Review: The Woman Who Thought Too Much, Joanne Limburg
Posted Friday 15 July 2011
Guest post from Sara Kirkpatrick. Sara reviews Joanne Limburg's 'The Woman Who Thought Too Much', which was recently shortlisted for Mind Book of the Year 2011
Can I say that I didn’t want to open this book? A strange way to begin a review maybe, but it’s true. I wanted to read it; I didn’t want to read it. As someone who has experienced postnatal depression and almost paralysing levels of anxiety, I was wary of finding too much of my own experiences and myself in the book.
Joanne Limburg’s memoir tells of her experience of a life lived with anxiety – and also depression, awkwardness and shame – but it is anxiety and how she reacts to it that is the most debilitating, and which is the root of the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that she is eventually diagnosed with.
There are relatively few memoirs that focus on OCD but perhaps this is not surprising. Mental health problems carry varying levels of stigma, and Limburg notes that OCD sufferers are in general extremely self-conscious, concerned about how others perceive them and will, on average, struggle on alone for an astonishing 11 years before seeking help. Limburg felt that as a poet she had ‘less to lose’ from public confession than those in more conventional occupations.
Some publicity surrounding the book’s publication focussed on the author’s escalating anxiety levels during pregnancy and new motherhood, and how this led to the OCD diagnosis and treatment. It is both painful and fascinating, but before we get there Limburg takes us through her life from childhood and awkward adolescence to early adulthood and beyond. In doing so, she exposes her obsessive thought processes and ‘ruminations’; she reveals personal failures, private embarrassments and unappealing behaviour; she lets us join her in therapy and even discloses some of her medical notes.
If this sounds difficult to read: in a way, it is. In her review for the Guardian, author Hilary Mantel wonders if a writer can be ‘too honest’ as at times she wanted to ‘close this book to protect its subject.’ At times I wanted to look away too; sometimes I felt uncomfortable, similar to when someone tells you a bit too much after a few drinks, and you wish they hadn't, and worry if they’ll remember what they told you.
But I didn’t look away. Limburg is a poet; words are her passion, and it shows. Her writing is so engaging that even when the subject matter is difficult, you stay with her. She gives some of the best descriptions of anxiety (the ‘Unbearable Feeling’) that I have read, and her prose articulates her symptoms and emotions with poignant clarity. She speaks of shame, the feeling that one is ‘being someone wrong’, and the ‘sheer, repetitive tedium’ that is the reality of long-term anxiety. She is funny, too, and well aware of the occasional comedy inherent to her situation (see, for example, the episode in the attic with a hobble skirt).
I did sometimes wonder whether Limburg not only thinks too much, but also knows too much. She has considerable academic abilities and has studied her subject over the years. Would I want that level of knowledge about my own diagnosis? Probably not — and yet, some of the things I learned from this book gave me ‘a-ha!’ moments of my own. Then again, I recognise what she means when she writes of the seductive pull of new research discoveries and the urge to find explanations: oh that’s why it happened, it wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t help it, it was written in the stars, etc.
I found the mix of personal insight with intelligent synthesis of complex scientific and mental health research compelling. For me, the double authority of experience reinforced by deep research makes this book a valuable contribution.
Read Sara's blog
Find out more about the Mind Book of the Year Award
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