The OCD Project (2010)
Summer television has arrived and with it comes the barrage of new and returning unscripted reality programs. 57 and 65, respectively, to be precise. One can probably identify numerous implicit psych issues embedded in some of the reality shows, and likely more so in their cast members. I don’t watch Jersey Shore, Bridezillas, or Toddlers and Tiaras, but I’m sure that the DSM-IV applies to some individuals on those shows as much as an instruction manual titled “How to Clean Up an Oil Spill” to BP.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the focus of the new voyeuristic reality series The OCD Project. It airs on VH1 and follows a group of six strangers diagnosed with quite severe OCD, who are forced to live together under one roof to receive intensive exposure therapy treatment. It’s Intervention meets Fear Factor. Dr. David Tolin, a PhD clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, plays the host and head therapist on the show.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Obsessions are persistent anxiety-provoking thoughts that invade one’s conscious awareness; they are distressingly difficult to ignore like seeing a pregnant woman drinking a 40 and smoking a pack of Marlboros. Obsessions commonly have a fearful theme that either neglecting to do something or making a mistake will lead to some sort of catastrophe. For example, “If I don’t check if the front door is locked 6 times before I leave the house, then I’ll get into a car accident today.” Other types of obsessions may center on a fear of contamination, a need for exactness or symmetry, irrational saving and hoarding, or unpleasant aggressive impulses and sexual imagery.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors performed intentionally to neutralize or alleviate the anxiety resulting from the obsessions. These rituals may range from subtle mental acts like counting or repeating numbers to more obvious physical acts like excessive hand-washing, checking, or rearranging objects. Compulsive behaviors consume time and interfere with routine activities, often to the point of severe functional debilitation. Imagine if the Iron Chef had OCD relating to a fear of contamination and had to wash his hands every time he felt germs defiled them. What type of cuisine, if any, would be prepared then?
Interestingly, many famous and successful celebrities live with OCD. Billy Bob Thorton reportedly obsesses about repetition, Cameron Diaz doorknobs, Howie Mandel germs, and David Beckham symmetry and evenness. In his role as Howard Hughes (who also suffered from OCD) in The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio channeled his childhood obsessions with sidewalks to devotedly play the part more effectively.
Reality shows can be repulsively annoying or entertaining and amusing to watch. The OCD Project is definitely more of the latter. It raises awareness of OCD to the mainstream and helps destigmatize mental illnesses, of which I’m definitely a proponent. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that it does so at the expense of exploiting and tormenting its cast members in its attempt to cure them of their disorders. Although the VH1 network executives are probably concerned primarily about the show’s numbers and lucrativeness, I hope that patient care is the foremost interest for Dr. Tolin.