Pop culture has reduced OCD to quirks and punchlines, making a mockery of those who live with the condition
From Monica Geller in Friends and Dr Kevin Casey in Scrubs, to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, OCD and its sufferers have been problematically represented by popular culture through decades, thereby reducing their struggles to mere punchlines and quirks.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a condition characterised by irrational thoughts and obsessions, leading to a wide range of repetitive, compulsive behaviours.
Pop-culture figures and icons, like Monica Geller from Friends, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, among several others, display symptoms of OCD.
Trigger warning: The following essay may be disturbing for individuals struggling with mental health issues. Reader discretion is advised.
It was a time of new beginnings, new possibilities. My friends had left to pursue their Master’s degrees in different parts of the world, while I stayed back in my hometown, Kolkata, for mine. A life-altering curve ball was not what I saw coming.
At university, we read Sylvia Plath for one of our papers — The Bell Jar, no less. The paper was titled 'Women, Writing, Madness', encapsulating the associations between constructions of women's madness, femininity, and creativity, as assessed through feminist and psychoanalytic theories. My tryst with Plath, until then, had been confined to an underwhelming 2003 biopic (Sylvia) starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and the formidable retort of Plath’s daughter — the poet and painter Frieda Hughes — to it. Originally published in Tatler, Hughes’ verses read:
... Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children. Then
It can be rewound
So they can watch her die
Right from the beginning again.
Watching someone on TV
Means all they have to do
Is press ‘pause’
If they want to boil a kettle,
While my mother holds her breath on screen
To finish dying after tea.
The filmmakers have collected
The body parts,
They want me to see.
They require dressings to cover the joins
And disguise the prosthetics
In their remake of my mother;
They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it –
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother’s words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll,
Who will walk and talk
And die at will,
And die, and die
And forever be dying.
The words were potent, the imagery devastating. They refused to leave me. I didn’t know then that I’d ‘meet’ Plath a decade later — under less than opportune circumstances.
Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood had crept under my skin without invitation. The July thunderstorms didn't help either, deepening my urge to stay cocooned within my room. I'd lost the appetite to eat, talk, or even scroll through social media. Thoughts circled my mind tirelessly, on loop, without pause. I could visualise arrows leading from one idea to the next, a vicious cycle of inane thoughts rapidly consolidating into tangible fears; a flowchart that looked something like this:
The ceiling fan might come loose, fall on you and kill you —> These fears are irrational and a figment of your imagination —> What if everything around you is also a figment of your imagination? —> Does this mean you’re alone in the world? —> Had that been the case, the fears wouldn't be so real —> The fan might fall on you and kill you —> …
My mind had, in a strange turn of events, decided to throw the certainty of its own being under the bus, derailing my sanity as I knew it. Nothing came without a question mark — not my sexuality, not my gender, and least of all, my existence. Classes, communication, sleep — it all took a backseat one fine morning, when I realised none of what I was feeling made sense to anyone, and much less to me.
The urgency to sit and dissect every thought that crossed my mind — pick at each word and memory and feeling until they were left bloodied — became my preferred method of self-flagellation. I sure as hell didn't want to do it, but my mind was too tired to look for ways to stop. An entire day of failing to convince myself that I might not die because of a wretched fan falling on me was more work than I'd imagined. However, by then I'd become certain of the fact that even if a rogue object wasn't out to get me, my mind certainly was.
Three weeks later, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) — a condition characterised by irrational thoughts and obsessions, leading to a wide range of repetitive, compulsive behaviours. In short, it looked nothing like the quirks of Friends’ Monica Geller or The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, or even Scrubs’ Dr Kevin Casey.
It wasn't fun, like we are made to believe it is, neither was it only about washing your hands a million times a day, or about straightening pillows until they attained some extraordinary alignment.
"A lot of people obsess over a lot of things. It's when such behaviour starts to get in the way of your every day life that one needs to take note," my psychiatrist said.
Indeed, the condition had hijacked my life, to put it mildly, rendering me incapable of venturing into the recesses of my own mind. The 'lifetime prevalence' of OCD is 2-3 per cent, meaning the condition affects two-three persons in every 100 during their lifetimes. And yet, I'd only ever encountered it as a pop-culture punchline.
"A lot of these conditions of psychological discomfort, like fear, anxiety, depression, carry a bio-physiological element... These conditions or dealing with them don't depend on someone's 'mental strength'. When we say such things, we fail to understand the process of psycho-biological liaisons," says Kolkata-based psychologist Dr Anuttama Banerjee.
The countless 'How OCD are you?' quizzes on the internet, or American reality star Khloe Kardashian's appropriation of the condition for her 'Khlo-C-D' campaign last year — a series featuring "lazy girl hacks for cleaning everyday objects" — are all examples of damaging representations of the disorder, doing serious disservice to its sufferers. To put things into perspective, a friend of mine was crestfallen to find out that obsessively cleaning my home or hands didn't feature in my list of compulsions, and instead, I was more into looking for blemishes on my skin and scratching them, until I was bleeding and sore. Not quirky enough to be romanticised, I guess.
Oh, and there was mulling over morality and sins — a whole lot of it — and flagellating myself for every lie I'd ever uttered. The result was nearly six months of no sleep, falling academic performance, and a paralysing fear of what lay ahead. None of this seemed familiar, or ventured even remotely close to Kardashian's or The Aviator's depictions of OCD. It was morbid, exhausting, and came with generous helpings of intrusive thoughts on sex and violence.
"We often get cues from our surroundings, in case of anxiety, that are very insensitive. People crack jokes about others suffering from anxiety saying it's their habit to be anxious, implying that it must be a sort of luxury for them. So we need to stop trivialising that pain sufferers go through. It's not their choice. Asking them to snap out of it isn't a solution — why should we assume they haven't said that to themselves already? Since that hasn't worked, the sufferers have come to me for help," Banerjee points out.
Banerjee believes in empowering her clients with the "required information", thereby giving them the agency to deal with their condition: "For instance, if I tell a person she has OCD, at least she knows that her thoughts aren't essentially the ones she believes in. She may not have control over her thoughts or be able to completely stop them from coming to her mind, but at least she will now be less impacted by them, knowing that they occur as a result of a particular state."
While she shows faith in the mental health dialogue being propagated by news and social media at present, encouraging psycho-education among masses, she does not credit entertainment mediums for the same. "I'm sorry to say, but even today entertainment media subscribes to disturbing representations of mental disorders. Some of them are good — Death in the Gunj depicted depression very nicely — but those are very few and far between," she says. The psychologist also condemns the overused 'therapist-or-client-in-love-with-the-other' trope in cinema and television (read: 50/50, Dear Zindagi, The Sopranos, among others), as it tends to be an "irresponsible representation of not only mental illnesses, but also its professionals."
"A lot of people are going to come and ask me as to why I am taking this so seriously as it's merely entertainment. But I will take it seriously because people are seeing things only in that light, when the issue is anyway mired in so many stigmas and misconceptions," says Banerjee.
It's been exactly six years since the day of my diagnosis. Since then, there have been moments of clear blue skies, and of failing to pull myself out of bed, wishing I hadn't woken up. There have been weeks and months of scratching my arms and back until it hurt to touch my body, and also of trying my best to not take people saying 'I'm feeling very OCD' too seriously. But most importantly, it's been 2,190 days of coming to terms with my condition, and not letting it define me.
"You don't become 'malaric' if you get malaria, do you?" asks Banerjee. "Similarly, disorders can't be a part of our identities. So it's important to not over-pathologise by calling someone 'OCD' or 'bipolar' — that's problematic. I've heard people say they're feeling 'hysteric', when all they are is probably melodramatic. It seems like having a condition like OCD is considered 'cool'. But it only trivialises the struggle of the sufferers," she points out.
Over the years, I've turned pro at meticulously skipping the bits where Monica gets jittery over making her surroundings "Monica-clean" while watching Friends reruns. I've also mastered the skill of anticipating a flare-up well in advance. But on my worst days, I seek refuge in a quote from The Bell Jar: “The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther”.
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