Sometimes I am surprised by how often I come back to the idea of narrative medicine as I’m reading essays and poems, even for pure enjoyment. The words from the preface to The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine often come flooding back to me: “Narrative medicine began as a rigorous intellectual and clinical discipline to fortify health care with the capacity to skillfully receive the accounts persons give of themselves—to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved to action by the stories of others” (Charon et al, 2016). This past October, over two weeks of heavy travel, I indulged in-flight with a few books I’d not had the time to read otherwise. Being suspended in the air tends to spur on my reading habits.
At first blush, Girls Interrupted: How Pop Culture Is Failing Women by Lisa Whittington-Hill and Night Wing Over Metropolitan Area by John Hoppenthaler did not strike me as having much in common. Girls Interrupted is a collection of essays at the intersection of feminism and popular culture and Night Wing is a collection of poems that interrogate place, parenting, and modern life. In form and content, the two titles remained vastly different, just two books that happened to both find themselves crammed into my carry-on. However, their point of intersection, namely how each addressed a recurrent topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, had everything to do with those tenants of narrative medicine.
As Whittington-Hill points out in her essay, “OCD Is Not a Joke,” the condition, obsessive-compulsive disorder, suffers from a kind of over-casualization in which people who do not suffer from OCD use the term to evoke humor. Anyone who has uttered the phrase “I’m/You’re/That’s so OCD” knows this. Characters in television shows, films, and books utter it enough that we could classify it as cliché: “Media and pop culture portrayals of OCD don’t help with the misconceptions about it. People with OCD are typically portrayed as type A clean freaks, Sheldon Cooper [a character from the television show, The Big Bang Theory]-like nerds, productivity machines, or eccentric weirdos” (Whittington-Hill, 104). Whittington-Hill’s essay, located in the center of her book and her most personal writing of the collection, assures us those misconceptions perpetuated by media and pop culture are not only incorrect, but destructive to those who suffer from the condition. “I once heard OCD described, very accurately, as a record skipping in your head,” she writes. “The checking routine I have before I leave my apartment can take anywhere from thirty minutes, on a very good day, to two hours on a very bad one” (103). She describes the behavior as the only way to quiet her brain, and as a result, she isolates herself to avoid the stigma and mockery that often attend her illness. She reminds us throughout her essay how often people use “OCD” as the butt of the joke, the thoughtlessness of such a gesture, and the cruel role of stereotype in mocking what is a real and debilitating condition.
Reading her essay made me think about how carelessly we deploy language, and how, around issues of mental health, stigma still abounds. These thoughts were increased by reading certain poems in John Hoppenthaler’s collection of poetry. In two back-to-back poems in the collection, “Your Daydreaming Child” and “OCD,” Hoppenthaler addresses the reader from the perspective of the parent of a child with the condition. In a particularly wrenching stanza, he writes:
But your child is completely at attention,
fully present and dealing with the fear
that his left arm is longer than his right.
As he works through the poem, in which the child is sitting through a class, Hoppenthaler’s lines point toward a tortured compassion, as well as acceptance as caregiver:
his own kind of math, but he can never get it
to add up. It’s the dreaded new math
With which you both must now contend.
In Whittington-Hill’s writing, we get the first-person account, and in Hoppenthaler’s poems, we are confronted by the (step)father’s desire to help his child. Read together we start to understand OCD in a more nuanced way. Both accounts implicate us as readers, teaching us about the condition in such a way that we can no longer see it as the punchline to a joke or an off-hand wisecrack. The power of these authors’ language is in their ability to pull back the curtain and force our attention on a form of suffering that our culture routinely dismisses.
As I read Hoppenthaler’s next poem, I remembered a sentence from Whittington-Hill: “My OCD makes me feel like a bad friend, a bad co-worker, and a bad daughter” (103). She manages through avoidance, but not without a toll. That toll is explored by Hoppenthaler in “OCD” where he begins with a stark invocation: “At least he’s not undergoing an exorcism” (26). Hoppenthaler evokes a time when mental illness was equated with sinfulness, a stigma that may be tamped down in the way many talk about mental illness even today. As Whittington-Hill demonstrates, in our culture OCD forms the basis of our entertainment. She offers examples, films such as Mommy Dearest and As Good As It Gets, as evidence.
One of the points that Whittington-Hill makes about OCD is the difficulty of living with checking behavior, which is quite different when compared to the portrayal of it in mediums such as film and television: “Stereotypical portrayals too often focus on the rituals and portray none of the nuanced, often agonized thinking behind them” (Whittington-Hill, 104). However, in “OCD” Hoppenthaler honors those rituals, even as he struggles to understand them. He sees a video game as both escape and obsession, adding “He has a ritual to keep it pure” (27). I was struck by that word, “ritual” in both authors’ work, and it lands with me because, so often, we understand ritual as something pure, often holy, such as in the rituals we observe around worship and beloved holidays. Here, both writers offer a more complicated and complex version of ritual:
Last night he couldn’t stop asking Christy
If she loved him. He needed to make sure
(tap) make sure (tap) make sure (tap)
The lack of punctuation at the end of Hoppenthaler’s poem speaks to how OCD works in repetitive cycles, the literal continued “tap” of it. And likewise, in Whittington-Hill, we get startling and heartbreaking confessions: “I recently realized I went three months without using my stove, reasoning that, if I never turned it on, then I didn’t have to worry about checking it. If food needed to be heated, I microwaved it or used boiling water from a kettle, or else I didn’t eat it at all” (108). She also describes feelings of failure for her lateness in getting to work, one of many examples that reveals a desire for the kind of normalcy that those of us who don’t suffer from OCD take for granted. A similar perspective emerges in Hoppenthaler’s writing, for instance, when he writes of “the problem child,” deserving of a teacher’s note, showing us how ambivalent we can be when it comes to equating mental health issues with disciplinary ones.
If we believe in the work of health humanities and practices like narrative medicine, then we understand that there is a power in naming something—in talking openly about OCD, for instance. That power is undercut when the larger culture uses those same three letters to poke fun. As Whittington-Hill writes, puns such as “Obsessive CrossFit Disorder” or “Obsessive Christmas Disorder” dilute OCD’s debilitating effects (105). Yet both authors offer us a look into a condition with real consequences for both the person who suffers, as well as those who care for them. And the real-world implications become real to us. Reading these books back-to-back, I learned about an illness that is much more complicated than its stereotypical depictions. I also received a reeducation in how language matters, and how we, as a culture, might do better by those with OCD and other conditions, just by reconsidering the way we talk about them. It begins by recognizing the power of these stories to move us.
Charon, Rita et al. The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Hoppenthaler, John. Night Wing Over Metropolitan Area. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2023.
Whittington-Hill, Lisa. Girls Interrupted: How Pop Culture Is Failing Women. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 2023.