So many questions

Anyone who has checked for the eighth time that they have their
passport when setting off on holiday or who has to go through a set
of rigid rituals before taking an exam or playing in an important
football match ought to be able to understand obsessive compulsive
disorder. We all probably have a touch of it. As a child waking in
my boarding school dormitory before everybody else I can remember
going through in my head all the 92 football league teams
alphabetically. If I could do it without making a mistake it would
be a good day.

The problem for Wendy, Sophie and Gerard, in the recent Channel 4
two-part documentary The House of Obsessive Compulsives,
is that their version of this kind of behaviour is all-consuming.
Wendy cannot touch anyone or anything, including her husband and
children, because she has a fear of paint and glitter. Sophie is a
compulsive washer, soaking and soaping her hands perhaps 50 times a
day to get them clean. Gerard, perhaps most bizarrely of all, is
afraid he will confess to crimes he has not committed either
verbally or by writing them down. It means he has to track down all
pens and know exactly where they have been and who has been using
them. But that we can understand this kind of behaviour and
sympathise hugely with the people whose lives are being ruined by
it does not make its treatment any easier to watch.

The idea behind the treatment on which this Channel Four programme
was based is that if you bring together people with this kind of
behaviour in a house with no outside interference, they will help
and support each other.

The thing I find surprising is that it is regarded as radical or,
indeed, novel. Having a defined disability myself (blindness), one
thing I understand is the value of peer support. Its effectiveness
is based on the fact that people can give you tips and confidence
directly from their own experience, not as a professional
patronisingly passing it on as part of their job. It always fuels
that idea, however
well-intentioned the professional help is, that you are odd and
that your behaviour needs to be modified to conform to an
acceptable norm. But when your friend shows you an easier way of
peeling a spud or a safer way to cross a road it feels like an act
of friendship.

When for good reasons the trend towards inclusive rather than
segregated education developed, people quickly discovered that
blind children missed contact with each other and it had to be
built back in the system. When people talk about “disability pride”
that is what they mean, the idea of being at ease with and in
control of your disability which often comes through contact with
others in the same boat.

That’s what was going on in these two programmes. Although the
psychiatrist is driving the treatment, the reassurance and empathy
is coming from the other two people who have been there and are
there still. But as a piece of television it is difficult to watch.
Encountering compulsive behaviour for an hour made me itch to speed
up the process and yet that, of course, is what you cannot do.
Paradoxically, the programme was both too short and too long: too
short to give you all the explanations you need to understand how
it works; too long to watch at a stretch without wanting to make a
cup of tea or run around the block.

I found myself with so many unanswered questions. For instance,
problems that had been going on with these people for decades seem
suddenly to make enormous progress. Were we really expected to
believe that Gerard, who had been chaining himself to the bed so
that he would not sleep walk and inadvertently write confessions,
would make so much progress and appear almost a different person to
his wife within five days? I am not doubting that these things
happen, merely saying that the programme did not say how they

It was, of course, emphasised that this treatment was not a cure;
it was a way of showing people who initially used compulsions to
gain control of their lives how to control those compulsions; they
would never go away completely. And to make that understood is a
valuable function of television. It will be fascinating to know
whether Sophie, Gerard and Wendy stayed the course. It would also
be interesting to know how many viewers stayed the course with
these programmes.

Peter White is the BBC’s disability correspondent

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