I deliberately wasn’t going to write a blog post about Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners – a television series on Channel 4 in the UK, because I don’t believe in feeding the troll – giving the oxygen of publicity to something or someone causing harm.
After discussing the show with fellow OCD sufferers and some of the viewers of the show, I have reluctantly changed my mind. I wish it wasn’t necessary to write this blog post.
The basic premise of the show is getting people who are obsessed with cleaning or very motivated to clean, to do cleaning challenges. Mostly the challenge is to tidy, then clean the revoltingly dirty house of someone with severe hoarding problems. They do other, smaller, highly orchestrated challenges too.
The implication of the name of the show is that the cleaners all suffer from contamination focussed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Some of the cleaning participants have indeed been clinically diagnosed with OCD.
Some of the participants are just highly motivated people who love to clean. Some are people who run cleaning or cleaning-product businesses. I’ve derived this information by both enduring watching the show sometimes (with great difficulty and anxiety) and also seeing participants interacting on Twitter. They are generally nice, genuine people, but most are on the show for some form of material self advancement. I have no objection to people earning a living, but not if it’s stigmatising and harming others in the process.
The implied mental health diagnoses of the hoarding problem participants isn’t so clear, but unlike possibly some of the cleaning participants, some of the hoarders may be suffering from OCD – hoarding can be an OCD driven compulsion. I myself hoard, but not to the same extreme extent as the programme’s participants. But whatever the cause, nobody with a healthy mind hoards and builds up filth in the way that the show’s participants do.
The show’s creators and supporters rightly argue that everyone who takes part in the show has done so voluntarily. Yes, some of the participants are clearly severely mentally ill, but even we, mentally ill people are capable of rational thought and making decisions about what we do or don’t do. I accept that.
So that’s OK then? No different to X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent?
No. X-Factor audition-shows do sometimes cruelly feature excruciating footage of people who are not 100% mentally healthy, are devoid of talent, yet are still giving it their all. But neither of those two talent shows sets out to recruit mentally ill participants specifically because of their particular mental illness. That is the crucial distinction.
People aren’t recruited to appear on Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners on the basis that they have an amazing talent for competitive cleaning. The show would have been called The Great British Cleanoff if it was a cleaning talent competition.
Because of the show’s name, the implication is that participants are compelled to clean up other people’s filth because OCD makes them do it. This is a complete fallacy. None of those people are there because OCD is making them rid the world of contamination, one filthy house at a time, like some anxiety riddled superhero. They are there for the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised them.
Or they are there to promote their cleaning business. Or in the case of the hoarders, they are there to get some other fool to shovel dogshit off their living room carpet.
I sincerely pray to God, yes really, that none of the participants are on the show believing that taking part will benefit their mental health more than seeking specialist professional medical treatment. The mere possibility of that appalls and horrifies me. I have heard anecdotally that one participant claims that the show has benefitted them, but I have no evidence either way about this claim, so cannot comment upon it.
I am someone who has suffered from severe OCD all my life. In adulthood this has been primarily, but not exclusively, contamination focussed OCD. I can say hand on heart that the immediate reaction by anyone who has contamination focussed OCD to setting foot in a filthy shit-laden house would be to run screaming from it, burn their clothes and shoes and then bleach and scrub their entire body. I have done exactly this on numerous occasions when accidentally exposed to a serious contamination source.
So the people on the show are bravely facing their fears?
Up to a point, perhaps yes, but then they throw bucketloads of bleach at the problem to make the threat of contamination go away, thus negating the initial exposure experience. This is known as carrying out a compulsion. The “C” bit of OCD.
Disordered obsessive-compulsive thinking about contamination happens like this:
“Arghhh! That object or place has become contaminated. I can see dirt, I can smell a bad smell or I can feel something on the surface which doesn’t feel right. IT IS CONTAMINATED! ITISCONTAMINATED… ITISCONTAMINATED… ITISCONTAMINATED… I’m certain it now contains bacteria or diseases which will kill me, my family or other people if I don’t destroy the contamination. It will be my fault and my responsibility if someone dies. I must destroy this contamination now!”
This may sound far fetched or exaggerated, but this is absolutely textbook, typical OCD contamination thinking. I thought like this for decades. These thoughts won’t go away. If the person sits and does nothing for three days, at the end of three days their mind is still overwhelmingly screaming at them that they must destroy the contamination to avoid catastrophe.
OCD tells them that the only way to quell the thoughts and the resultant huge surge of anxiety is to destroy the contamination. No contamination, no thoughts. So they carry out the compulsion. They clean, scrub, bleach, burn. Whatever it takes to destroy the contamination.
Phew! What a relief! Hey presto! Problem solved. Let’s stand back proudly, admire the pristine cleanliness, then enjoy a well earned cuppa.
Emmmmm, no. The relief gained by carrying out the compulsion is all too brief. The OCD is already whispering toxicly into the person’s mind that maybe they missed a bit, maybe the bleach didn’t spread everywhere, maybe the contaminated cleaning cloth touched something else, which is now contaminated too, maybe the person is kidding themselves that they did the job properly, maybe they cut corners lazily, maybe, maybe, maybe… What if… what if… WHAT IF???!!!!!
So the person cleans, scrubs, bleaches, burns again. Job done this time. Isn’t it great? Let’s have a cuppa.
Nope. The OCD is whispering again.
And so the exhausting, destructive, maddening cycle of obsession-anxiety-compulsion-relief-doubt-obsession-anxiety-compulsion-relief-doubt… goes round and round forever. Imagine this, every waking second of every single day. That is the constant reality of an OCD sufferer.
So cleaning something is a compulsion? A bad thing? How can cleaning up some utter shithole be a bad thing?
Firstly, it is reinforcing dysfunctional core beliefs that 100% deadly contamination exists everywhere, that it must be destroyed and it is the person’s responsibility if somebody dies because they haven’t done it properly.
Secondly it is the compulsion stage in the toxic cycle. What inevitably follows the compulsion is doubt. There is never surety of a job well done, no matter how well it was done. There is no satisfaction. No self praise. Only doubt, anxiety, guilt and fear. Carrying out the compulsion makes the OCD stronger, worse, more powerful, more credible. OCD is the bully who pretends to be your friend and protector.
Thirdly, cleaning up a hoarder’s house doesn’t miraculously cure them of the mental health problems which are causing them to hoard. Without appropriate professional medical treatment, within weeks their house will be stacked high once more with detritus, filth and dogshit.
For a person with contamination focussed OCD to benefit from being in the filthy house, they would need to sit on the infested sofa, shoes resting amongst the dogshit on the carpet, for a prolonged period of time, whilst not cleaning. Yes. Not cleaning. They would need to observe their anxiety level spike off the scale, then watch the anxiety curve very slowly subside. They’d next need to get up calmly and leave, then not wash or bleach their hands, not shower, not wash or burn their clothes and shoes. They’d then need to wait, maybe up to a week, to see if the OCD was telling the truth, that the contamination would definitely kill them and all those around them. They’d finally have to consciously acknowledge that the OCD had lied to them because they were still alive and well, despite having carried out no compulsions.
This is a well established therapeutic technique called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), which forms part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the standard, largely successful therapy technique for overcoming OCD. The show doesn’t do this, it instead encourages harmful compulsions. But hey, we can’t have a cleaning show without cleaning.
So cleaning makes contamination focussed OCD worse and doesn’t help the hoarders either? What’s the point of the TV show then?
Entertainment. Pure and simple. Like a modern Molière play. It is the latest in the Minorities As Entertainment genre which Channel 4 and Channel 5 have sadly made their own in recent years. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Benefits Street, Immigration Street, Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners. “Let’s deride Pikeys, Dolescum, Foreigns and Handwashing Nutters.” Cynical, shot-to-a-script, ignorant prejudice reinforcing, exploitation television.
There is no empathy in the scripting, visual treatment, filming, editing, storytelling, background music or narration. Just sneery, formulaic, predictable, everyone’s in on the joke but the participants, cynicism.
Channel 4 is consistently shameless in its flippant, mocking approach to promoting the programme.
It’s ghoulish voyeurism, nothing more. Like stopping at a car crash to watch people bleed. If P.T. Barnum was alive today, he wouldn’t be running a circus freakshow, he’d have a TV production company making cheap, generic, voyeuristic exploitation documentaries for Channels 4 and 5.
But no real harm done though, eh? Apart from maybe to some of the participants? Just a bit of a giggle at the participants’ expense.
The show both trivialises and misrepresents the reality of suffering from OCD. It’s not something which can be made happy ever after at the end of a one hour TV show. It’s also mostly not about cleaning.
Not about cleaning?! But OCD’s that handwashing cleanfreak thing. Everybody knows that!
No, it’s mostly not. OCD obsessions can have many focusses: fear of harming others, fear of being harmed by others, religious obsessions, moral obsessions, fear of causing offence to others, fear of accidental fire, flooding, electrocution, fear of causing road accidents, fear of public humiliation, fear of failure, fear of chemical contamination, fears of sexually unacceptable thoughts & behaviour, rumination, hoarding. All equally life-destroying, all equally OCD. So mostly not “that handwashing cleanfreak thing”.
Imagine having obsessive fears that you are going to stab your entire family and thinking that OCD was just about people who love to clean. What sort of monster would you imagine yourself to be? A latent psychopath? When really it is an irrational fear, created by OCD because you love your family and would never actually hurt them in any way. OCD takes the best of us and turns it against us, making us doubt our very identity.
But surely I’m just some random online nutter with a bee in my bonnet, ranting about a TV programme I simply don’t like?
Nutter. A bee in my bonnet. Very funny. OCD is a whole bloody beehive. Hell, I’m thinking of going into business selling honey. It is an important issue to me, yes – suffering from a life destroying anxiety disorder which people think is entertaining, quirky or funny isn’t a barrel of laughs, putting it very mildly.
I am passionate, though surprisingly not obsessed, about reducing the stigma suffered by all of us with OCD. I want to help more people seek appropriate medical help sooner, not suffer in isolated shame for decades as I and many others have done.
And I’m not a lone, random oddball in my objections to the programme.
OCD-UK and OCD Action, the two national charities for OCD sufferers, have raised written objections to the programme and refuse to co-operate with its production. Professor Paul Salkovskis, a world renowned expert in OCD and its treatment, has raised his own objections to the stigmatising, trivialising and misrepresentative nature of the programme.
Increasingly, more and more diagnosed OCD sufferers are making their objections online to the show. A look at the #occleaners hashtag on Twitter shows this clearly. Even viewers of the programme are beginning to question the cruel basic premise of the programme. The days of Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners as a series are numbered. It has overstayed its welcome. It’s an obscenity which should never have been commissioned in the first place.
So what can the TV production company Betty, who make OCC, create for Channel 4 as a replacement?
Morbidly obese people being fed doughnuts until they cry in despair?
Injecting type one diabetics with massive amounts of insulin and watching them become dangerously hypoglycaemic?
Tipping people out of their wheelchairs to watch them struggle to get back in the chair?
Katie Hopkins on a jetski toppling refugee boats into the Mediterranean?
The crass, tasteless possibilities are endless. And OFCOM don’t seem too worried about cruelty or stigma as entertainment. Thank goodness there are none of those tiresome ethics that Channel 4 used to have to get in the way of a good laugh. If you can’t mock the afflicted, who can you mock?
EDIT: 13/09/15. I have sent a link to this blog post to OCC’s production company and Channel 4. I honestly expect no response from them.
If in the unlikely event that they do respond, I’m fully expecting the usual flannel about it being a brave, boundary pushing, carefully supervised, social experiment to raise awareness of mental health issues, with expert mental health consultants on location at all times, assuring the wellbeing of all participants.
Nobody’s buying that spurious waffle. The finished product unambiguously shows the cynical intent of the show. It’s car crash TV, poking fun at serious mental illnesses. Nothing more. END EDIT.
If you are in the UK and believe you are suffering from OCD, the best thing you can do is see your GP or refer yourself directly to specialist NHS mental health services, if available. Below is a link to advice on what to say to your doctor:
Good luck. You are not alone. We are not freaks. We are ordinary people. There is hope.