Thursday, August 2, 2012

Book Review: I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands - The Other Side of OCD by J.J. Keeler

Hello Friends:

Yes, I too am on the book-tour wagon-train for "I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands - The Other Side of OCD" by J.J. Keeler!

This book gets 3.8 out of a possible 5 "wings" from Your Adventure Hostess.  I know, I said I wouldn't split wings on book reviews, but I really had to for this one.  Three was way too low, and four was a touch too high.  So 3.8 it is.

Full disclosure - I was asked to review this book, and then I was sent a copy.  I haven't read any other reviews of this book (yet), either on websites or other blogs.  Everything in this review is only my opinion.  I am not a medical professional (that is actually a fact, not just opinion :)

Some of What's in the Book

"Other Side" (as I shall call this book) is 173 pages long, with 11 interesting chapters having such names as "When AIDS Came Out" and "The Bomb In My Teddy Bear."  It is not an informational book per se, but a memoir of one person's experience with OCD.  As the title suggests, it presents lesser known aspects of the illness.  Hand washing is often connected with OCD, but straight obsessions and intrusive thoughts are just as much a part.  No one has all the possible symptoms and manifestations of OCD - how it can present in any individual can be very surprising, even to another sufferer.
What I Liked

Given my own use of humor as a coping mechanism, it does not surprise me that I enjoyed the humor in this book.  Keeler's humor ranges from silly to ironic to emotional, and it almost always serves to enhance whatever is being discussed.  The humor starts on the first page of the prologue, and had me chuckling right away.  "Why am I telling you all this?  You're not my therapist.  Unless my therapist is reading this.  In that case, hello."   

The tone is friendly and approachable.  Keeler writes sincerely about her experiences, and does not leave out the painful or difficult moments.  She does not pull punches, "Still, no mental illness is a picnic - unless you tend to picnic in the depths of Hell."

There were several sentences and phrases that sounded like the voice in my head - the experiences were so similar to those I have, myself.  "I became obsessed with getting AIDS by merely walking." For me, just hearing the word ... wow, I can hardly write it ... 'rabies' ... makes me catch it (as I've noted in the blog here on more than one occasion).

"Other Side" goes into excruciating, agonizing detail about how an intrusive thought pops up, and then all the machinations a person goes through to try to deal with it.  The fear alone is horrifically disabling, and the behaviors can utterly consume your life.  It is one of the aspects of OCD that is so hard to explain - that it completely overwhelms and completely controls - and that it causes terrible pain in the process.

I give props to the publisher for taking this manuscript.  I think honest, even-handed books about mental illness from a sufferer's perspective remain too few.  It's nice to see one like this.  Also, I simply like this publisher in general because of some of their more unusual, even experimental, titles.
What I Didn't Like

The "Random OCD Facts" that show up needed to highlight more important points about OCD.  I found them superfluous, and even distracting, i.e., "Random OCD Fact Number 4:  OCD can interfere with the ability to sleep."

The short intermission chapter "It's Not Always OCD" seemed out of place, and even misleading.  The chapter provides a list of topics/issues that ostensibly "have nothing to do with mental illness or really anything else."  The first on the list is Keeler's fear of spiders.  Given that I have an acute Specific Phobia of spiders that plays directly into my General Anxiety Disorder, I disagree that it does not relate to mental illness, at least for me personally.  I say this even stronger for number seven on the list where the author states "I am very afraid of getting rabies."  The "R" even comes up again in number nine.  Given my own terror of the big "R" I was unhappy both to see it listed as "having nothing to do with mental illness" as well as the author's apparent denial that this may be another aspect of her own OCD.  The whole list is so tinged with anxiety disorder issues I'm wondering if I missed a key bit of irony about the entire chapter.  Still, I found it alienating and wished the intermission had not been in the book.

The tone of the book is a bit too chatty for me.  I found I had to force myself to read some of the lengthy setups and exposition for certain scenarios, instead of jumping ahead to find out "the point."  Sometimes "the point" was not enough of a payoff to feel as though reading through the background was justified. 

I simply did not find enough scholarly references to back up some of the main points.  I don't mean to imply that a memoir needs to be written by a psychologist.  It is that when statements are made without scientific data or scholarly reference, then they are entirely subjective to the writer.  It was disconcerting for me to read statements directed towards OCD in general that were not grounded in data (remember, I'm a scientist, so my own bias is freely noted.)  I might simply be too jaded after decades of dealing with my OCD's, but I think this book will be of most help to those just beginning to deal with their own OCDs.  Many of us who have been in the trenches of therapy for decades might find less meat (data, new ideas, innovative approaches to coping) here to chew on. 

Overall, the text felt somewhat unpolished, as if it needed one more edit to remove some extra verbiage, smooth the flow from one idea or section to the next, and to ensure a consistent voice.

Summary and Final Comments

There are many people who have OCD symptoms like those discussed in this memoir (me included) and who have not found many sources of validation.  "Other Side" helps those sufferers validate their experience in an accessible, often humorous, and always sincere way.  The book is particularly powerful when discussing harming obsessions.  I personally thought "Other Side" would have been improved by a more scholarly treatment, as well as a more informed tone of voice, but others will prefer it exactly as it is.

Side note - Sometimes I do not understand publishers.  Book covers are really very important.  This cover is not appropriate for the book.  It attempts to make literal the figurative language in the title, but does so by sacrificing readability and any coherent link between the design elements.  I also thought it wasn't a good idea to put hands being washed on the cover, when that is exactly what the book is not about.  So many other designs, symbols, and even fonts would have had greater impact, and helped convey the true themes and emotion of the book.

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image credit/info:  Front cover of "I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands" from Paragon House


Ann said...

Interesting review, thanks. I, too, found the "I'm afraid of rabies, but it's not OCD" bullet point odd. I don't know anyone who doesn't have OCD who ever gives rabies a second thought. And it seems quite common in OCD, to the point that it's been brought up in multiple OCD blogs that I've read. Including my own. :)

Tina Fariss Barbour said...

Good, well-written review. I've got a rabies problem, too, so it was odd to include that in the list.

71º & Sunny said...

Wow - truly LOVED this review! You brought out all kinds of points I never even thought of. (I did the same thing, I didn't read anyone else's review before I wrote mine.)

I'm also deathly afraid of rabies. In fact, there was a time about 2-3 years ago that I was convinced that I had it. I also found that list included mostly OCD type fears. But, who knows, maybe for Ms. Keeler the fears she has are more general rather than obsessive type?

I did like the book and I think it would be a good tool to give to family members and friends so that they could understand our thought process.

You mentioned you were a scientist - do you mind my asking what kind? (Now you've got me intrigued.)

Days In The Life Of Susan, An Animal Shelter Worker Who Has Bipolar Disorder said...

Hi Blue Morpho! That was a great review of the book, I feel the urge to read it now, except I've got reading OCD, and rarely get past the second page of a book, re reading the same words over and over, until I lost all gist of the book. Intrusive thoughts, I get them a lot, but have been ashamed of what I think, and have only shared them with my doctor to which he replied, "You have intrusive thoughts". The thoughts are very violent, they don't make sense and I'm continually questioning reality. Diseases? I'm not frightened of them, no hand washing probs either, but putting things in order as I mentioned in my last comment to you, drives me up the wall and scares me. Thanks again for the review. Susan :)

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Thank you for taking the time to read and review this book for the tour. I'm glad you found things to appreciate in it even though there were parts that didn't work for you.

The Blue Morpho said...

Wow so many great comments, thanks! Looks like a lot of us have a fear of rabies - I wonder what's up with that? Something about a low probability/but really bad if you get it thing, maybe?

71 - I have a BS in Astronomy and a PhD in Planetary Science. I'm a moon, mars, crater person. :) It's been on hold with the MIs, but I'm hoping to get back into at least the teaching end of things sometime soon.

Amy said...

Hi Morpho, re: the picture on the cover, it could definitely be a trigger for some OCD folks. That's something publishers should take into consideration when reeasing books about mental illness.

71º & Sunny said...

Wow - you have a couple of very cool degrees - I'm impressed! I can think of a couple people in my family who would love to sit down with you and pick your brain!

Kate Kiernan said...

Wow, that is so cool that you have a PhD in Planetary Science. Congratulations on getting that degree! And I, too, hope that you return to teaching. From reading your blog, I can see that you are a good one.

Thanks for the book review. I don't have a fear of rabies, but in the past I have had a fear of AIDS until just after I became ill with schizophrenia and my voices ordered me to get tested to find out. I did and thankfully did not turn up positive. Since then I have not worried about it, also thankfully.

Even though you had a few problems with the book your review was positive enough to recommend it to others. I am glad that individuals out there with mental illnesses are writing about their personal experiences. It really helps to de-mystify unaffected people and reduce stigma and it helps to lessen the isolation individuals with MI experience and perhaps give them new coping skills.

Anonymous said...

my hands

ruby-tuesday said...

Hey there,

I've just found your blog
I have anorexia/bulimia and am also recovering from heroin addiction
Anxiety is ever present in my life.

I love your book review
I'll definitely be checking that book out.

I also use humour to get me through the tough stuff. Why cry when you can laugh right?

Look forward to reading more x

Nicole said...

This is a great review! Definitely sounds like this book would be right up my alley, so I'll have to check it out.

Have you ever read Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traig? It's also a memoir about coping with OCD, and Traig is a very funny and sincere writer. It's one of my favorite books. You might like it :)

I hope you are doing well.


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