Review: The Woman Who Thought Too Much

An obsessive-compulsive finds order


By Joanne Limburg
Atlantic, £14.99

As a child, poet Joanne Limburg was fearless. Aged just three, she ran away to the fun-fair. At seven, she was a tree-climbing champ and, at nine, a bicycling girl-racer. Then something changed.

This is not a misery memoir. Or at least, not that kind of a misery memoir. Raised by loving, understanding parents in suburban Edgware, not even years of analysis have managed to unearth anything nasty in the woodshed. Nevertheless, by the time she went up to Cambridge to read social and political sciences, Limburg was firmly in the grip of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Looking back in an attempt to understand her condition, the best she can come up with are first glimpses - little advance warnings from "the neurosis fairy", such as the punishing robot that appeared in a childhood dream and obsessed her in waking hours, or her compulsive singing to ward off bad things.

With the onset of puberty, these advance warnings escalated into a compulsion to pick the skin on her arms raw, and to obsess over her own physical and intellectual shortcomings. As a student, she grew unable to deliver an essay. Socially maladroit, she failed most spectacularly with boys.

After graduation came a series of doomed forays into academia and other unsuitable careers. There was a brief spell in Edinburgh, where she became entangled with a married man, and a comically ill-chosen course as a careers guidance counsellor.

Occasionally, ghastly jolts from the real world - her father's death, her brother's suicide - intrude on the narrative to throw her struggles into stark perspective. And, though the OCD clouds her appreciation of the good things, along the way she manages to get married, have a child, and publish two collections of poetry.

Her prose, meanwhile, is disciplined, directional, and thankfully not without humour. Just when you are ready to get really irritated by her, she'll beat you to it, referring to her younger self as "a neurotic, obsessive, rather self-absorbed, dermatillomaniac young she-poet", for instance.

Today, OCD sufferers make up around two per cent of the population - a sharp rise from the estimated 0.05 to 0.5 per cent in the 1970s.

Limburg is at the mild-to-moderate end of the spectrum, and plenty of readers will recognise aspects of her condition.

Thanks to a combination of Prozac and cognitive behavioural therapy, she now manages to keep its symptoms in check. Practice, she concludes, makes possible. Crossing the road, changing trains, walks beside the river with her toddler son - all of these may still be fraught with "the Unbearable Feeling" anxiety, but at least she is able to do them.

In a way, writing this memoir must have required the same fearlessness as tree-climbing. Limburg promised a friend that it wouldn't have a redemptive ending, so instead she presents a tale of self-acceptance, and that is something most of us could benefit from in an egocentric world that expects airbrushed perfection.

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