Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I'm not actually familiar with The Fault in Our Stars, nor did I know this was a young adult book, but was drawn to John Green's Turtles All the Way Down because of its subject matter: anxiety and OCD.

Its central character is Aza, a junior in high school, who lost her father when she was young and who, for many years, has suffered from severe anxiety and OCD. She is particularly occupied with bacteria in the gut, and with a wound she maintains and frets about on one of her fingers.  She is constantly battling with herself, hating herself, surviving herself. 

When I started this book, I read a review that said something along the lines of... how unimaginable it was that Green would be able to outdo his former subject - kids with cancer - but that this was his darkest subject yet because it went into this spiral of anxious thinking so deeply, and sometimes painfully. And, while I never read The Fault in Our Stars, I am incredibly impressed with how Green took on this subject matter for teens and adults. Anxiety sucks, and if feels like a trap in which your mind can as easily lock you in as let you out. 

Imagine you’re trying to find someone, or even you’re trying to find yourself, but you have no senses, no way to know where the walls are which way is forward or backward, what is water and what is air. You’re senseless and shapeless—you feel like you can only describe what you are by identifying what you’re not, and you’re floating around in a body with no control. You don’t get to decide who you like or where you live or when you eat or what you fear. You’re just stuck in there, totally alone, in this darkness. That’s scary.
— John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

And anxiety also can make you appear really selfish. This comes up in the narrative as well, in Aza's dynamic with her best friend Daisy. It takes work to be a caring friend to someone else when you are stuck in your anxiety. And it takes work to be an understanding friend to someone who is anxious. Daisy handles her frustration by externalizing Aza through a character she writes about in her Star Wars fan fiction, for instance. While not a perfect coping mechanism, it is something, and we usually need something like this. 

Then, there's an anxious person in relationships. Green gives Aza a pretty great first relationship in the character Davis - a wealthy friend from Sad Camp, where they both went after losing a parent. Years later, his father goes missing, and she and Daisy re-encounter him as they try to find a clue as to where his father is, because there is a $100,000 reward on the line. They create a  unique relationship that spans the web and IRL time, allowing Aza to confront her limitations along her mental health journey. The circumstances that bring them together are pretty distinct, but their interactions are raw and genuinely felt. 

We never really talked much or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe even more intimate than eye contact anyway. I mean, anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.
— John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

Green has written a heartbreaking, bold teenage experience that captures the division of a person when their mind is sometimes a friend and sometimes an enemy. I would recommend it to anyone raising a teenage kid, facing their own anxiety or supporting someone who deals with anxiety. It is not without hope.