Recently, I wrote an essay about how the monsters in Refraction relate to the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You can view the essay at Bookish, but I also wanted to include it here.
Managing Monsters: an Essay by Naomi Hughes
When I decided to write a book about obsessive-compulsive disorder, I knew it had to involve monsters.
Part of the reason for that might be because I like monster movies. Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Jurassic Park—who doesn’t want to watch a big, scary, inhuman villain get bested by good old scrappy humans? Particularly if there can also be giant robots involved.
But the other reason is because having OCD sometimes feels like having monsters living in your head.
For those who don’t know, OCD (which I’ve had since age thirteen) is a mental disorder where a person obsessively fears some catastrophic thing—anything from accidentally hitting a pedestrian to contracting some terrible disease—and performs repetitive actions called compulsions to try to keep that thing from happening. The tricky part is that it’s the compulsions, not the imagined catastrophe, that typically end up causing the biggest problems. The precautions you take to keep the imaginary disaster at bay (or make sure the imaginary disaster didn’t already happen) can end up consuming your life, until you’re spending hours on end circling the block to check for dead bodies or doing constant mental gymnastics to make sure you’re not thinking any “bad thoughts.”
You could see how that might end up feeling like your mind houses a monster.
Oh, obsessive fears aren’t real monsters. You’re pretty sure they can’t actually hurt you. But they can pop out from behind the furniture at any time of day or night, flash their claws and bare their teeth, and make you think you’re facing imminent death if you don’t do something to stop them right now. It can make you feel helpless, frustrated, and deeply unsafe—even when (or maybe especially because) you know the monsters are actually just your own mind playing tricks on you.
So, I wrote about monsters.
I wanted to make them scary, because the truth is, having OCD or anxiety in general can be very scary, even for those of us who have experience in successfully managing it. So I wrote about Beings with obsidian scales and bodies crafted from shadow, with wings like the razor’s edge of night. I wrote about a world swathed in fog, where everything feels muddled and hidden and like danger could be around every corner. I wrote about mirrors, about how if you dare to look at your own reflection for too long, a monster might just crawl out of it.
But I also wanted the book to be hopeful, because hope is so much truer than the monsters. I wanted my story to say something not only about OCD, but to readers (especially teens) who have OCD themselves. And I think maybe I wanted to say something to me, too.
Maybe: you’re not alone. Maybe: the monsters aren’t what they seem to be. Maybe: you can do this.
So I wrote about a protagonist who has OCD himself. I put him right smack in the middle of his journey through his condition, because while I think books about the path to diagnosis are great and absolutely needed, I wanted to write about someone like me—someone who knew they had OCD and who had already learned how to manage it. I gave this protagonist some of my own flaws: a desire to control his thoughts, a misguided idea that there’s a way to perfectly manage his disorder, and a desperate determination to fight his fears—even when what he really needs to do is accept and work with them.
And that’s how Refraction was born.
I know a lot of writers say their books are their babies, but I don’t think that’s quite the right way to describe this story. It’s more like a piece of my soul, a glimpse into my (often rather weird) brain.
Here be monsters—but also hope, and friendship, and bravery.