“It was as if they were two normal kids in love, sitting on a sofa in a warm living room, telling each other almost everything and sorting out the world with someone’s mom puttering annoyingly in the background. Except, of course, they weren’t two normal kids. Would ever be.”
How often do we hear someone exclaim – “Oh, I’m so OCD about that!”? Maybe you commented on how clean their house was, or how neatly ordered their DVD collection is. Or maybe they gave you a coaster to put under the cup of tea. Often we laugh it off, sometimes we don’t, but either way this phrase has come to mean something very different from the clinical diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
When we’re taught about mental health in school (if we’re taught about it), very little time is given over to the more specific ends of the spectrum such as schizophrenia, bipolar and OCD. Instead, education tends to focus on the more common issues of depression and anxiety. So Teresa Toten’s book is a perfect way of educating yourself, no matter your age, and enjoying a damn good story at the same time.
The story centres on 15-year-old Adam, or ‘Batman’, and the individuals in his OCD support group who all take on the names of superheroes after their therapists suggest thinking of an alternate identity for group sessions. There is Wonder Woman, Thor, Wolverine and most importantly, the lovely Robyn, ‘Robin’, with whom Adam falls hopelessly in love. It is the everyday story of boy meets girl, which provides the basis in the book for exploring the bigger topic of the way mental illness can affect our lives.
“On average that week, it took Adam approximately eleven minutes to enter 97 Chatsworth, and it was rising. He knew it was bullshit, just his stupid thoughts, it meant nothing, didn’t do a damn thing. Yet he felt the need to layer on ever-newer rituals in order to keep his mother safe, in order to feel “just right”.”
Interspersed with “lists”, the book tracks Adam’s worries, goals, primary presenting compulsions and medication intake, making this more than just a story, but a source of information on the various presentations of OCD and the ways of treating the disorder. While Adam himself suffers from issues with “ordering, tapping, counting in head, [and] magical thinking re: thresholds”. The others in his group suffer from claustrophobia and hypochondria as well as the less spoken issues of eating disorders and self-harm.
One of the most striking things about this book is the way Toten is able to create a sense of total necessity that follows the various compulsions Adam has. While it is possible to theoretically know how OCD presents, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B gives the reader much more. The book offers an insight into the reality of living with OCD through exploring Adam’s feelings of constant anxiety and, in allowing the story between Adam and Robyn to unfold, provides a background of familiarity for readers and a constant thread throughout the ups and downs of this young man’s life.
“What would that be like? To wake up one morning and be normal? To not bite down and parcel out each second of each day. To not wrestle and negotiate with your obsessions. To not have thoughts that ran you into the ground.
To have a quiet mind.
A quiet mind.
Toten’s novel is a great way of gaining and improving your understanding of a complex mental illness that is not often talked about and often misunderstood. Whether you are reading it as an adult who has a good grasp on the issues, a teenager who strongly identifies with the protagonist, someone with a lived experience of OCD, or a parent wanting to educate yourself and your children, everyone will take something away from this book. While I would not call it heart-warming, it is an enduring testament to the power of human connection and the importance of understanding that nobody is perfect and sometimes just being yourself is enough.
Written by Jean Roxon