Imagine you are so afraid of germs that you wash your hands over 30 times a day and you live in a home that is starkly decorated and still requires constant cleaning. Or you're unable to drive on the freeway due to constant recollections about your father's horrific death in an auto accident. In the premiere episode of A&E's compelling new reality series "Obsessed," we meet Scott and Helen, who are both aware that their fears are running their lives and have no idea how to live a normal life. In each episode of "Obsessed," therapists will work with patients like Scott and Helen by making them literally confront their fears head-on in this intense new series. Executive Producer Troy Searer talked to our Jim Halterman about the series, the amazing cases they found and how taking a purist approach with filming made for some natural, edge-of-your-seat television.
Jim Halterman: The first episode of "Obsessed" shows just how easy it is to get emotionally wrapped up in these stories.
Troy Searer: I gotta tell you. We're so proud of this series. It's so rare when you can do something with a television program that I think has an effect on people.
JH: While we get to see Scott and Helen go through their respective journeys, are there cases where the people don't really get any better after therapy?
TS: As in any therapy, there are measures of success and we've had at least 80-some percent success rate with the cases we have had on the show but there is a varied success which I think is just life. What we're doing with "Obsessed" is documenting their everyday life and their rituals that they would be going through if our cameras weren't around. And, as you can imagine, some individuals don't want to work as hard at it as others do. Some are really dedicated to the process and I think, more than anything, those are the ones who tend to have the bigger success rates. The one thing that is inherent to each of the stories is that they are incredibly compelling. To show these people so debilitated when you see them at the beginning of the show and then months later after going through this cognitive behavioral therapy process, the strides that they make are really phenomenal. But, like anything, it depends on the work that they put in and some are frustrating stories and they're compelling in their frustration and others worked with incredible diligence and were really remarkable success stories.
JH: Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the only method used to help cure these types of extreme OCD cases?
TS: Primarily and I'm certainly not a doctor and shouldn't speak to this specifically but it is the primary mode of help here. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is really based on putting the patient face to face with their fears and bringing their anxiety down. Many of our doctors and therapists work on a 1-10 scale where they'll be continually asking the patient on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, 'What is your anxiety level right now?' For example, let's say you have a fear of doorknobs. It's really simplistic but let's break it down. They would get you to a place where you would get close to a doorknob and ultimately you would hold on to that doorknob and your anxiety level would shoot through the roof with the idea being that the body cannot maintain that level of anxiety for that long. So if you hold onto that doorknob until your body naturally lets that anxiety level come down then you're going to realize that you'll find yourself at an 8 or a 7 or a 6 and you're still holding onto the doorknob and you're just fine.
JH: One thing that was evident with both Helen and Scott is that they were fully aware of their behavior and they wanted to get better. Is that consistent with the other cases?
TS: There are some that don't. As you can imagine, to come to a process like this you have to inherently have some realization that there is a problem there but I think what some people don't realize is the amount of work that it takes to overcome something this strong and this debilitating and it takes an awful lot of work. We have fantastic therapists who, I think, have cut an educated road for these folks to go down but it just becomes a question of their dedication to the process. I think in regards to the success rate, those who worked the hardest at this come out the other side in much better than where they started.
JH: Did you realize you'd get such intense moments from these people?
TS: We certainly hoped so. We really tried to take a purist documentary approach to it because of the characters and because, more importantly, the subject matter. There are times, for entertainment value, you'll do things with music and editing that will try to enhance a moment and this is one of the moments where this series is indicative of this philosophy that there was nothing that had to be manipulated. These characters and stories are so naturally compelling and the process is so fascinating that it was really our job to put a mirror on it and document it.
JH: With Scott, his therapy to overcome his fear of germs took four months. How often were the cameras with them?
TS: Quite a bit of it but, as you can imagine, it's spread out over a couple of months. The practicality of being able to shoot all that time is limited but we did work with him pretty consistently through those four months or so and all the patients have been very kind in turning their personal cameras on themselves when we haven't been there and they understand that the process needs to be documented. With the home video cameras, some of that footage is just so fascinating to watch that it takes on a different aesthetic in the show which I think heightens the interest.
JH: What are some of the other stories that are part of the first season?
TS: There's one in the second episode that is especially compelling. There's a patient with what they simply refer to as 'OCD Bad Thoughts' and she is a person who feels like when she's, let's say, in a deli and sees someone cutting a sandwich with a knife, she imagines she can take that knife and kill people in the deli. She's driving and she feels like when she sees pedestrians that she could just take her car and run over those people. Apparently, according to our therapist, these are the last people that would cause anyone any harm but they ultimately become so isolated. The exposure in the second episode with the therapist, the patient and knives is like nothing that I've ever been a part of and it's very rare to see something like this on TV but it's really fascinating.
JH: We all have our little habits and idiosyncrasies but when does it become labeled as OCD?
TS: You would need a far more clinical mind than mine but it's so seemingly based on the repetitiveness of it. It's interesting because when we looked at [the cases] and we looked at which stories we were going to use for the series, it was important that the audience have some sort of connection. We didn't want the patient and the characters to be so far removed from plausibility and something that the audience couldn't latch onto because it's really a problem that effects so many people. You might think that's the guy next door to me or the woman down the hall or my friend or I have something like that but it's in that relatability that, in turn, people are far more understanding that this isn't wiring and it can be correcting. It can be caused by a traumatic incident and it really could happen to any of us and I think that's the fascinating and scary thing about this.
"Obsessed" premieres Monday at 10:00/9:00c on A&E.