Friends and family of OCD sufferers experience it as an extreme narcissism. The compulsion is all the sufferer talks about. Nothing else matters. Asa, the protagonist, is obsessed with germs, ingesting them and absorbing them.
Green nailed the self-focused nature of OCD, the way it eats away at the integrity of many relationships. To be with someone who has OCD requires either an uncanny ability to self-protect (Asa’s best friend) or an instinct to over-protect the sufferer (Asa’s mother).
What Green did not write about was the rage.
I had neither the ability nor the instinct to be with my mother who, when she wasn’t washing her hands, talked about washing hands -- our hands as well as hers. I mostly raged. At her for her lack of control. At myself for my lack of compassion.
Even though she tried mightily to connect with me by doing things like sewing the latest fashions for me, her OCD always interrupted or threatened to interrupt. OCD and my mom felt like bullies who crossed every line, who betrayed me, who could not possibly love me. If she loved me, she would stop.
So I did what every good adult co-dependent does, I surrounded myself with people just like her. For years, I didn’t recognize her in them because they didn’t wash their hands compulsively. But narcissism roiled inside them.
I didn’t address this tendency in me until my dad died and my mom needed me. We were honest with each other in a way I never thought possible. I saw her sense of humor. She saw mine. We laughed and healed. And finally I felt loved.
I had just a couple years with her before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and as she descended into dementia, I righted my life. I loved her and protected her fiercely. She let me hold her for the first time. She held me. She somehow knew I was going through a wretched time outside of her nursing home life but by then she couldn’t speak. By the time she died, I was on a completely different path. Less rage. Fewer narcissists.
Green’s characters continued to suffer even at the book’s end; there’s no blue ribbon cure for OCD or really any human disorder of the mind. But “Turtles All the Way Down” gave me an opportunity to reflect on OCD’s heartbreaks and gifts. And my mother’s legacy.