I rushed out to pick up my copy of Turtles All the Way Down after work the day it released. I got home, I curled up in bed, and I read the entire thing in a single sitting, which is not something I do very often these days. Certainly not with a book I started reading at 8PM on a Tuesday. I just couldn’t put it down for more than a minute or 2 at a time. I finished it at 1 in the morning, and I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write a review for it ever since.
Before I start I do want say that the book is ownvoices for mental illness rep, specifically OCD. The rep is fantastic, as one might expect, but it is also incredibly honest, to the point that some passages could be triggering if you’re not prepared. Trigger warning for:
- Disordered eating – No eating disorder exactly, but eating does make Aza anxious.
- Self-harm: Aza uses her finger to repeatedly re-open a callous on her finger out of fear it may be infected.
- Anxiety / Panic attack: The book is 1st person POV, so you are in Aza’s head through all her panic attacks and thought spirals. You get both her rational thoughts and the irrational panicked thoughts she cannot control.
- Anxiety about illness: This is Aza’s primary anxiety trigger. Her thought spirals almost all have to do with her fear of getting a deadly illness, usually C Diff.
- Depersonalization: Aza spends a lot of time worrying that she isn’t real.
That said, I will not being going into detail about anything triggering in this review, so you are safe to continue reading.
Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza Holmes, a 16 year old struggling with OCD. On the surface the book is sort of about Aza getting dragged into a hunt for her childhood friend’s billionaire father who is on the run from the law. But at it’s heart the book it really about Aza navigating life with her mental illness. It is about how mental illness impacts both the people living with them and their relationships with their friends and family. Honestly, not that much happens in terms of major events. The plot is very much based on internal conflict and character relationships. But it never feels slow. I never felt like I was just waiting for the next big thing to happen, because in Aza’s mind anything can become a big thing. That’s the nature of her mental illness–even the most mundane tasks can become panic inducing events. So even when she’s just at school, or just hanging out with friends, that tense feeling of never knowing when something might happen never quite fades.
While that constant tension definitely makes the book hard to put down, it isn’t the reason I read it in a single sitting. I stayed up all night reading Turtles All the Way Down because it was the first time I had ever seen mental illness portrayed so honestly in a book. It was the first time I had ever seen that piece of myself reflected in a character. I do not have OCD, my illnesses are not quite as debilitating as Aza’s, and I don’t even panic about the same things as her for the most part, but the descriptions of her anxiety and her thought spirals were still so familiar and hit so close to home. I kept having to close the book and just sit with that feeling of “Yes, exactly. It’s not just me. Someone else gets it.” I got a little choked up for the first time only 9 pages in, and the feeling was pretty consistent throughout the entire book. We are in such desperate need of more ownvoices mental illness stories. Turtles All the Way Down is raw, and honest, and horrifying, and beautiful and so much more all at once. And it turned out to be exactly what I needed.
For much of the book Aza doesn’t want to take her meds. A primary fear she has is that she isn’t real, that she doesn’t know which part of Aza is the real Aza, and if she has to take meds to be herself how can she ever know that’s really who she is? And I spent the entire book internally screaming, Aza please take your medication. Please, please take your meds. And the next day I realized that I have been avoiding going to a psychiatrist for years over the exact same fear. That if I need to take a pill to be myself, how could that possibly be the real me?
I had my first psychiatrist appointment yesterday. I picked up my first anti-depressant prescription this morning. And it is mostly thanks to this book. I’ve known I needed to get help for awhile, most of 2017 at least. But what convinced me to finally do it was reading about Aza, wondering why she was avoiding something that could help her manage her illness, and finally realizing that I’ve been doing the same damn thing.
Obviously, this book was an incredibly personal read for me. I imagine it will be for most mentally ill readers. But I think it also has a lot to offer people who don’t have a mental illness themselves, but know and care about someone who does. John isn’t one to pull punches. Not only is Turtles brutally honest about what it’s like living with a mental illness, it is also unflinchingly honest about how hard it can be to care about someone with a mental illness. The book is very sympathetic towards friends and family who struggle to understand, who are doing their best but can only do so much. Not only do I think this book can help people learn how to love someone who is mentally ill, but I think it could also help mentally ill people become self-aware about how our illness impacts how we interact with others. And this is something that I just do not think a non-ownvoices author could have pulled off without falling into stigmatized portrayals. The book deals with how self-focused mental illness can make us because we spend so much time caught up in our own heads, but it does not blame us for that. It is simply portrayed as another symptom, another thing that we can learn to be aware of and to cope with. At the same time the book also portrays how hurtful well-intentioned people who don’t understand can be, and it highlights that good intentions don’t stop something from being hurtful.
There is so much more I want to say. I want to talk about how beautiful the extended sky metaphor is. I want to talk about how much I related to the feeling of hanging out with friends but always being a bit outside of the conversation, or of genuinely really wanting to do something but not quite being able to get past that damn voice in your head. I also really, really just want to talk about how absolutely masterful the editing is in this book, especially in terms of when pronouns are and are not used, but that’s a topic for another, more writer oriented post. So for now, all I’ll say is this. Turtles All the Way Down is a beautifully raw book that did more to validate my mental health issues in one night than anything else has managed in years. It is the most self-aware book about mental illness I have ever read, and the most realistic. The ending is simultaneously optimistic and a little bit sad, in typical John Green fashion. But most importantly, Turtles All the Way Down is a reminder that there is always hope, that you are not alone, and that while you may be crazy, you’re not only crazy.