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Creativity and OCD Go Bizarrely Hand-in-Hand

The disorder presents a unique set of challenges—and sometimes freedom—for people in the performing arts.

by Michael Stahl
Oct 4 2017, 12:00pm

Biletto Editorial

"My specific issues are not the mainstream," says New York City-based stand-up comic Jon Fisch. "But I have the real-deal, career- and relationship-hindering OCD."

Sitting at a table in the hipster-rustic bagel shop where he and several other comics commiserate daily, Fisch is comfortable discussing the disorder he's confronted most of his adult life. He has obsessed over everything from the perfect backpack to the even tightness of his sneakers, among other seemingly benign behaviors—and a few more meddlesome. However, due in part to pop-culture representations of people who struggle with OCD—characters with tapping ticks and hang-ups about cracks in the sidewalk, for example—Fisch says generating stage material about his condition for an audience is a slog. There'd be too much unpacking of lesser-known facts about OCD for people to really get the joke.

On his new podcast "Spiraling Up" though, Fisch does plenty of talking about OCD, and mental health in general. "You have to do what you're interested in," he says about such a production, "and I'm interested in comedy, relationships, and our psyches."

To ensure his show stood out among the many comedy-centric, interview-format podcasts—such as "WTF," hosted by Marc Maron—Fisch injected a twist. On "Spiraling Up," he has each guest reveal how they go about "handling daily struggles and digging themselves out of life's ruts." The result is a podcast combining the self-help genre with intimate, autobiographical portraits of comics, making for moments that are at times both funny and gut-wrenching.

Though the tone of the cultural discussion about mental health—especially that encircling anxiety and depression—has become more accepting of late, society's understanding of OCD has lagged behind.

"When people hear 'OCD,'" says Jayme Valdez, a Massachusetts-based mental health counselor specializing in OCD, "they often picture someone who is highly organized and a germaphobe and a neat freak, and that's actually a rather small percentage of the cases I see."

Valdez says that OCD can involve anything that pops into a person's head—called an "intrusive thought"—that then becomes an obsession. "The second part of it involves compulsions," Valdez adds, "which are behaviors that a person engages in to try to neutralize or alleviate the anxiety the thoughts cause."

And since humans have a wide range of thoughts and behaviors, OCD can manifest itself in any number of ways—so it is vastly under-diagnosed because many clinicians don't recognize camouflaged OCD symptoms.

Valdez says that facing OCD can be particularly challenging for people in the performing arts, such as stand-up comedy, because with the disorder often comes anxiety, panic attacks, or a sense of social awkwardness and ineptitude. The performer with OCD then will have to work hard to "reconcile their OCD symptoms with their value on creativity and their passion for performance." In other words, they have to push through the OCD to get onstage—the precise place Fisch says his anxiety disappears.

For a time after college, he worked in a psych ward and saw many patients displaying stark behaviors indicative of OCD diagnoses. So for a decade Fisch—convinced he acted not at all like the people he helped treat in the psych ward—faced-off with his OCD and never thought he could be considered one who suffered from it. By his early thirties he was living with a girlfriend who, according to Fisch, "got the brunt of it."


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Fisch was so diligent in controlling his environment that he'd sternly tell her where she could and couldn't place things in their apartment. Later, during one exhaustive search for a new backpack, Fisch says he had purchased up to four different bags at once, and asked his girlfriend to try them on, after packing them and repacking them to vary the weight. "It was funny and awful," Fisch says. His girlfriend suggested he check out a nearby OCD center where he began treatment.

Chad Howat of Nashville, Tennessee, a musician in the alternative rock group Paper Route, has also been diagnosed with OCD and had similar experiences that also date back to his late-teen years—a typical time period for the disorder to develop. "I had an overactive imagination as a kid," Howat says, "and I still do as an adult. While it's benefitted me in a lot of ways—in being an artist and trying to be creative and think outside the box—at the same time it's come with a lot of irrational thoughts and fears that have plagued me."

The more troubling ruminations that would cause him to sometimes lose sleep included worries that the world was coming to an end or that harm would somehow come to him and his family. "When I got to be older I started meeting with doctors, and I thought I was depressed," Howat says, "but the first thing they diagnosed me with was OCD."

Putting a name to what Howat was struggling with was a relief to him. "Then I could start to separate myself from my thoughts," he says. "The same way I have to put glasses on to see 20/20, sometimes I have to recognize that I'm not naturally healthy in a certain area, and then I can figure out how to do something about it."

Howat says he's taken meds, on and off, for the past 18 years, and has seen therapists with "varying degrees of success"—though today he sounds genuinely happy, and he and his wife are expecting their first child this winter. One way he says OCD continues to have an adverse effect on him is by removing him from "the moment," even when he's onstage. "As a performer you need to be more in the present than anything," Howat concedes. "The way [OCD] manifests itself for me is that I'm worrying about some unknown future and what catastrophe can happen. I really regret having toured for over a decade and I don't have a ton of memories."

Fisch has his share of regrets as well. Once, while he was waiting to take the stage for an appearance on the TV show "Last Comic Standing," he badly had to use the bathroom. "I have a very real fear of losing my voice," he says, "so I lubricate by drinking a lot of water." The problem with this was, at the time, Fisch had a compulsive habit of washing his penis off after each time he urinated to avoid staining his underwear with unwitting drivel. "My whole crotch is wet from this," Fisch remembers of that day on set, "and I'm about to filmed."

"In many ways OCD is this frenetic energy that doesn't have the appropriate outlet because the person's risk detector isn't calibrated properly," Valdez says. "They're thinking that something is a much bigger risk than it actually is, and that is an incredibly exhausting experience to live with every day." Fortunately, because he was wearing blue jeans, the dampness in Fisch's pants wasn't noticeable on camera.

After years of cognitive behavioral and exposure therapy though, Fisch says he's in a much better headspace than he's ever been, and his own podcast is helping him even further. During episode one, Joe Zimmerman—who's struggled with depression and anxiety—talked about taking notes on what's going well in his life and referring back to them when he's down. And in the fourth episode, Josh Gondelman, a writer on "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," explained how he makes a habit of turning a negative into a positive. "I'm just fascinated by how his brain works," Fisch says.

One example: Gondelman, a lifelong fan of the New England Patriots, was upset that team owner Robert Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady proclaimed their support for Donald Trump leading up to last year's Super Bowl. So Gondelman decided to begin a fundraiser that saw donations to Planned Parenthood—which Trump had vowed to cut funding for—arrive each time the Patriots scored a touchdown in the game.

With a similar type of awareness that Gondelman worked to achieve, Fisch now better manages situations where his OCD hits hard. However, "there are different levels," he offers. "If I'm walking down the street, I can tell myself to just tie the one sneaker that needs it and not to touch the other one." On occasion though, before a particularly important stand-up set, he might be seen backstage giving in to his OCD, re-tying his shoelaces to get the tightness of his sneakers just right—his crotch, though, is completely dry.

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