By Natalie Rompella
This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.” Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.
I love to write. Ideas come to me naturally. I also use little facets of my life and turn them into fiction. So, I wasn’t really surprised when the main character of my novel Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners happened to have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Although the idea seemed to come out of nowhere, I guess we really can’t escape our subconscious.
My Journey with OCD
I didn’t always have OCD symptoms. I grew up a happy-go-lucky child. I had the typical reaction to germs; I couldn’t care less how many times I touched an object, and could turn off a light and trust that it was, indeed, off.
But somewhere it happened. I distinctly remember putting money in a pay phone in junior high to call my mom to ask her to check that my curling iron was switched off. And then it happened again. And again.
Through the years, I’ve been a checker and a hand washer. Some days I get away with no problems whatsoever. Other days, I’ve driven back home to be sure the garage door was closed. I’ve washed my hands so many times, they became a chapped mess.
My Desire to Write About OCD
In 2006, I heard that a publisher was putting together a series of books for teens on mental and physical conditions. I immediately got to work writing a proposal on OCD. The idea was accepted, and I wrote a book titled, It Happened to Me: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, published in 2007 by Scarecrow Press. I felt knowledgeable on the subject and could speak from experience. The biggest challenge in writing it was that each book in the series included narratives from teens with the condition.
I had a heck of a time finding people willing to speak out about their experience with OCD (and other related disorders). I hadn’t realized that this was a topic teens weren’t willing to let people know they had. That is, until I asked for brave souls to spill their guts for thousands to read.
At the same time, I began writing Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners. The minute I began writing, the main character, a 12-year-old named Ana, took on a life of her own. She was a checker.
As I wrote, my intentions were that her OCD was not what the story was about; she was just a girl who had OCD. But novel writing isn’t always linear. As the character was a checker, I wanted to ensure the details were authentic. Unfortunately, writing about a checker is very repetitive! Not only was she constantly checking things, but multiple times. It was very difficult to make these scenes interesting.
Soon, my character became more refined, and her OCD morphed. Her main compulsion changed from checking to cleaning. But I wanted to make her more three-dimensional than just a girl who has issues with germs.
So why did I make Ana twelve years old? As an author, I’ve written books for four-year-olds, nineteen-year-olds, and all ages in between. But I always come back to writing for middle graders—I adore this age group. Personally, I loved being a preteen. My life revolved around friends, school, and my hobbies. Although it was a great time for me, there’s a lot of room for error.
During the preteen years, friends you’ve known for years suddenly have different interests from yours. Relationships with parents change. Trying to balance homework and hobbies becomes harder. I know this from my own experience and because I also taught fifth and sixth grade for seven years. I watched students try to balance all the different facets of their lives—it’s a stressful time. I’ve also had students with OCD and anxiety. This adds such an additional burden on a preteen who is already trying to figure so much out.
When I write a middle grade book, I try to put myself back into middle-school. I think about all the aspects of a preteen’s life. The impressions they’re making on others are so important in a way that dissipates as they get older. We all figure out more pieces of ourselves through experience, but that process is slow and can be painful. I’m hoping this book speaks to someone out there who is not only trying to survive middle school, but is also trying to tackle OCD and/or anxiety.
Years ago, I attended IOCDF’s national OCD conference, where I met some teens and had a chance to chat with them about their journey with OCD. We all went to lunch at a fast-food restaurant. I was surprised that some of the teens who had issues with germs chose to sit on the restaurant floor. They explained that a dirty floor didn’t bother them (although it did me!).
For those reading this, you might have a similar situation: Even with germ issues, there are certain things that would bother other people that, for whatever reason, don’t bother you.
I ended up incorporating this into my book. My character, Ana, has issues with germs but is fine handling her pet guinea pig, Bernie Toast, and, eventually learns to find comfort from dogs, too. Her relationship with animals is a positive factor and ends up helping her to relax.
One of my goals with Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners was to show how sometimes it’s not other people who are the bullies, but ourselves. Instead of being bullied by other students, my character, Ana, is bullied by her OCD. She tries to hide it from her new friend, but it’s not that simple.
Does my character become healed at the end of the book? Spoiler alert: No, she doesn’t. She sees a therapist, who helps her get back on track, but I hope it’s clear to the readers that getting past obsessive thoughts, as well as acting on them, is not an overnight occurrence. It is a journey with many twists and turns.
Natalie Rompella is the author of more than 40 books and resources for kids and a former elementary and middle school teacher. Her most recent book is Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners (Sky Pony Press, 2017).