When I was ten years old, combing the library shelves for something interesting to read, a librarian recommended Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. She said that her daughter loved it. I took one look at the cover and that was enough for me. Set in a charming fairy tale world, the characters were unique and interesting, refusing to be boxed in by social expectation. There was no quest to save the world or rescue the princess in the tower. Instead, Ella, the main character, was on a personal journey to save herself in a fantasy setting.
Ella was the kind of character you would want by your side in a crisis. She was gutsy, determined, always clever, and she possessed a truly admirable mental strength. Needless to say, my ten-year-old self was instantly captivated. I read that book cover to cover at least twice within two weeks, which surprised me because I didn’t normally like reading books more than once. Especially not twice in a row!
At the time I didn’t understand why Ella Enchanted spoke to me in such a poignant way and it would take me years to identify the reason. It’s still one of my favorite books and I’ve now read it more times than I can count. As an author, it has taught me that superficial measures like word count have no correlation with impact.
Ten was the age when I began writing in earnest, determined to complete a book. It was also the year that my obsessive-compulsive Disorder really set in. I knew I had OCD, but at that point I didn’t realize how much of what I was experiencing were symptoms of the disorder. To me OCD meant my tendency to touch the table in multiples of five or count in my head. Unaware that my intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions were part of the experience, I had difficulty separating my personality from the disorder.
Oftentimes it felt like I was drowning in my thoughts. Irrational fears led to irrational responses because even though I could identify a thought as irrational with 99% certainty, the 1% of uncertainty tripped me up. I worked through rituals where I thought I’d done something “wrong,” so I confessed it. This led to me telling my parents every time I had an uncomfortable intrusive thought that I felt was my fault.
At that point, I thought the obsessions were me, which caused a major amount of anxiety because I felt like a bad person. If I didn’t say what I felt was the exact “right” combination of words when I was speaking to someone else, I would confess. If I lightly bumped my head on any surface, I would “confess” it because I’d heard about concussions after I hit my head hard one time. I wasn’t worried about a possible concussion as much as I felt compelled to tell my parents about it because that was what I was supposed to do. OCD told me it was the “right” thing to do and if I didn’t do it, I was a “bad” person.
Internal shame and guilt came with each confession, but I still did it because confessing temporarily alleviated the anxiety for a moment so I could breathe. Then the next incident would occur. I could spend hours going over a moment in time, trying to figure out whether it qualified as having “hit my head on something” or not. These mental gymnastics were absolutely exhausting. I took each day as it came, trying to plow onward. Trying not to remember something I did wrong years ago. Trying not to give in to a new obsession. I thought this struggle was just an inherent, frustrating part of my personality, which didn’t help how I felt about myself.
When I was about fourteen, I read a thorough description of OCD and I gasped. It was a revelation as I read through categories of intrusive thoughts and example after example. I had experienced some of those exact thoughts. It was eerie. Enlightening. Freeing. Suddenly I realized that the irrationality and intrusive thoughts I so despised were not my fault. They were a part of my OCD.
When I first read Ella Enchanted, I was experiencing OCD in full swing. On a subconscious level, I related to her. I yearned for her strength.
Ella was cursed to obey orders, even though she was anything but timid and obedient. I had a monster in my mind forcing me to spend hours of time obsessing and confessing. I didn’t feel like that neurotic process was China, but I was frightened at the same time that perhaps it was.
If Ella tried to ignore an order, the curse would cause her to be unbearably uncomfortable until she gave in. If I tried to ignore an order from OCD, the anxiety became extreme until I complied.
Despite her curse, Ella persevered and remained completely herself. I found myself wishing for her confidence and her guts. I wanted to be completely China, just as she was completely Ella. I held onto her journey as if it was my own. This book connected with me in a deeply personal way and helped me feel strong when I felt helpless in my own mind.
Literature is priceless. Our stories help us work through life and understand ourselves better as we subconsciously apply their framework to our own struggles. We draw strength from tales told and retold, from characters created out of thin air. The way stories can move us is exquisitely beautiful and one of my favorite parts about being human.
At the end of the book, Ella managed to break her own curse. That victory moved me. The scene played over and over in my head and I immediately read it again. I haven’t broken my curse and it’s possible I will never be rid of it completely. I still fight with OCD on a daily basis, but that’s the point. I am fighting and someday I will win. Just like Ella.
If you are dealing with OCD specifically or any other mental health issue, the National Alliance for Mental Health is a wonderful place to find resources. You don’t have to struggle alone. There is hope!