by Wesley King
Simon & Schuster
For about fifteen years, starting from the time I was in my late teens, I was convinced I could die at any moment. Doctors appointments and trips to the emergency room wouldn’t sway me — I was certain I had a heart ailment that was getting overlooked by every medical professional and every ECG, echo, halter monitor, blood test, and stress test I had talked them into giving me. Many times I was told “it’s in your head,” which to me meant “you’re imagining symptoms — they’re not real.” They were real, and they were physical.
One night I had the worst episode I’d ever experienced. It was muscle quivering that started in my lower back and spread through my entire body. My heart raced, and I couldn’t breathe. The emergency room doctor diagnosed it with two words that changed my life: “panic attack.” And he also described what I’d experienced in a way no other doctor head: a physical response to anxiety. That is, he acknowledged that the physical symptoms were real — I wasn’t imagining those. But they had a trigger.
For me, simply knowing what was happening helped me to get my anxiety under control. The attacks became less severe and then stopped entirely as I was able to recognize them for what they were.
During those years when my anxiety disorder went undiagnosed, few people knew about any of the hospital visits, and no one knew how frequent they were. (At the peak, I was at the hospital at least once a week.)
Daniel Leigh, the thirteen-year-old main character in Wesley King’s OCDaniel, also keeps his problems to himself. No one knows about the “Routine” he has to go through every night before going to bed — a Routine he HAS to do because if he doesn’t, he fears “something bad” will happen. No one knows about the tightness he often feels in his chest, or the breathing difficulties. And, like me, Daniel doesn’t even know that what he’s going through is a mental health issue — an anxiety disorder. Specifically, in Daniel’s case, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Much of the novel sounds like well-trodden ground if you remove the OCD element from it: an underdog on the school football team finds himself starting in the Big Game(s); meanwhile, he has a crush on a girl, but there’s another girl who he doesn’t think of that way, and he doesn’t realize that love is right under his nose. It sounds like a cliché, and that’s the point: there are people we know who seem to be going through life doing all the familiar things, but they are suffering. Just as the novel takes on a completely different feel and significance because of Daniel’s OCD, our understanding of what others are experiencing changes if we know they are in a battle we can’t see.
By placing an OCD character in what would otherwise be a cliché storyline, King shatters the cliché and shows us that beneath the surface, mental health issues are the overlooked part of our world. And we can’t lose sight of the fact that Daniel is thirteen, and that mental health issues do affect the young — severely, in Daniel’s case.
Daniel is befriended by someone who experiences anxiety of her own — Sara. It’s Sara who recognizes what Daniel is going through, though she tells him that she first noticed his problem two years earlier. Why didn’t she say anything? Because Sara doesn’t talk. Daniel has gone to school with her for years but was never friends with her because she had not spoken a word to anyone the entire time. Daniel even thought she couldn’t speak. She talks to Daniel now because she needs help — her father has disappeared, and she thinks Daniel can help prove that he was murdered by her mother’s new boyfriend. But, of course, Sara is also helping Daniel find out what’s wrong with himself.
When, with Sara’s help, Daniel finds out that he has OCD, it’s the start of the process of dealing with the problem rather than hiding it. Do his episodes disappear? I’ll leave that for you to find out. The only spoiler I’ll give is that you should not stop reading when the story ends: continue to the author’s note. It’s rare that an author’s note feels like part of the narrative, but in this case, Wesley King ends his emotionally powerful novel by showing why he is able to tell Daniel’s story with such clarity.
Review by Barry Jowett