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

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