Just Checking

( 10 )


As my friend the heroin addict says, "You're only as sick as your secrets."
Emily Colas — young, intelligent, well-educated wife and mother of two — had a secret that was getting in the way of certain activities. Like touching people. Having a normal relationship with her husband. Socializing. Getting a job. Eating out. Like leaving the house. Soon there was no interval in her life when she was not
just ...

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As my friend the heroin addict says, "You're only as sick as your secrets."
Emily Colas — young, intelligent, well-educated wife and mother of two — had a secret that was getting in the way of certain activities. Like touching people. Having a normal relationship with her husband. Socializing. Getting a job. Eating out. Like leaving the house. Soon there was no interval in her life when she was not
just checking
This raw, darkly comic series of astonishing vignettes is Emily Colas' achingly honest chronicle of her twisted journey through the obsessive-compulsive disorder that came to dominate her world. In the beginning it was germs and food. By the time she faced the fact that she was really "losing it," Colas had become a slave to her own "hobbies" — from the daily hair cutting to incessant inspections of her children's clothing for bloodstains.
A shocking, hilarious, enormously appealing account of a young woman struggling to gain control of her life, this is Emily Colas' exposé of a soul tormented, but balanced by a buoyance of spirit and a piercing sense of humor that may be her saving grace.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
We all worry. We all have moments of unfounded dread (Is someone behind that door?), or little phobias (roaches) or superstitions (step on a crack) that we indulge. Just Checking is an autobiographical account of what it is like to live with a full-blown case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which, at its height, finds author Emily Colas nervous that she will contract a disease from blood that she sees on television. In the course of the book, what at first appear to her husband and friends to be Colas's idiosyncratic notions accumulate until she is frozen by the astounding psychological binds of OCD. Using precise (of course), connect-the-dots scenes, Colas draws a life that is at first highly monitored and ultimately unraveled by her disorder.

One imagines that from afar, Colas's behavior at the height of her illness would look incomprehensible and just plain weird: She has to check the dishwasher multiple times before using it to make sure the cat is safe; the packaging of every new toothbrush has to meet rigorous sanitary standards; the landlord can't attempt to find new tenants for her apartment — she won't let them in the house. But readers are not at a distance here. Instead, we become privy to Colas's somewhat apologetic but firm explanations of what her logic was, and what it felt like to be afraid. She is so honest and witty that one can't help liking her, rooting for her, and wishing help would come.

In a typical vignette, when the family tries to go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade ("definitely a mistake"), Colas is terrified that shewillstep on blood:

When I was a kid in New York, all we had to eat on the street were pretzels and hot dogs. Food that was readily identifiable. Now, vendors sell the fanciest things with cherries, berries, jelly, and other crap that's way too close to the color of blood. We finally made it to where we had to go, but not before I had inspected the bottom of my shoes. There was a mushy red object there. Maybe a cherry, possibly a finger. The kids watched the parade on TV and I had a nice new worry. My kids don't even remember that lovely November day, but, lucky for me, I do.

This event is sad and resonant, but it also manages to be viscerally entertaining. The result is that instead of inspiring schadenfreude, this book reminds us that psychological disorders are often exaggerations of the ordinary and familiar. We all, on a continuum, wish to survive, to avoid disease, to impose order on our lives. We sympathize with Colas's desperate attempts to find safety and with her seemingly loving husband's gradual loss of tolerance. Even the not-so-funny poems that are occasionally interspersed among the perfectly crafted chapterettes find their place. Strange as it may be to find charm in a memoir of illness, Colas is utterly winning.

Hilary Liftin is a writer living in New York City. Her first book, coauthored with Kate Montgomery, is scheduled for publication by Vintage next year. She is the editorial development manager at BookWire (www.bookwire.com).

From the Publisher
New York Magazine Hilarious, harrowing.

San Diego Union-Tribune Just Checking twitches with pain and pulses with insight....It's also so enjoyable, and so frequnetly laugh-out-loud hilarious, you'll feel guilty profiting from Colas' agony.

Dallas Morning News A wonderful little book....

Deseret News In the literature of mental illness, this one is destined to be a classic....Every worrier will recognize in Colas a true sister. Everyone who likes to laugh will be glad she was brave enough to tell this story on herself.

David Sedaris author of Naked Just Checking is, in turn, mysterious, agonizing, and terribly funny. Emily Colas writes with such skill and honesty that I can't help but wish she suffers a relapse. It's selfish, I know, but I want more.

Detroit News Intimate and revealing.

Booklist This anecdotal, first-person account of Colas' illness is highly readable and funny...One hopes that Colas will take up her pen again.

Kirkus Reviews A frank and funny first-person account of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder...With its unique patient's-eye view and perceptive honesty, a valuable contribution to the literature....

Martha Manning author of Undercurrents and Chasing Grace Everyone knows what it's like to worry. But for most people, it's not a twenty-four-hour occupation. Emily Colas draws readers into a world dominated by details — a dangerous world in which kitchen utensils are instruments of deadly contamination, restaurant food is probably poisoned, and a tiny paper cut is potentially fatal. Through a series of vignettes she paints a compelling picture of a life dominated by compulsions and the worries that fuel them. If she'd left it there, Just Checking would be a valuable case study of a psychiatric illness. But Colas is a born storyteller, and a wickedly funny one at that. Just Checking is as hilarious as it is harrowing — a combination that makes it an engaging and ultimately powerful book.

Java A terribly funny, sad, and deeply human account...Honesty is the key here, and it's Colas' ironic self-awareness that makes for such a refreshing read.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
What could have been a fascinating exploration of a complex psyche never gets much beyond the level of stand-up comedy in this disappointing memoir of a young woman's life with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Substituting sarcasm for insight, Colas presents brief, easily digestible tidbits describing her overwhelming fear that she might catch diseases from strangers. She recounts her bizarre rituals of handwashing, garbage disposal, 800-number calling (is this product really safe?) that eventually hurt others and destroyed her marriage. Colas can be funny --(an episode of the stranger's underpants in the laundromat dryer is especially amusing ("I called my OB to ask her if she'd be willing to test me for gonorrhea")--but her flat prose and superficial approach mask an intelligence that's never sufficiently engaged with this material--a typical analysis is, "It sucks big time." Though Colas provides occasional glimpses of a disturbed childhood, she quickly covers them up with her flippant comic routine. She's disappointed that her illness is less interesting than heroin addiction--it's just "insanity lite," she writes, and "Rock stars don't get magazine covers because they kept their audience waiting while they washed their hands twenty times." By keeping her book at the level of a Seinfeld routine, Colas ensures that readers will gain little insight into a condition that deserves better treatment than it gets in this memoir lite. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A frank and funny first-person account of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Colas, a young woman obsessed with the notion of being poisoned by drugs slipped into her food or contaminated by germs from ground-up hypodermic needles or diseased blood, tells of her life as a neurotic. At first she shares her fears with her husband, requiring him to taste the food on her plate before she will eat it, to question waiters about possible nicks and cuts on their hands, and to remove his shoes before entering the house. He complies with her demands, even performing extraordinarily complicated rituals when disposing of the kitchen garbage. After the birth of her second child , with her husband's patience wearing thin, she begins trying to conceal her fears from him while still compulsively checking everything from the soles of shoes to breakfast cereal. The power of her obsessions can be seen in her totally irrational belief that simply viewing a bleeding man on television could cause her to become infected with his germs. Not surprisingly, the marriage eventually fails, and Colas goes to a therapist who prescribes Prozac, which frees her from the grip of her obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals. In outline, the story sounds bleak if not dull, but Colas has a sure comic touch and a mocking self-awareness that makes her memoir a delight. She tells her story in brief scenes, not necessarily in chronological order, from her childhood at summer camp, where a compulsive neatness was already evident, to her post-divorce job as a bar waitress, where she can "smoke, drink, and be sarcastic, all while earning an honest living." With its unique patient's-eye viewpoint and perceptive honesty,a valuable contribution to the literature on obsessive-compulsive disorder.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780671024383
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/1999
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 218,538
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Emily Colas is thirty-two years old and lives in New York City. Just Checking is her first book.

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Read an Excerpt

From Part 1


I like to make stars in my head, or trace them with my finger. Just like you doodle with a pencil on the side of a piece of paper. Someone will be talking to me and I look like I'm listening, but really all I'm doing is drawing one line of the star for every one word that person says. Our conversation has to end on a multiple of 5, a complete star. My husband might say to me, "What do you want for dinner?" I'm looking him straight in the eyes so I guess he believes I'm deciding, but in fact I'm drawing and thinking 1 and 1/5 stars. He says, "How about pizza?" I still just stare at him, but think 1 and 4/5 stars. He continues, "Do you have any idea?" 2 and 4/5. Finally he'll conclude, "Why don't we just make pasta?" 4 stars.


It had been almost a decade since I'd taken a pill and I was not thrilled to find myself about to swallow one. I just stood in front of the sink for a minute or two and then got up the nerve to stick it in the back of my throat and drink it down. I imagined the outer casing was starting to dissolve and the powder inside was filtering up to my brain. I was waiting for something dramatic to happen. Maybe I'd fall down in convulsions or start hallucinating. Maybe I'd be overcome with the urge to kill my husband.

In college, I'd had a nasty drug habit and the unfortunate experience of a bad trip. After that night, I suffered from flashbacks for a few months and vowed never to take a pill again, harmful or otherwise. When I was pregnant, I relented and took vitamins. After I had kids, Advil. Several years later, today, I was moving on to this serious medication. I was a little shaky. It was probably the drug.


My husband and I went to a bar for our first date. We were pretty young at the time, both in school. We, sat next to each other at a table in the back of the place. The lights were low, cigarette smoke clouded the room. Lots of atmosphere. We spent the night talking with our heads really close and our fingers twisted together. We had both just ended serious relationships so we wanted to take this slow. After the drinks, we went back to his place and stayed up for hours while he read poetry to me. Then we fell asleep, him on the couch, me in his bed.


I used to sit dazed at the table watching my father eat breakfast. It was always the same meal, toast, eggs, bacon and juice, which he'd always eat the same way, bite of toast, bite of eggs, bite of bacon, sip of juice. Bite of toast, bite of eggs, bite of bacon, sip of juice. My head would follow his hand around from his plate to his mouth, to his cup, to his mouth, to his plate...around and around until he'd finished. I'd have to shake my head and blink my eyes to snap out of my trance.


You never know what kind of things people have going on in their lives. Secret things that you have no idea about. The woman who dry-cleans your clothes? Prostitute. The man who sells you coffee and a doughnut? Serial killer. And your friend who hasn't returned your calls lately? Heroin addict. And then I find out that my friend wasn't returning my calls because she was in rehab. Which I'll admit is a little jarring. I pretty much assumed that people just spill everything. I do. Maybe that's wrong. Maybe I shouldn't. How are you supposed to know what to tell and what not to tell? Maybe my dry cleaner really is a prostitute. Maybe I should stick to cotton. I feel confused. And of course bad for my friend who it turns out had been addicted to heroin for five years and was now trying to kick methadone. She says that she wanted to tell me, and almost did a couple of times, but she was just too embarrassed. I totally understand. But that still leaves this whole honesty issue unresolved.


I've often been told this story of when my family went out for a Sunday night dinner, I was seven at the time, and I started making jokes about a woman I noticed who was a dwarf. After what I assume were a few uncomfortable minutes for my relatives, my aunt, wanting to put an end to my mocking, turned to me and said, "It's not nice to make fun of people, but if you have any questions I'd be happy to answer them for you." I sat there for a minute or two with I guess a pensive look on my face and then said, "Do you think she was normal until she was seven and then she got like that?" I'm sure my aunt answered no, but that still left open the question of what I would turn into.


For our second date, my husband invited me over for dinner. This was going to be our first problem. I'd been under the impression of late that people were putting acid in my food. The kind that makes you hallucinate. This started a few months before when I was at a party and a friend of mine was eating sugar cubes from a bowl on the table. The hostess of the party yelled to him, "Don't eat that! It's where we put our acid!" My friend got this horrified look on his face, because by that point he'd probably had about ten hits. Then the hostess started laughing. Sure she was just kidding, but something like that could happen; you might accidentally eat someone's stash or maybe some malicious dealer with an attitude wants a laugh. As a result, I had stopped going to restaurants and dinner parties and just ate prepackaged food. It hadn't affected my life too much until this point, but I liked this guy. I could see myself getting serious about him. I figured that this was going to be our first trust test. I showed up at seven.

"Hey, I'm glad to see you. How was your day?" he asked as he softly touched my arm and slid his hand down to hold mine.

"Okay." I was pretty nervous. I wasn't sure if it was second-date anxiety, fear of my impending trip or both. "How about yours?" He started talking about what he'd been up to, his classes, the paper he was working on. I was looking at him and I thought I was listening, but truly, I was distracted by the smell of the cooking food in the next room. Being reminded of what was in store for me.

"I have to go check on dinner. Can I bring you a drink?" he asked.

"No thanks. Do you need any help?" Maybe I could monitor. Make sure he didn't slip anything into the sauce.

"No, I'm good."

Twenty minutes later he brought out dinner and set it on the table. Chicken and rice. We sat down. I shuffled the food around with my fork for a minute or two and eventually got up the nerve to cut a piece of chicken and spear it when he said, "I forgot the salt." He disappeared into the kitchen and I had this dilemma. I had about five seconds to decide whether or not to switch our plates. If he had laced my food, this was going to be my last meal before I was chopped up into little pieces and hidden out back. I didn't know if I should chance it. I did want to start this relationship on the right foot, but that's pretty hard to do looking up from the ground in a thousand pieces. He seemed like a nice guy, but don't a lot of serial killers? Ted Bundy. The clown guy. But there were other considerations. If he had poisoned my food, and I switched the plates, then he would die and I'd get questioned by the police.

"Um, ma'am, we found a horse dose of cyanide in your boyfriend's food. How do you suppose it got in there?" He'd have done the bad thing, but, unable to prove my innocence, I'd end up in jail. Plus, I'm not sure the cops would be patient enough to wait for me to answer them until I had completed a star.

"Ma'am. Could you answer our questions? Why aren't you speaking to us? Do you want a lawyer? Ma'am? Hello."

8 stars. "I didn't do it. I switched the plates. I'm innocent..."

No. Don't think that way. Trust. Besides, he'd eaten more than I had and maybe he'd notice. I left the plates where they were. He came back to the table, sat down, and started talking to me. I listened and ate and waited the requisite forty-five minutes for the drugs to take effect. When the time passed and I wasn't hearing colors or anything, I started to relax a little.

Copyright © 1998 by Emily Colas

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Emily Colas' Just Checking. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and increase your enjoyment of the book.


1. Why do you think Emily Colas wrote this book as a series of vignettes? Do you think it would have been as effective had the book been written in narrative form? If so, why?

2. None of the people in Just Checking are referred to by name. They are all identified by their relation to the author (e.g. "my husband," "my friend the heroin addict"). Why? What does this say about the author?

3. What is your impression of Emily Colas's husband? How does he handle his wife's condition? If she were single, do you think her problems would have been magnified or minimized?

4. Do you think the author's regimented early life — from her German nanny's schedule to her father's daily breakfast routine — contributed to her condition as an adult?

5. After reading Just Checking, do you believe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a product of nature or nurture?

6. The author claims to subscribe to the "Oreo cookie theory of life." Unpack the elements of this theory. Do you feel it informs all of Colas's decisions? Why or why not?

7. One of the vignettes in Just Checking is a poem, "How to Be a Good Wife." Do you agree with her assessment of what a "good" wife is? Do you think Emily Colas was a good wife? Was she a good mother?

8. When Emily Colas and her husband first separate, what kind of changes do you notice in her personality? She says that the separation was not caused by the constant worries brought on by her condition. Do you agree?

9. It wasn't until after her separation that she was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. How do you think things would have turned out if this diagnosis had come earlier?

10. Toward the end of Just Checking, one of Emily Colas's two children contracts head lice. Examine how she handles the situation, and compare this to how she would have reacted if it had happened two years earlier. Could this event be considered a turning point in her life?

11. What did you learn about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder from Just Checking? Would you be able to recognize symptoms in an acquaintance or relative?


Q: On more than one occasion, you refer to your condition as "insanity lite." Where did this expression come from, and at the time, did you think there was anything to be done to overcome that feeling?

A: The expression was basically a play on diet foods. All the taste, none of the good stuff. It was as if I was suffering as much as anyone else who had lost their mind, but since I was still able to be rational, since I knew what I was doing was bizarre, I wasn't really crazy. I had this belief that somehow life would be easier if I was just completely mad.

Q: You relate many personal details in Just Checking. Were there any that you found particularly difficult to share when you started writing?

A: I suppose the whole idea of people knowing this was what was wrong with me was hard to share. Once I started showing my writing to some friends, that got easier. As for specifics, I didn't write about anything that I wasn't comfortable with people knowing. In fact, if there was an event or experience that was too personal or that I couldn't make fun of in some way, then I left it out.

Q: Is there anything in the book you look back on and regret? Perhaps not getting treatment earlier?

A: No. I got treatment, took medicine when I was ready. I'm not sure I would have been able to stick it out if I had done it any sooner.

Q: Your memoir is written in a breezy, at times humorous tone, something you don't often see in recovery memoirs. How did you decide that Just Checking would be written in this manner?

A: I think the biggest compliment I got on the book was that I write how I talk. I'm just telling my story, and that people think it's funny is great. To me, being able to laugh is one of the best things.

Q: What is your life like now? Describe the changes that you've gone through.

A: You're actually asking that question at a particularly difficult time. I think, as far as the book is concerned, my life looks a lot different. I'm far less worried and not at all dependent on someone else to get me through the day. Now I just struggle with different things.

Q: What is the single most important piece of advice you can give to a reader currently suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

A: I'm not sure I feel like I'm in a position to give advice. I'm no expert. I just told my story. I guess, like I say in the book, life is short. And it's hard as well. So do whatever you can to relieve your suffering.

Copyright © 1998 by Emily Colas

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2001

    More entertainment value than educational value

    I have read quite a bit in the field of psychology and this book is very interesting in that it is a firsthand account of someone living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I guess I did not realize the author's intent in writing her story. It is not very informational, and I can't see that there is a lesson to be learned from the life experiences of Emily Colas. Instead, it seemed to be an outlet for her to tell her story and allow herself and others the ability to laugh at some of the less funny situations life has to offer. I did find the memoir extremely easy to read, but on an amateur level. If you're curious about OCD, this may be a good starting place, but if you're actually intending to research and possibly learn how to deal w/a loved one suffering from the disorder, you may end up disappointed.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Loved this memoir!! I do not suffer from this affliction but sti

    Loved this memoir!! I do not suffer from this affliction but still found plenty to relate to Emily is smart and funny! I very much hope another memoir is in the works I'm sure she hads more tales to tell and I for one am listening!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2008

    Just Checking by Emily Colas

    Just Checking is a non fiction book by Emily Colas. In this book Emily shares many different scenes from her life. Her scenes, and stories, are about some of her episodes of when her life has been effected by having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I thought this was a good and worthwhile book and I would recommend it to someone who likes funny books and books that are a short and a fast read. As stated above, Emily suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is ¿an anxiety disorder and is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts 'obsessions' and/or repetitive behaviors 'compulsions'. Repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these so- called 'rituals,' however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.¿ Emily Colas has an extreme case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It seems to have over taken her life and it would be very difficult to live a normal life with this type of anxiety. Colas tells her stories in an easily relatable way to comprehend them, it is not just some scientific reasoning that is difficult to understand. The book, Just Checking, is a funny and twisted way at looking at this treatable illness, ¿Every time I used the dryer and then the dishwasher, stove, disposal, blender, or and large appliances, I had to open and shut it countless times to make sure my cats weren¿t inside.¿ Even though this book is funny, it may be inappropriate for children because of inappropriate language. Even though Emily Colas tells her stories in a funny way, having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not something to joke about because conditions can be so terrible to the point where people cannot leave their houses. Emily Colas has showed me how hard it really could be to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Just Checking reminded me of MTV¿s True Life. They have made an episode showing the life of a few people that have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how they went about with their days. This reminded me of Just Checking because some of the stories were similar. Emily does things from making stars in her head while people are speaking to making her husband taste all of her food before she eats it to make sure it was not poisoned or drugged. This book really showed me how hard it could be to have an illness such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn more it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2007

    Real, entertaining, accurate account of what it is like to have OCD

    This is a very real account of what OCD is like. It shows that OCD is often a terrifying and debilitating condition and yet also injects some humor into the description. This is part of what is so 'real' about this account, to me. Though my obsessions can be terrifying at times--and were ALL THE TIME before I began taking medication for the OCD--I can still laugh about how absurd my worries are sometimes. It doesn't make them any less terrifying, it doesn't make them any less real, but it's good to be able to laugh at yourself and/or your condition sometimes. The way Colas makes her account humorous is refreshing in a culture where OCD is often portrayed as a collection of quirky habits that provide comic relief, but are a source of no real suffering to the obsessive-compulsive. Because I related so well to Colas' experiences, I have passed this book along to friends and family to read. I think this gave them a better idea of what I have been going through, as well as just being an interesting read in its own right. I would recommend this book to anyone, but I would VERY strongly recommend it to those who have a friend or family member with OCD. It is a very quick read (only a few hours) and it is both enlightening and entertaining.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2005

    Wonderfully enjoyable

    The funniest account of a not so funny disorder. It's very easy to read and you sympathize with Colas so much, that you almost start to worry a bit yourself.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2004

    wonderful (from a fellow sufferer)

    This was the first book i read after i was diagnosed -- and i thought it was absolutely wonderful. maybe not informative in a professional way, but brilliant as a piece with which one can empathize.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2004

    Colas Brilliant OCD review

    This book combinds entertainment with reality. It describes the problems of a person living with OCD, as well as pokes fun at the logic or lack there of behind it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2002

    Humor added to help understand

    I enoyed reading this book because it was helpful to me to be more understanding of one of my teammates that suffers from this disorder. The way in which Colas describes her life is interesting with a touch of humor weaved throughout. I found it hard not to laugh out loud and also to put down. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who wants serious research material or a complex understanding of this disorder.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2001

    Straight to you

    In my opionion Just checking was a brilliant book,It tells you everything that went on and does not hold off on anything and it also incorparates Humor witch makes for good reading,Although it does use some profane laguage I recommend it to YOU!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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