Book Review Books Mental Health

Review of One Of Us Has To Go by Katja Schulz

February 2, 2023
The book One Of Us Has To Go by Katja Schulz, which shows two white females with their backs turned and looking towards a grey and stormy sky. The one on the left is wearing leggings and a hoodie with her blonde hair pinned up in a bun, and the one on the right is wearing a pale cream coloured coat with her blonde hair down. The book is sitting on a leaf themed duvet cover.

As you probably know if you follow me on Twitter, my TBR (to be read) list is pretty long! I know a lot of awesome writers, and they keep bringing out books quicker than I can read them. But some of them get stuck on my TBR list for longer than others, and One Of Us Has To Go is a prime example.

I first bought this book on my Kindle back in January 2021. But I knew I was not in the right place to read it. I was just coming out of my 2020 year of hell (for those who don’t know, I had a major ME/CFS relapse in 2020 that massively affected my mental health), and I had only just started having therapy. I knew without a doubt that reading a novel about OCD, something that I had not yet been formally diagnosed with but which I knew I had, was a bad idea in my fragile state.

I’ve come a long way since then, thanks to my amazing therapist, and part way through 2022 I felt like I had reached a place where I wanted to be in terms of my confidence and self-esteem. But I still had a major battle roaring within me thanks to my OCD, and it was time to focus on that. Which meant I also felt like I was reaching a point where I could, and should, finally read One Of Us Has To Go. So I bought a copy in paperback, knowing that seeing it sitting on my shelf would be a very visible reminder of what I was working towards. And so, several months into focusing on my OCD in therapy, I set a goal to read it this January.

Trigger Warnings for One Of Us Has To Go

I’ve just finished reading it. My health is always unpredictable, and as January was a tough month I did a lot of comfort reading this month too. Because I know myself well enough to know what will trigger me, and when I need to avoid that until I’m in a better place. So even though I was ready to read One Of Us Has To Go overall, there were days when I simply couldn’t pick it up to continue. Because this book is real.

By that I don’t mean that it is a true story. It is based on a true story, yes. And that shines through in the depth of emotion and internal dialogue that fills its pages. But what I mean when I say the book is real, is that it doesn’t shy away from the darkest depths of humanity. It is raw. It is heart-breaking. It will make you angry. And if you’re someone who suffers in any way with mental health issues, trauma, or simply not fitting it, it will likely trigger you.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it. Seeing the reality of OCD and trauma on the page, and the way that it affects absolutely every aspect of your life, is in many ways very affirming. It reminds you that you’re not alone, that someone else has felt the way that you have. I’m just saying you need to go into it knowing what you might encounter, so that you can ensure you read it when you’re in a place to deal with whatever comes up for you. I know I am immensely glad I waited until now to read it.

With that in mind, I’m going to list some trigger warnings you might want to be aware of. These are the ones I noticed whilst reading, but it may not be an exhaustive list, I could have missed some things:

  • childhood trauma
  • controlling parents
  • child abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • physical abuse
  • sexual assault
  • co-dependent relationships
  • self-harm*
  • attempted suicide
  • alcohol poisoning
  • homophobia
  • body shaming
  • death of a loved one
  • attempted murder
  • death scene involving blood

*please note that I am not sure if self-harm is the right word to use, but there is damage caused to the body through some of the compulsions and I wanted to leave some kind of warning for that.

Some of these are only momentarily glimpsed – for instance there is a part at the end of the chapter entitled The Ordinary Face where the main character gets her first boyfriend and there is relief that she isn’t a lesbian. There is no other mention of homosexuality within the book. Others appear throughout the book, such as all of the abuse in different forms. And it goes without saying that the book deals with mental illness throughout.

So what is One Of Us Has To Go about?

You may be wondering what on earth the story is about after all of that, so here it is in a nutshell:

One Of Us Has To Go is a fictionalised account of what it is like to live with OCD, and how it affects not only the person suffering from it but also all of their relationships with others. Within the book, OCD is personified in the character of Sonja, who the main character Finja meets during childhood. They develop a strong bond throughout their lives, becoming completely co-dependent, and we learn about their relationship and what led them to this place during flashbacks.

Woven into this story is an overarching storyline of Finja’s attempt to once and for all free herself from the restrictive and life-altering relationship with Sonja so that she can move on and live her life. She has tried several times throughout her life to do so but has always failed. Will this time be the time she finally breaks free?

The thing I loved most about this story is how by personifying OCD in the character of Sonja we are able to see so clearly how OCD can feel like a friend who keeps us safe as well as a prison that keeps us locked in. Throughout everything that happens in Finja’s life, Sonja is there trying to keep her safe. She’s with her in her “Imaginary Comfort Bubbles”. She wants to keep her safe from contamination. She expects Finja to do everything possible to remain safe. But she’s also the one who forces Finja to move time and time again, uprooting her life once more to get away from an invisible danger. She’s makes Finja damage her body in an attempt to get clean. She runs up bills and gets in the way of Finja ever settling down.

And through Finja’s recollection of all these memories, we see how even the person with OCD knows that what they’re being told to do by their brains isn’t logical in any way. We know that what we’re doing is excessive, potentially harmful, and doesn’t make sense. But we can’t help ourselves, because what if the one time we don’t do it is the one time we need to? OCD doesn’t care for logic. It doesn’t care how we feel. All it cares about it trying to keep us safe… even if it’s the thing that ultimately harms us.

The link between trauma and OCD?

Another thing I found really fascinating about the story is that trauma played such a huge part in both Finja and Sonja’s childhood. Nobody really knows what causes OCD, although there are several theories that range from genetics and neurobiological causes to emotional and environmental triggers. And so I am not suggesting in any way that trauma causes OCD. But I did find it interesting reading the book and realising that I could relate to some of the issues that Finja struggled with, even if the specifics of my own experiences were very different.

For instance, Finja first met Sonja when she was very young and still in primary school. I can also trace the beginnings of my OCD back to that time in my life, even though it would take me many, many years to recognise it for what it was. And I have a similar skewed sense of self-worth that Finja describes in the chapter entitled In Control.

Sometimes Roger compliments me. Then I struggle to respond, because I’m both flattered and ashamed at the same time. I’d definitely diagnose myself with an inferiority complex. Whenever I’ve done something and somebody tells me I should be proud of myself, I’m unable. I don’t want to be wrong or too much in love with myself.

Pages 114-115 of One Of Us Has To Go by Katja Schulz

It took me many, many years to recognise that I had trauma in my life. I remember when I first saw a therapist just after my son was born, and she kept asking me what my childhood was like. “Fine,” I kept saying, “it was good.” She didn’t look convinced, and I didn’t know why. We were there to talk about my traumatic pregnancy, why were we talking about my childhood?

Only now, after many more years of therapy at different stages in my life, have I come to realise how many different ways trauma can occur and manifest itself in our lives. And also how often we repress it. Just a couple of years ago Thea managed to nudge a memory of mine that I had completely blocked of being pinned to the floor in my teens by a bigger girl as she shoved grass into my mouth. I never told anyone about it at the time, and was quite shocked when it suddenly re-appeared in my memory.

This wondering about how much trauma might impact on the way we respond to the world around us is also brought up in the book:

Sonja finally looked up and into my eyes. “You sound as if you’re traumatised.”
What? Me traumatised? I wasn’t traumatised.
“No, not me. But you must be!” I said
And then a theory pounced on me, so heavy and uncomfortable that it hurt: was Sonja’s OCD covering up something else – a real problem; a trauma? Was her mental illness a self-constructed way, a crutch, to survive?

Page 164 of One Of Us Has To Go by Katja Schulz

There is always hope!

Ultimately, though, as hard as reading the story may be, with its intense traumas and graphic depictions of so many aspects of living with OCD, it is a story of hope. Despite having lived with Sonja for the vast majority of her life, Finja does indeed break free at the end. It isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it takes having something, or rather someone, worth fighting for to do it. And no, I don’t mean Roger – Finja doesn’t fight for Roger’s sake, but for her own. For the life she wants to live, and is able to now that somebody sees her for who she is, and gives her the confidence to hopefully one day love herself too. As he says in the final chapter:

I love you regardless. With or without your OCD. I see the real you, not just the mental illness. And you are still special.”

Page 379 of One Of Us Has To Go by Katja Schulz

And isn’t that what we all need to feel safe, somebody who sees us for who we are, beyond our OCD? Someone who will stand beside us as we fight the demons that haunt us and find the strength to resist our compulsions, quietening the inner voice that tells us that we must be in control of the uncontrollable? Whether that’s a friend, family member, lover, therapist, or better yet a combination of them all, it doesn’t matter. When we have someone who sees us for who we are, we begin to see ourselves too.

I’m not saying OCD is something that we can defeat once and for all. For many of us it will be a constant companion throughout our lives. But we can learn to live with it. To give it less power over us. To find our safety elsewhere. There have been times in my life when I felt completely out of control – when I was a teenager, during my pregnancy, when I got sick… those are the times when OCD has ruled my life. But there was a wonderful time in my 20s when that inner voice was far quieter, my compulsions mostly gone. And I hope to get back there one day.

After all, if Finja could come through all that she does and find her way to free herself from Sonja, so can we.

Find out more…

You can buy One Of Us Has To Go from Amazon or Bookshop.Org.

The author, Katja Schulz, has a website where you can find her book in both English and German, as well as her bookish designs. You can also find her on both Twitter and Instagram.

If you would like to find out more about OCD, I highly recommend checking out OCD UK.

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