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How Hollywood misrepresents a debilitating mental illness

Photo courtesy of Ron Lach | Pexels

Leonard: Uh… that’s my water [points at the wine glass filled with ice water that Sheldon is holding]

Sheldon: [nervously] What? 

Leonard: [nonchalantly] That’s my water, you’re drinking it.

Sheldon: [quickly putting down the glass of water] Dear Lord! Have you been drinking it?

Leonard: [a bit annoyed] Yes, it’s my water.

Sheldon: [passively and conclusively] Well that’s it then. 

[Beat]

I’m dead!

[Laugh track] 

If you haven’t already guessed, this is a scene from the hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory.” Sheldon goes on to explain how the germs on the glass of Leonard’s water are going to kill him. He explains it in such a straight-forward, matter-of-fact way, despite being upset that he drank out of the perceived poison that is Leonard’s water. The scene is full of laugh tracks and a bunch of weirded-out stares from Sheldon’s friends. The scene ends, and the audience is left thinking “Oh, that crazy old Sheldon and his OCD antics! Look how funny and paranoid he is!”

If only it were that simple.

People would still be alive if it were that simple. 

My name is Chris Veninga. I’m a sophomore psychology student at Drake. I love sports, movies, theater, writing, fishing, hanging out with friends, playing mediocre guitar, singing and shooting short films. I also happen to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. 

I’m writing this article because I’m tired of people all around the world using this disorder as a punchline. When most people hear the term OCD, they think of those who really like to be organized and germ-free and those who are highly focused on cleanliness.

The fact of the matter is, they don’t like it at all. If untreated, they are suffering endlessly.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a deeply debilitating, and to quote a member of the Drake Psychology Department staff, “torturous” disorder. Obsessions are troubling and near-ceaseless thoughts that are incredibly hard for the person with OCD to shake. These thoughts are often highly irrational, but in the mind of an OCD sufferer, they are very real even though they may recognize them as irrational. Compulsions are rituals that, in the mind of an OCD sufferer, help make these thoughts temporarily go away.

In the case of this vignette from “The Big Bang Theory,” Sheldon is worried that he is going to die because he drank from the supposedly “tainted” glass of water. This is an example of an obsession. He then rushes from the scene to “sterilize [his] mouth with alcohol.” This is a compulsion. Sheldon does something to get rid of the obsessive thoughts that convince him he is contaminated with a deadly germ. 

I personally wouldn’t have a huge problem with this scene if it weren’t for two issues: 1) Sheldon not representing, truly, how deeply disturbing an event like this could be to an OCD sufferer, and 2) the constant laugh tracks. 

Here’s how the scene (possibly) could have worked out in the mind of an actual OCD sufferer with a contamination obsession:

The sufferer ruminates for hours and days on end, avoiding germs at all costs, being deeply anxious, and convinced of the irrational fear that if they touch anything remotely dirty, they themselves are going to die or will kill someone. They go to the restaurant and touch their friend’s glass. They realize how “contaminated” the glass is. They either externally or internally freak out. They rush home to wash their hands and clean surfaces for hours, and with every push of the soap dispenser they think “I think I missed a spot.” All the while, they are constantly tortured by the thoughts that they are, in fact, going to kill themselves with the germ. By completing the compulsion, they may feel brief relief before something comes up again, now even stronger than the last time because the fear was reinforced. 

Sounds fun, right? Like it should be followed by a laugh track?

“The Laugh Track Problem” as I’ll call it, is one of the main reasons why OCD is so downplayed. Sufferers are seen as irrational and as if they can just “switch it off” whenever they want. Because it’s seen as so quirky and as a punchline, people will casually say things like “I’m so OCD. I have to have my bookshelf alphabetized.” And the thing is, “The Big Bang Theory” isn’t the only show not truly representing what OCD is. Beloved TV shows and movies of mine that misconstrue OCD include “Sherlock,” “The Boys,” and “Split.” These forms of media may get it partially right, but they do OCD sufferers a disservice by not portraying the full story. 

You wouldn’t say “I’m so cancer,” would you? 

And breaking news, OCD isn’t just about being neat or a “germaphobe,” though that is a very common theme that troubles many OCD sufferers. 

Take one look at my desk and my roommate’s desk. His desk is highly organized. Mine is a pigsty. The unknowing person might mistakenly guess he has OCD, but he does not.

The range of worries for a person diagnosed with OCD varies greatly.  Some people worry they are murderers; a serial killer waiting to happen. Some people can’t be left alone because they are obsessing over the idea that a burglar will march into their home and smother them in their sleep (hence another OCD theme, checking locks over and over). Some people worry they might have been poisoned and obsess over the “possibility” that they will drop dead on the spot. Thus, they might avoid food. The OCD themes are endless and don’t stop at cleaning and organization. It all depends on the person. 

OCDuk.org states that the World Health Organization has “labeled OCD in the top ten most disabling disorders of any kind.” And yet, here we are, watching a man with OCD walk off the screen with laugh tracks following him. 

If I (and frankly, my immediate family) had known what OCD actually was, I could have been diagnosed much sooner and my life could have been much easier mental-health-wise. For years, I had no idea what was going on. My thoughts raced every single day. Compulsions occurred almost daily, interrupting sleep. All the while I didn’t even suspect OCD. And do you know why? 

Because society mischaracterizes it as “just the quirky cleaning disorder.” 

For OCD sufferers, there is hope. Exposure response prevention, a technique of cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to be extremely effective in treating OCD. Essentially, a person with the disorder purposely puts themself in stressful situations while not acting on any compulsions. This shows the sufferer that there is nothing really to worry about, and as they go through these experiences they build up a tolerance to what they used to fear. I’ve seen this happen in my own OCD journey, and though ERP is horrible to go through in the moment, it certainly pays off. And some shows, such as the popular sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” do represent OCD correctly. 

I’m not trying to shame people for talking about OCD this way. I honestly think people who don’t get educated about it are predisposed to believing that this disorder is nothing but a punchline. I just want the stigma and false pretense around this diagnosis to be erased. Because if it isn’t, so many more people are going to suffer in silence, feel ashamed and/or not know what’s going on. 

If you still aren’t convinced OCD should be taken seriously, please check out the subreddit r/ocd. It is a humbling look into the lives of OCD sufferers. Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @chrisveninga or email me at chris.veninga@drake.edu if you have any questions. I would love to talk. And, join me in remembering the words of one of my best friends from high school, who upon learning of my diagnosis was quick to remind me, “It doesn’t define you, man.”  Take care of yourselves, everyone.

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2 Comments

  1. Jackie Finnegan October 13, 2021

    Wow! What an amazing and straightforward piece! Thank you, Chris for shining a light and helping me understand how much my mom must have suffered.

  2. Kendall Winship October 14, 2021

    Chris, thank you so much for this. I think it’s so important to raise awareness for how mental illness is portrayed in show/movies/media versus the gravity of it in real life and just how debilitating it can be. More often than not, scripted portrayals make light of something that truly isn’t a joke.

    Pointing out that OCD and mental illnesses appear in different ways is crucial to remember, and when people make light of something, joking that they have this mental illness (when it may be a habit or a preference) it is not considerate.

    Thank you for sharing this & putting your heart into this article. Your hard work shines through. Great job!

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