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Compelling confessions

Author Emily Colas washes her hands of obsessive-compulsive disorder

By Leigh E. Rich

Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive-Compulsive
By Emily Colas
Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster

Emily Colas’ special talent in life, as she readily admits in her first book, Just Checking, is her “endless capacity to keep a worry alive.”

Colas is one of the one-in-50 Americans who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a psychiatric condition in which an individual feels compelled by irresistible urges to ritualistically carry out certain acts, like washing hands or counting words. When taken to extremes, it can be a remarkably debilitating disease, interfering with simple tasks like taking out the trash or eating in a restaurant. In Just Checking, Colas touches upon the years of self-imposed imprisonment, “stuck in my house pretending that I was happy that way. Alone and germless.”

Alone in her illness, that is. Just Checking roughly documents the author’s life with her husband and two children from engagement and marriage to childbirth and divorce. Colas recounts these milestones and other minutiae of day-to-day life through the filter of her affliction, what she deems “insanity lite.”

She presents her insights like journal entries, a random series of microcosmic vignettes, each further explicating her unfounded fears of other people’s germs, garbage and blood: in short, an irrational and incapacitating dread of a world inundated with unseen perils. Even when she and her husband first began dating, Colas had to somehow quell the fear that he was trying to poison her. Or when a stranger would come to view her apartment for rent, she’d quietly hide and pretend no one was home.

While each page is perversely intriguing, Just Checking is too focused—that is, so much a portrait of Colas’ thoughts—to impart a sense of purpose or, strangely, intimacy. Her husband, parents, children and friends aren’t even given names, let alone affectionate descriptions. Colas herself rarely emerges as a person, with childhood memories and lifelong aspirations. She’s more a curiosity, while sympathy and pity are yielded to her estranged family members.

Colas leaves her readers with more questions than conclusions. What causes OCD? Is it genetic? Is upbringing responsible? What will happen to her children, who are influenced by both? How does one seek help?

And then there’s the most important question: Who is this book for?

It seems, in part, a catharsis for the author, who’s endured in silence (“in order to create a harmonious home environment, I stopped telling my husband about my worries”) alongside countless others. She’s certainly courageous to publish such an uncompromisingly honest account of her struggles.

Just Checking may also be a means of educating the masses, publicly labeling OCD an authentic disease, like anorexia or alcoholism, and thereby redefining a private ailment as a communal one.

Still, Just Checking is impoverished by the absence of professional explanations or personal triumphs. On the road to recovery, the author realizes “life’s kind of a drag. And my rituals had been a nice diversion. I got anxious, nervous, wondering if I was destined to live this dull and uninteresting life.”

And though Colas finally finds some solace with prescription medication, she barely imparts a sense of hope for those remaining undiagnosed or afflicted.

Rich, L. E. (1998, July 16). Compelling confessions: Author Emily Colas washes her hands of obsessive-compulsive disorder. [Review of the book Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive-Compulsive by Emily Colas.] Tucson Weekly.

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