I’m always eager to pick up books about mental illness, but I’m also a skeptical reader. It’s extremely important to me that mental illness is portrayed well; I hate to see anything that will add to the stigma, and I’m particularly annoyed by fiction that shows a lack of attention to research and detail or stories that degenerate into “issue books.” Heidi Ayarbe’s Compulsion gave me little to stress about. Compulsion is one of the most realistic works of fiction portraying Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I have yet to come across.
Ayarbe’s main character, Jake Martin, is obsessed with prime numbers. (This is cleverly played out in chapter numbers, which are exclusively primes.) Prime numbers keep Jake safe. They keep his family safe. They keep his soccer team winning. If he is going to make it through the championship game and get a college scholarship, he has to give in to the magic of primes. But then they will go away. As soon as he wins the game, he is sure that the primes and the spiders in his head will leave him alone. He will be able to have a normal life again, one without the constant need for counting, or the need to keep the majority of his thoughts a secret from his friends and loved ones. Sure, Jake needs the primes now, but once they’re gone, maybe he’ll be able to go on a regular date or make it through a party without panic attacks. But what happens if the game ends and the primes won’t go away?
Compulsion is an exhausting and difficult read, but it is the qualities that make it so challenging that also make it so compelling and real. Jake cannot turn off the voice in his head that makes him follow through with his compulsions. OCD is typically considered an egodystonic disorder, meaning that the person realizes that their obsessions and compulsions are not normal or logical. I think it is this part of the disorder that makes it especially anxiety-inducing; you want to make it stop, but it’s incredibly hard to keep yourself from doing something that you feel makes you safe. Jake’s constant internal monologue is distressing and upsetting, and his lack of ability to talk about what was going on in his head and get real support was even more so.
The secondary characters in Compulsion add a great deal of depth; family dynamics certainly impact mental illness, but they also show quite a bit about how somebody gets to be the way they are. Jake’s family is often depicted through flashbacks that are gritty and intense. I wish that some of these relationships had been played out more in the present, particularly with more interaction between Jake and his mom. Jake’s family members’ thought patterns and coping mechanisms are powerfully revealing.
Jake’s mother shares similar compulsions, obsessing over the possibility that she might have run over somebody and needing to retrace her steps until she can ensure that there’s no body. His little sister simultaneously needs his protection in the frequent absence of a parental figure, but also offers Jake protection, understanding his illness in a way that nobody else in his life does. Their father comes across as overwhelmed, often hiding behind his work, and perhaps less accepting of Jake’s problems or just unwilling to face the reality that another one of his family members might be suffering from this same illness.
Similarly, Jake’s friendships help to illuminate his OCD, showing in particular the struggle to keep it a secret. It’s hard enough to be a soccer star, but Jake has the added stress of coming across as “normal” when there’s clearly nothing average about his routine. Some days it can be hard for him to just make it to school or practice on time if the numbers don’t work out right, and the strict schedules and social demands of high school offer few allowances for any behavior that doesn’t fit inside the box. Compulsion shows that mental illness really can affect anyone, even the kid at the top of the high school food chain, the one you’d least expect.
Compulsion is at once hard to put down and hard to read all the way through. It is fast-paced and gripping, but at times overpowering, requiring breaks to digest it a bit. I’d love to see Jake Martin’s story discussed not just among YA readers but in psych classes and reading groups. Be sure to pick this book up if you want to get inside the head of a teen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and understand the illness in a whole new way.