“Turtles All the Way Down”: OCD in Focus

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John Green is a popular YA author, best known for the bestselling “The Fault in Our Stars”. When I heard about “Turtles All the Way Down”, I was curious to read it given that the main character has OCD. I wanted to see how the author would portray the complexity that mental illnesses can add to one’s life.


What I appreciate about this portrayal:

  1. Aza is more than her mental illness. I think that Green does a good job showing the significant impact of the symptoms on 16 year old Aza’s life without it being literally what defines her. Often, in portrayals of characters with mental illnesses, the character is defined by the illness and not much else… they are flat. Instead, Aza is a character with depth who happens to have a mental illness.
  2. The manner in which mental illness can impact relationships (mother-daughter, romantic, friendships) is addressed. Aza has extreme anxiety about becoming romantically involved with someone (due to what appears to be an obsession with germs). Her mother is constantly worried about the state of her daughter’s mental health, which in turn stresses her daughter. Aza’s OCD and anxiety symptoms even stress her best friend, who at one point calls being around Aza “exhausting”. These negative facets of the relationships can add to the guilt one experiences already from being mentally ill.
  3. Medications are not a guaranteed easy fix. Despite being on numerous medications, Aza still struggles with debilitating symptoms. Many people think that those with mental illnesses can just take a pill and basically be cured… or that medications are not even necessary. Aza’s difficulty with treatment shows that the process is often not easy, even with access to mental health professionals.
  4. The book provides insight into the thought spirals of anxiety disorders and OCD. Some portions of the book are set up to place the reader in the mind of the main character, showing the chaos of the obsessive thoughts and compulsions. The intrusive and anxiety-inducing nature of the thoughts is shown by the manner in which the thoughts are written on the page… one thought escalates into a chain of worry and fear that soon take over. As a reader, it was easy for me to see how the anxiety and thoughts become overwhelming, spiraling out of control.
  5. There is hope. Despite facing great stressors with life events, symptoms, and treatment, the character holds on to hope for a better tomorrow.


I am happy to see mental illnesses being addressed in YA fiction books. I hope to see more writers address mental health in their books!



The author’s acknowledgments included a number for those who need mental health services in the United States, the SAMHSA treatment referral helpline: 1-877-SAMHSA7.


“It can be a long and difficult road, but mental illness is treatable. There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t.” -John Green

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