Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 6, 2013

Writer Strong: My Obsessive-Compulsive Muse

Today's guest, Barbara Claypole White, is a strong woman, a great mom, and a Women's Fiction Author -- a good one, as you'll see from her post. Here's Barbara:

Readers constantly ask if my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, is autobiographical. Since my heroine is a young widow, the answer is always, “God, I hope not.” There are, however, echoes of my life in everything I write. Writing is my escape, my coping mechanism, and the way I process my world.

A huge part of that world is dominated by son’s OCD—a debilitating anxiety disorder that is often described as an allergy to life. An award-winning poet, the Beloved Teenage Delinquent has battled OCD since he was four. He’s the poster child for fighting mental illness stigma: He’s stunningly good looking, funny, compassionate, has lots of friends, a near perfect GPA, his own band, a cute girlfriend…. But he and I have visited hell together. More than once. How have we survived? Hope, humor, and the British war mentality. Plus, we both use OCD to fuel our writing.

And yet, when I talk about the inspiration behind my fiction, I walk a fine line. My son may be out of the OCD closet, but my husband is intensely private, and not every part of our life needs to be shared. Anyone in my OCD support group will tell you that OCD destroys families. It nearly destroyed mine. Parts of that are still raw, but the experience helped craft the story that became THE UNFINISHED GARDEN.

TUG is classic women’s fiction. It’s the story of my heroine, Tilly, but only because of my hero, James. James is brilliant, charismatic, and obsessive-compulsive. He wasn’t my first hero, and yet once I unleashed him, his insights into Tilly created her character arc.

James evolved out of my darkest fear as a mother. Compulsive behavior is ritualistic and appears bizarre to people who don’t understand; obsessive thoughts are isolating. One Friday night, when my son and I were crumpled on the kitchen floor crying as he said over and over, “Make it stop, Mommy. Make it stop,” I had a horrible thought: What if, when he grew up, no one could see beyond his quirky behavior to love him for the incredible person he is? What if he ended up alone because of his OCD? That doubt led me to James.

But that was just the beginning. Once my son and I started exposure therapy—when you meet fears head on—I saw the incredible courage it takes to boss back OCD. Navigating ordinary life as an obsessive-compulsive is like walking through a minefield. To keep moving forward takes herculean bravery. Some days you’re strong enough; some days you’re not. As with any war, you have victories and defeats. That’s the side of OCD I wanted to show through James. Incidentally, he’s the least messed-up character in the novel. Despite his OCD, he has a strong sense of self.

By the time I sold TUG, my son had been OCD-free for three years and James’s struggles belonged to a life I had left behind. Then junior year of high school hit, and OCD started creeping back into our house. During my book launch, I prattled on about how my son had beaten OCD, unaware that he was drowning. Then his anxiety exploded. Within a week, we were both back to crying on the floor. It seemed nothing much had changed in thirteen years. In the months that followed, we struggled, we got back into full-blown treatment, and we both turned to our art: song writing and poetry for him, novel two for me.

Novel two may have nothing to do with OCD but it is about mental illness, issues of control, and parental fear. My heroine is the mother of a graduate student with clinical depression. A holistic veterinarian, she sees the world very differently to the way I do. She’s calm and spiritual; I’m passionate, opinionated, and I yell at inanimate objects. We had been struggling to connect, until I wrote these lines:

“Parenthood started with such optimism. Your child would achieve his baby milestones, collect gold stars, maintain a good grade point average, hang out with the crowd that didn’t drink and drive. And then, when you weren’t paying attention, it all stripped down to one horrifying truth: you just wanted your son to find the will to live.”

I was crying at the time. I cried through most of September….

Funny thing, though—once I understood my new heroine’s journey, I felt better about my own. Using the crap of everyday life to feed your fiction can be empowering. It lets you think around corners. Truth doesn’t have to hold you back. You can find joy in darkness; create your own happy ending and write a better story for yourself. Wait…that’s my new hero’s arc. Sorry, I’m off to write!

Does your life end up in your books? Is it hard for you to write? Or is it cathartic?

477254_2880635290340_535541671_oTo celebrate visiting Writers In The Storm today, I will be giving away one signed copy of THE UNFINISHED GARDEN. To enter, please comment below with your email address.

BCW-AuthorPortrait-VERT-AmazonBarbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden (MIRA, 2012)  a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt. Originally from England, she lives in the North Carolina Forest with her family and a ridiculously large woodland garden. Temporarily unnamed novel two has a publication date of January 2014.

0 comments on “Writer Strong: My Obsessive-Compulsive Muse”

  1. I agree with ellaquinnauthor - this is an inspiring essay, Barbara. I wish you and your son peace through the OCD storm. To answer your question, yes, my life does end up in my books. My work in progress - All She Ever Wanted - has my grandparents' lives pre WWI as the jumping off point, but it's totally fiction except for the fact that it's filled with my own learnings on life and my own observations. So totally fiction. But not.

  2. Barbara, the effects of mental illness on a family can be devasting. I love the way you have not only learned to combat what "could have been" ... but love more that you have used that part of your life to create wonderful stories that saved the rest of you. It consumed us ... those dark shadows that floated into our house. Music played and food bubbled on the stove and I sat, small, almost invisible and watched ... helpless. I didn't know that later I would use those dark times to fashion stories ... but as yet have not published the one of the two of us ... me and my soul mate ... me and my middle brother.

  3. Wow! All I can about this post is WOW! What guts it has taken you, Barbara, to share such an intimate look into the life of a loved one with OCD. I was so captivated by this post there is no way I can not read your book. My favorite line: "You can find joy in darkness; create your own happy ending and write a better story for yourself." Love it! Writing it down in my journal (with your name of course) to remember and reread it. Heading to Barnes & Noble Friday and your book is on my 'to buy' list. Best of luck to you on Book 2!

  4. I have a family member with OCD and have seen how devastating it can be. People who don't understand can be unfairly judgemental and you end up fighting two battles. Mental health issues are poorly dealt with in the US. That needs to change. I applaude your strength and wish you and your family the best.

    1. You are so right. The education never ends. Few people realize there is no such thing as text book OCD and that it can manifest in a 1001 ways. *SIGH*. Good luck to your family, too. It's quite the journey we are on….

  5. Wow. That was really powerful. Mental illness has touched my own family and the families of some of my friends, and I am often frustrated by how it is handled in fiction. But with these books arising out of your own experience and pain, I can only imagine how valid and true they will be. Whether I win a copy or not, The Unfinished Garden is going on my to-read list right now. Thank you for this brave essay.

  6. This was a very powerful read for me. My son suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder and it manifests itself in crippling irrational fears. He's overcome much since he was a toddler and though he is only 6 years old now and there is still a lot to work through, I have hope that one day he will be able to function "normally" in the world. We've had our crying on the floor moments as well and I know there will be many more in our future but I know he has the love and support of his family to get him through.

    1. It's heartbreaking that our kids have to overcome so much--sometimes just to get through the day ahead--but they also develop coping mechanisms as they grow. As do we. The upside of the family crying jags is the incredible bond that never goes away. My son is 18; we're still extraordinarily close. Take out the whole OCD thing, and the teenage years have been fabulous!

  7. Wow, gresat post. Thanks Barbara. Yes, sometimes people look at my work and say, "I think I remember something about that" and I try to say that it's all made up. Of course, you are right, my life seeps in, too. Thanks you for writing about such a personal topic.


  8. Every time I read this blog, Barbara, I need a few minutes to catch my breath again! Thank you for agreeing to blog for us at WITS and for sharing this!

    And yes, there's something personal in all of my books. I don't necessarily set out to write it that way but there always seems to be one little thing that wants (needs?) to come out in some way.

  9. I so agree--writing about the dark periods of our lives through fictional characters can help to heal us and also help us understand ourselves and the problem better. It can be wrenching to write about, but also cathartic. And the writing is so much more powerful because it's coming from a real place deep within us.

  10. I loved your post Barbara. I can't imagine the things you've gone through. But I think you're a strong woman to have made it and to be able to slide it into your writing. THank you for sharing your story with us. I will look for your book the next time I'm in Wal Mart and see if I can scrounge the dollars to grab a copy. It sounds like a great read.

  11. Thank you C.K. I'm not always strong, but I think it's important to share stories of hope. There's too much stigma--and too much ignorance--attached to mental illness. When my son was first diagnosed with OCD, I didn't even know what it meant. It can be so isolating if you don't reach out…

  12. Barbara, as I've told you elsewhere this sounds like a great novel—win or not, I'm going to have to put it in my (very high) pile. My cousin's marriage succumbed to his OCD, since he couldn't see it as a problem, so I'd love to know more about it. And the story of you bonding with protag #2 is a heart wrencher! kathryncraft@gmail.com

  13. Great blog Barbara and thanks for sharing. It's wonderful you can lose yourself in your writing while at the same time using the experience. Books like yours are so wonderful on more than just the entertainment level. They help us to understand & empathize with the struggles of others no matter the problem. Thanks for being brave enough to share. 🙂

  14. Hi Barbara. Thank you for sharing the details about your son's OCD and about how your experiences influenced your writing. The Unfinished Garden sounds like a beautiful novel.

    I know how it is to worry about your sons future. I have two sons. The eldest is a physicist and currently working towards a PhD. My other son is just as intelligent - in fact he excels at maths and science, like his older brother... but he was diagnosed with M.E. (chronic fatigue syndrome) when he was 16. Looking back, we realize he was probably suffering (and struggling) with the illness for at least a year or two before the diagnosis. He's 21 now and and his life is on hold for who knows how long. He dreams about getting better and being able to go to university.

    I'm attempting to write a novel but keep getting side-tracked with ideas and then try a different story. I find it hard to write but I think it's because I can't stay focused on one project.


  15. I say yes to all of your questions. My life ends up in my books and it can be cathartic, even if it's hard to write. My debut is about a family impacted by mental illness. And ironically, I found out what that was like, in real life, after I'd written the first draft. No need to put my name in the hat. Your book is already in my TBR pile.

  16. I bought your book right after it released because of a post you'd written elsewhere. It's truly a powerful story, one that pulled me into a world of which I'd known nothing--which is exactly what a good book should do--and left me changed.

  17. I've skirted the edges of OCD most of my life. I know how fortunate I am that it has never completely taken me, and that I have a wife who knows that my quirks are not always *me*

    Little bits of my oddness creep into my writing; it's impossible for them not to. What's interesting to me is that the things which people have been telling me to stop my whole life are the little quirks they question in my writing. (Endless trivial asides, for instance. No, the fact that white is the only true color for a stuccoed Mexican style home may not be germane to the story, but it's how I write because it's who I am.)

    It's also a challenge not to harvest the personal details of loved ones who are, despite creating very happy lives for themselves, far more troubled in their moments than I. I'd never do that, but when love lets you inside the barriers, the view is so fascinating it's hard not to share it.

    1. My son has a huge sign in his room: "I am not my disorder." I love that sentiment. I hope he will always be surrounded by people who share your wife's perspective. And yes, I know exactly what you mean about not harvesting from the lives of loved ones. So true!

      1. Learning that lesson young ("I am not my disorder") is powerful. I wish I'd had a clue 50 years ago what was going on in my head, and why. Your son's got a good place to be, if he learns that lesson.

  18. Very inspiring, Barbara. I have a daughter-in-law who suffered from ADHD as a child and I decided one of my heroines would be the same. In a historical setting. I talked to her about it and she teared up at how true my fictional character's emotions were. And she was also thrilled to help me "build" her.

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