I’m a self-proclaimed young-adult book fan, and John Green—a rockstar author of the genre—is one of my favorites. His previous novel, The Fault in Our Stars, which tells the story of two teenagers with cancer who fall in love, skyrocketed to the top of not just YA lists but bestselling lists in all fiction categories, too. And with good reason. Green has a knack for tackling tough topics while still communicating a joy and zest for life that resonates with teenagers and adults alike.
Having read all his previous novels, I was anxious to get my hands on his latest book, Turtles All the Way Down. When the day came, I cracked it open, began to read, and felt my breath hitch. The book opens with Aza, the story’s narrator, talking through her obsessive thoughts that lead her into spirals of anxiety, catching her up in the cage of her own mind.
I wasn’t sure if I could get through this book. As someone who suffered through severe postpartum anxiety and who has a child who suffers from anxiety, the accuracy of Aza’s irrational thought patterns, brought on by OCD and anxiety, resonated deeply with me.
But I didn’t walk away from this story and neither should you.
Odds are, even if you have never suffered from anxiety—severe or otherwise—you know someone who has. According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. And trying to understand the seemingly illogical reasons behind the actions and decisions of someone with anxiety can seem impossible. But Green makes the topic, if not relatable, then understandable. If you’ve never personally experienced anxiety, especially in a severe form, hold on because Turtles will put you squarely in the driver’s seat—a place I'd certainly been before.
I remember the months after giving birth to my first child—an eagerly anticipated daughter. I couldn’t wait to meet her, to hold her, to be filled with the all-consuming love you hear parents talk about when they meet their child for the first time. And when she arrived, oh how I loved her—almost too much.
My brain chemistry, though, wasn’t right. I would sit in her nursery at night, rocking her, clutching her as my mind began down this path: “Is my heart beating too quickly? Wait, is my heart even beating? I don’t think my heart is beating. I’m dead. I’m dying, and my daughter will never know her own mother. She will grow up and not even have a single memory of me.”
I would see stories of new mothers dying in car accidents, being killed by robbers. I looked up these stories constantly. I Googled heart attack symptoms and how often women in their twenties have heart attacks. I obsessed over every pain, real or imagined, keeping my hand over my heart constantly to make sure it was still beating. I wouldn’t let other people hold my baby because I thought every moment with her was my last.
Did any of this make sense? Was it logical? Of course not, but it didn’t matter.
Green explains this thought process so perfectly, so succinctly when Aza says, “The thing about a spiral is, if you follow it inward, it never actually ends. It just keep tightening, infinitely.”
Throughout the book, we get to see how others respond to Aza: her best friend who thinks she’s selfish; her mother who worries about her constantly; even her potential romantic interest who has to abide by saintly patience. All of these things echoed my own life.
My family members, many of whom have suffered from anxiety, came to my rescue as best they could. There were a lot of forced walks outside and many failed attempts to get me to sleep, but with the anxiety consuming me, sleep was an impossibility. The sleep deprivation then fueled the anxiety. I could think of no one but myself, nothing but what was going on inside my head. All of this turbulence led me late one night to the ER, convinced I was having a heart attack.
I remember coming home early the next morning, my sister at my house, patiently trying to explain to my husband what was happening. He had no reference point for this sort of thing, no way of understanding why his wife was convinced she was dying.
“I felt certain something was going to kill me, and of course I was right: Something is going to kill you, someday, and you can’t know if this is the day.” Aza’s thoughts were my own.
But, of course, like Aza, I had to get help, keep living, keep going.
Turtles is timely and prescient amid the knowledge that women are twice as likely to be affected with anxiety and panic disorders than men. Aza is your neighbor, your niece, your cousin, your coworker. Green’s story provides a healthy dose of understanding and empathy for people who are caught up in the whirlwind of their own minds.
After reading Turtles, I wanted to buy copies and hand them out to everyone I know who is trying to be there for someone they love who suffers from an anxiety disorder and feels like they can’t begin to understand what’s happening, or why that person can’t just “snap out of it.” I wish I could go back in time and give this book to my husband who was feeling utterly helpless and confused; to help him understand that, as Aza puts it, “True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice on the matter.”
If I’ve made this book sound too overwhelming, or too heavy, fear not. While Green does an amazing job of putting you in the shoes of someone with anxiety and OCD, he still manages to do what he always does best—tell a great story. He weaves fantastic dialogue, real characters, and bizarre mystery into his story, making it a novel that’s both interesting and—believe it or not—fun to read for teens and adults alike.
Turtles All the Way Down might just be the book you didn’t know you needed to read—not just for yourself, but to help you empathize with those who are going through something that’s not easily explained or understood.