Friday Fun! (MIA Reading Challenge Update)

April 22, 2011 7 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Since we have just one week left of April, I thought I’d provide an MIA Reading Challenge update!  I’m so pleased with the enthusiasm for the challenge shown by the participants, particularly since this is its first year existing.

By far our most prolific participant so far is Karen.  Her reads have covered everything from OCD to Antisocial Personality Disorder.  So far she has read and reviewed (links to her reviews): Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, An Unquiet Mind, Cut, The Bell Jar, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dearly Devoted Dexter, Dexter in the Dark, Missing, House Rules, and I Don’t Want to Be Crazy.  She’s only one book away from completing the highest level of the challenge.  Go Karen!

Jules is keeping up a nice, steady pace so far, having read two books (links to her reviews): The Bell Jar (Depression) and Alias Grace (Dissociative Identity Disorder).  Keep it up, Jules!

Jessica also has finished two books (links to her reviews): The Silver Linings Play Book (recovery from mental break-down) and The Madonnas of Leningrad (Alzheimer’s).  Excellent pace for the level you signed up for, Jessica!

I’ve also completed two books that fit into the challenge description (links to my reviews): American Psycho (Antisocial Personality Disorder) and Hunger (Anorexia Nervosa).

Thank you everyone for your participation so far this year and for raising awareness on mental illnesses.  We may be a small group so far, but hopefully each year will grow!

If you’ve read books for the challenge and I did not list you, please comment and let us all know!  Unfortunately with the way my blog is, you commenting and telling me is the easiest way for me to keep up with what everyone has read.

It’s not too late to sign up for the challenge if you’re interested!  Check out the MIA Reading Challenge page to find out more.

Happy weekends all!