Making the Anxiety film

By Dave Nath, Series Director

There's a scene in the movie As Good as It Gets when the irascible Melvin Udall, played by the "irascible" Jack Nicholson, spots his little dog Verdell meticulously jumping over every crack in the pavement, mimicking the way Melvin does it.

As he puts on his protective plastic gloves, Melvin remarks: "Don't be like me. Don't you be like me. You just stay the way you are…."

Melvinis a middle aged man with chronic OCD. It's a moment that encapsulates how the illness is generally depicted: bizarre, quirky, odd, funny.

More and more, particularly for those who pay a little too much attention to domestic cleanliness; it seems OCD has been adopted as a badge of honour: "I'm a little bit OCD."

But OCD really isn't like that. It's disturbing and debilitating. When you meet someone with extreme OCD it can often feel like they are delusional, suffering from some form of psychosis. It stops being funny, quite quickly.

A year ago SLaM granted C4 access to its Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit based at Bethlem Royal Hospital.

Patients here are admitted to a 12-week cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course which focuses on encouraging them to confront their fears head on. To qualify for a place you need to show you have a history of failed treatment elsewhere. Consequently, those who come to the unit are among the most anxious people in the country, the top 1%.

It was in the early stages of our research that we first met the effusive head of the unit Simon Darnley. Simon is a fanatical Chelsea supporter, accomplished magician and a whizz on the ukele. He's also an expert on anxiety disorders,

Spending time with him, it soon became clear that the key to understanding OCD is to get to grips with the underlying fear that drives the obsessive behaviour - often it's a phenomena known as intrusive thoughts.

We all have intrusive thoughts - random, involuntary but often disturbing thoughts - though we don't all admit it. A common one is the fleeting thought about pushing a stranger off the edge of a train station platform. Most of us are able to forget about them and move on without attaching any meaning to them; for some, it's not that easy. They will attach great importance to the thought and worry about it: "Am I a potential murderer?"

Simon explained that if we were to get beyond the characteristically superficial portrayal of OCD then it was critical to explore intrusive thoughts with some of the patients in our film.

It's easier said than done. By their very nature, these unwanted thoughts tend to be taboo or the things that we fear or loathe most. They are dark and disturbing. Those who suffer with them often tend to keep it a secret, worried what others will think of them if they open up.

Despite that, we managed to find people who were brave enough to talk about it. It placed an incredible onus on us as film makers to treat their honesty with great responsibility. There were those who suffered with intrusive thoughts that they might have abducted and killed strangers while others told us about their irrational fears of becoming paedophiles.

Simon Darnley had explained that this latter phenomenon is increasingly common. It seems that the obsessions and fears we have as individuals often mirror the neuroses which are prevalent in society. Post-Jimmy Savile there's been nothing short of a witch hunt in the media to route out paedophiles. Every day it’s another celebrity, another arrest.

Simon revealed that back in the 1980s he saw many people who had irrational fears that they might have contracted HIV.

Our film also explored the impact that this illness has on patients' wider families. They've watched OCD rip apart relationships and turn people into virtual recluses - one woman we filmed with hadn't left the house or been to work in two years.

We hope the film we've made mines deeper into the complicated world of OCD than those that have gone before. In doing so, maybe it will go some way towards demystifying a world that is more than Melvin Udall and his dog Verdall eccentrically skipping over the cracks on the sidewalk.

 

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