I’m Not Obsessed With "Obsessed"

I don’t know how many of you are watching Obsessed* on A&E, but I’ve got some beef with that show. In fact, I’ve got *quite* a bone to pick with the producers of the show. I think it is dangerous and irresponsible and could quite possibly be a lawsuit waiting to happen. For those of you that have not seen the show, it’s very reminiscent of their show Intervention, which deals with people with addiction problems. Obsessed uses pretty much the same format, but with anxiety disorders. The people featured on the show have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), phobias, and severe, debilitating anxiety. The show documents their rituals and anxiety to show how it hinders their ability to function and then shows their progress as they go through 12 weeks of exposure therapy to overcome their anxiety.

Exposure therapy is one of the most successful and effective ways of treating anxiety and phobias. It is similar to systematic desensitization and in vivo exposure. It’s a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. Exposure therapy works by exposing the person to the feared event or anxiety provoking stimulus and forcing them to stay in the moment without doing their “coping” mechanisms or rituals to decrease their anxiety. I guess I’ll take a minute to explain rituals and how the person performing them thinks they reduce their anxiety but they really don’t.
[Say a person with OCD has a fear of germs. The obsession is the repetitive thought they have: "That table is covered in germs that could make me sick and kill me." The compulsion is the act or ritual they perform to stop the obsession: Repeated washing of hands or cleaning every single inch of whatever surface is to be eaten on. However, the compulsion doesn't really stop the obsession. The obsession will return, and the cycle begins all over again. It may momentarily make the person feel better, but they may even wash their hands once and decide they weren't clean enough and have to do it again. These rituals take so much time out of people's days, and no matter how irrational they know they are, they can't stop doing them. There are different kinds of rituals, and you can read more about them here.]
Okay, so in exposure therapy, the person is exposed to the feared event and prevented from doing their ritual. Initially, their anxiety will spike, but the longer they sit with it and realize that nothing bad is happening and what they thought would happen is not occurring, their anxiety will begin to come back down. So if someone is afraid to drive on the freeway and avoids doing it at all costs because they fear a head on collision, the longer they drive on the freeway without a head on collision occurring, the less anxiety they will have over it. But the exposures progress from small to larger and more intense throughout the process.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses (the show says the most common, but have heard that depression is the most common. Either way, they’re really, really common) faced by people, and I think that any awareness and talk about mental illness is great. There is such a stigma surrounding it in the society, and the more we talk about it, the more it normalizes it and allows other people to talk about it and seek help. Okay. So if the therapy they’re using is good and effective and I approve of awareness of exposure to mental illenss, where does my beef with the show lie?
I don’t like the way the show is edited. They spend the entire first half of the show documenting the different rituals that the people perform. They go to their first therapy session. And then they skip ahead to week 6 of therapy. Then week 12. You see no progression and  you don’t see the baby steps that the people take to get to the place that they’re at by week 6 and week 12. Exposure therapy is a series of small, progressively more intense exposures. The series shows someone with this debilitating anxiety, for example, a woman who had an obsessive fear that she was capable of killing someone. She thinks about it all the time and worries that she is capable of committing murder. The next clip you see of her is her firing a gun at a shooting range. And then the next exposure they show is her holding a knife to her therapist’s neck.
What. the. fuck. The editing really worries me. I worry that people are going to see the show and think that exposure therapy is so easy. Your friend is afraid of being dirty? Okay, prevent them from showering for 2 days and cleaning anything in their home, right away, and they’ll be fixed! You can’t do that. The person could have a panic attack and you could really traumatize them. The show makes exposure therapy look so simple and easy and quick and it really isn’t. It’s a hard, arduous, slow process.
Maybe that could be fixed with just doing one person per episode instead of trying to squeeze two people into the one hour show. Then you could show, like, their first exposure to see where the people start and a few of the smaller exposures in between instead of just showing them being completed debilitated and then LOOK! THEY’RE ALMOST *NORMAL*! The show has the potential to be really great and helpful and educational, but they have to be responsible about how they present the therapy they’re promoting. And putting this disclaimer at the beginning of the show really isn’t enough:
A&E Television Networks does not recommend or endorse any treatment method, facility or therapist. We are not responsible for any content, services, products, or materials provided by or associated with the organizations whose web sites are linked here. Anyone considering treatment should do their own research to determine the best treatment method and facility for their family and for the person in need, and seek professional advice, as appropriate.

Sorry, A&E, but you’re gonna have to do better than that. You could have a really great show here, but you really need to think about how the finished product you’re showing is going to look and come across to viewers.

*Better, Sage?
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  1. Nolens Volens
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Ah…I did look at the show briefly but decided it wasn't for me. I have a touch of CDO. It's just like OCD, but in alphabetical order. Yes, that's a joke and yes, my friends who have OCD like that joke. One even goes around saying "I have CDO". LOL

    The point was, I thought the show focused on the extreme end and I wasn't interested. Didn't stick around for the so-called therapy. I would've thought it was irresponsible of A&E too.

    Why don't you send off a letter to A&E?

  2. Kivrin
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I had high hopes for the show, but I'm bothered by it, too. I was hoping the show would focus equally on the realities of both (a) the symptoms these people deal with and (b) the elements of CBT. But that doesn't seem to be the case. I still watch the show, just because I'm an aspiring psychologist with an interest in impulse control disorders…but it definitely isn't living up to my (admittedly high) standards.

  3. AlwaysArousedGirl
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I watch this too and some of the same things have bothered me. The part with the knife gave me cold chills.

    There's a lot of material for the show to cover in an hour. Right now they seem to take more time showing the symptoms than the treatment, which I suppose makes sense. Watching someone shower with a toothbrush (crikey!) is more interesting viewing than watching the same person take a ten-minute shower without freaking out.

  4. Sara
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    The show would be much better if they focused on a small handful of people, and showed their progress throughout the whole series.

  5. Red
    Posted June 28, 2009 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Didja write them a letter yet? Go get 'em! I agree!

  6. The Promo Homo
    Posted July 2, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Can I just say I'm watching it for the first time and I hate being reminded of my really bad episodes of OCD that I've had in my life…

    I still have it mildly on a day to day, but nothing nearly as bad as how I was growing up.

    It's weird as fuck being able to identify with these people… I gotta say…

  7. isolde-roblisNo Gravatar
    Posted August 2, 2010 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Haven’t seen a show (no cable) but..yep, I’m with ya. You can’t go from abject fear–to being fixed in 6 amazing weeks…or even 12-amazing weeks. Frikkin hell, I’m not fixed yet & I’ve been YEARS–thru dr’s & shrinks. Yep, must be all in my head…and my head is ready to take a knife to my shrink next visit & see if THEY saw the show. (not really) but shit? What the hell kind of show is this????

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