When obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) doesn’t manifest as physical compulsions—excessive hand-washing, avoiding cracks in a sidewalk—it can be hard to portray. My guest today has endeavored to make a film that shows some of the anguish of obsessions and mental compulsions. Help me welcome Christopher Macken, director of a short film called For the Safety of Theo. What’s it about, you ask? Well, read on to find out (and to learn more about Christopher)!
You’ve had OCD your whole life, but when did you realize it? What symptoms were you experiencing as a kid that helped you and your parents connect the dots?
I actually wasn’t given the label until I was 28 years old. I know that’s similar to your story, Alison, being diagnosed at 26. I was diagnosed at a time in my life where the compulsions, which once served as survival tactics as a child, started to no longer serve me in my adulthood and I needed help. Putting a name to my compulsive behavior and my distressing thoughts was incredibly freeing.
I look back on my childhood and my OCD was much more physical than it is today. I had more physical tics and rituals that I would perform, but the biggest symptom that followed me into my adult life was reassurance seeking. As a kid, I felt the compulsive need to confess. Whether it was some childhood mischief I had gotten into, or even just simply thought about, I would obsess and panic over it. Relief would only come once I’d confess to my mother or father and get some sort of reassurance that what I did is forgivable and that I am, in fact, still lovable.
Once you knew what you were going through was OCD, how did you go about treating it? What was the plan of action?
I was fortunate enough at the time to have already had a few years in a 12-step program and experience in support groups. So I was able to speak of this diagnosis to kind, supportive fellows and connect with those who could relate or have been through the same thing.
From here, I started reading. The first book I purchased was Brain Lock by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD. This helped me learn the science behind what was actually happening within my brain and introduced me to Four Steps: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, and Revalue.
Next, I found a therapist who specializes in OCD and laid it all out on the table. This has been the most crucial part of my recovery. Having someone who knows how my brain functions and is able to give me reality checks and help me develop tools to let go and move on from obsessions without acting on them.
I still have a long way to go in my recovery.
What has helped you the most over the years? Was there anything that didn’t work well for you?
OCD therapy and 12-step groups have been my saving grace.
Twelve-step has helped me do some major maintenance on my life and allowed me to make the proper changes in my life and behavior to set myself up for success and not land me in stressful situations that tend to trigger my OCD. It’s also helped me develop a wonderful meditation practice and loving relationship with a higher power.
OCD therapy keeps me current in my recovery and my therapist provides great feedback to my daily struggles, suggesting different methods of responding to my intrusive thoughts.
In terms of things not working, I had trouble with some side effects of an SSRI, so I’m still trying to find my relationship with medication. Being someone who is constantly obsessed with their health and mental being, the idea of medication was doomed from the get-go for me. I’m working on letting go of the historical stigma of antidepressants rooted in my upbringing, and I’m open to exploring different medications down the line if my therapist and I feel like it’s a good idea.
You’ve said your fear of germs and hypochondria affected your relationships. Can you say more about that?
In my early adulthood, my OCD really manifested in fear of germs, diseases, or any other potential health issue. This would inevitably affect my sex life, when intimacy would turn into weeks of obsessively checking, WebMDing, self-medicating, and testing over the fear of being exposed to a sexually transmitted disease. Feeling constantly like a contaminated person made it very difficult to have healthy relationships. And when a relationship was attempted, my mind would want to morph my partner into my personal reassurance giver, which only spawned a co-dependency, and so on.
Once I took the time to focus on getting myself better and developing healthy life tools, I was able to commit to the beautiful partnership that I’m in today, full of honest communication and separate outlets to work through our issues that don’t rely on each other to reassure and “fix” things.
As frustrating as it is that OCD is so rarely portrayed accurately on TV and in movies, I understand how hard it can be to show the less understood side of it—the torment caused by intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions, the symptoms other people can’t see. You’ve set out to spread awareness of these symptoms with your short film For the Safety of Theo. Can you tell us more about the film?
For the Safety of Theo is a narrative short film centering around a man in his mid-twenties suffering from OCD, and the rituals he engages in the morning after a one-night stand. Like you said, OCD is terribly portrayed in TV and film, not just because there’s a lack of education on the disorder, but also because I think it’s just plainly difficult to show—unless it’s blatant organizing/cleaning or flipping a light switch three times. With that said, people also don’t often talk about how OCD affects sex and relationships. I thought it was important to pull from my personal experience (obviously exaggerated and fictional for dramatic storytelling) and introduce that concept visually to audiences.
For me, my OCD comes down to control and grasping for a feeling of safety, while dodging the overwhelming pain, which is already a great setup for a character in a dramatic story. Once I started to better my education on OCD, I was really intrigued when I started to notice similarities between people in active addiction and people active in their compulsions, specifically in regard to how it affects the other people in their lives. Although easily hidden from others, within one’s head or behind closed doors, there’s a sort of tunnel vision of panic and urgency when one is acting on a compulsion. In an attempt to ease an obsessive thought, it enables them to be self-centered and barrel through the people in their life. The person directly suffering isn’t the only victim to OCD; it affects family and friends as well. And that’s something I really wanted to show in my film. I guess my inspiration for making it was just a culmination of all these things.
I wrote the script in January, put together a team, and after raising money through Indiegogo, private investors, and maxing out all my credit cards, the film was shot this past May in the Greater Los Angeles area. The film involved some incredible actors and filmmakers: Starring Darragh O’Toole (Peaky Blinders, Foundation), featuring costumes and wardrobe designed by Lizz Wolf (Pacific Rim: Uprising, The Expendables, Jupiter’s Legacy), executive produced by Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and featuring an original score from Erik Groysman (Drunk History, Promising Young Woman).
The film has been completed and we are currently waiting to hear back from film festivals in the next few months! To see where it premieres and the screenings to follow, follow the project at http://www.safetyoftheo.com, http://www.instagram.com/safetyoftheo, or http://www.facebook.com/safetyoftheo.
What do you hope viewers will walk away with?
The film is quite the anxiety ride, instilling a real uneasiness in the viewer through its story, music, and fast-paced editing. If successful in my filmmaking, viewers without OCD and anxiety disorders will live a moment in the head of someone who does. And I think that starts an open dialogue and creates a better understanding and compassion between people. Also, I hope this film contributes to making the subjects of mental health and sex a little less taboo.
If you could share just one piece of advice with someone who has OCD, what would it be?
Try to be patient and compassionate with yourself. Through therapy, ERP, etc., we are rewiring our brains and that takes time and lots of self-care. Remember to be kind to yourself during this process and celebrate the little wins.
Also, in the words of Dr. Michael Greenberg from the OCD Stories podcast, “Rumination is a compulsion.” I remember this blowing my mind when I first heard it. You mean I didn’t have to follow my intrusive thoughts into painful spirals? That was freeing to hear and gave me permission to let my intrusive thoughts be and not attach to them.