Last night I did something I haven’t done in months – I read for three hours straight. I was consumed by a book and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished. The book was Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages (and crying) because I’d never seen a book character with mental health issues that felt so real and so relatable.
Turtles All the Way Down is about a girl named Aza who has severe anxiety and obsessive/compulsive disorder. There’s more to the book – the action is driven by Aza’s friend Daisy and a quest to find a missing billionaire so they can collect the reward money – but at its heart, it’s a look inside Aza’s mind and what it’s like to live trapped inside your own thoughts.
When I was 18, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I missed almost a quarter of my senior year of high school due to constant panic attacks and overwhelming anxiety. Now, my anxiety is nothing as severe as Aza’s is in the book, and fortunately I don’t have any obsessive/compulsive behaviors, but Green’s descriptions of Aza’s “thought spirals” and anxieties were possibly the most relatable thing I’ve ever read.
For Aza (and for myself), much of her life is lived “normally” (for lack of a better word). But one thought triggers her anxiety. “If you do that, what if [something terrible] happens?” And, rationally, you know something terrible is very unlikely, but once you think it, you fixate on it. What if it DOES happen? It probably won’t, but you have no way to know it won’t happen. Is it worth the risk? You probably should avoid anything that could lead to something terrible. You should just stay home or take other steps, and that way you know you’ll be safe.
The big thing about anxiety is, a lot of the time, you know you’re not thinking rationally. You know it’s unrealistic to be so afraid and that whatever you’re fixating on (like contracting a disease or being a victim of a terrorist attack or your plane crashing) is highly unlikely, but your brain won’t turn off. Even though your way-down-deep you is whispering that there’s no reason to be so worried, a much louder voice is shouting that this danger is imminent and being afraid is the most logical course of action.
I’m a huge believer that teens (well, all people, really) need to see themselves represented in the things they read, and books like this are a huge benefit for all of the teens coping with mental illness because Aza is a great representation. Seeing a character you can relate to for something as stigmatized as mental health issues makes it feel like your less alone. It can also help people who don’t have mental health issues understand what it’s like to live with them. The more we can do to remove the stigma and bring more attention mental health issues, the more likely our society is to take steps toward making treatment more accessible.
Overall, I really enjoyed Turtles All the Way Down. It was heartrending and gripping and dealt with some huge and very important issues. It started out strong and kept me hooked right through to the very end. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who deals with mental illness or who wants to understand what life can be like for people who have mental illness.