I wish I could solve any crime with my OCD!
by Meredith McLaughlin
Staff Emotional Support
When I was in middle school, my family’s favorite show to watch was Monk. A crime procedural show about a detective with OCD, Monk always delivered a gripping mystery mixed perfectly with humor (often at the expense of Adrian Monk, the detective.) I still love this show, and for years after those cowards at Netflix removed it from their service, I’d scour the internet to be able to re-watch it. But since the end of high school my feelings on the show have definitely matured, especially in regards to how the show portrays OCD.
Oftentimes when people think of OCD, they think of obsessive cleaning, a preoccupation with symmetry and order, and intensely pedantic. Fun fact for the readers: there are actually many forms of OCD. Monk chose to portray the more mainstream understanding of the illness: Monk wipes his hands after shaking hands with others, spends a large amount of time doing things like organizing magazines in alphabetical order, and interrupts others to correct their grammar. He also has an extensive list of things he fears, such as milk, heights, and frogs. Monk embodies other aspects of OCD; a common trait of his is feeling the need to touch poles, radio antennas, and fences. I think overall the show portrays the symptoms of OCD accurately, but focuses little on the debilitating anxiousness that truly defines the illness. There are times when they do a good job of showing the intense stress and anxiety Monk feels when his OCD is triggered, and one that sticks in my mind is an episode where he has to present for his assistant’s daughter’s career day. The students figure out quickly he experiences a lot of discomfort when a laser pointer is on him, so they use a ton of laser pointers and point them on him. Monk is so stressed and uncomfortable he begins to take his jacket off to try and remove the laser points from his body. However while the portrayal of OCD is more or less accurate, many people with OCD have issues with his mental illness being used mostly for laughs.
Because a lot of the humor is based on OCD, many times the show seems to not take Monk’s discomfort and fears seriously. The laser pointer scene mentioned above was not a scary and intense event, as Monk clearly sees it, but one in which the audience is supposed to be like, “Haha this wacky guy! They’re just laser pointers!” Those around Monk, like Captain Stottlemeyer and Lt. Disher, treat him as incredibly helpful but also eccentric or challenging, while his two assistants, Sharona and Natalie, try to logic away Monk’s obsessions, getting frustrated when he refuses to “just touch the door knob.” Humor about mental illnesses can be really good, and the show is funny most of the time. But it could have worked harder to have more scenes showing the internal struggle Monk felt whenever he poured decaf coffee into the regular coffee pot to make them both even.
A far more egregious crime that Monk commits is in its portrayal of therapy. Monk goes to Dr. Kroger, a kind and intelligent man who is giving Monk the wrong treatment for his OCD. Full disclosure: I have OCD. It was really bad in high school, but fortunately in college I started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has been extremely helpful in managing my mental health. I went from obsessively avoiding triggers and repeating phrases in my mind to being able to sit with my discomfort. Monk spends eight seasons in talk therapy, where Dr. Kroger asks him, “How did this case make you feel?” Dr. Kroger, I am begging you to expose Monk to his fears and teach him coping skills. I know the reason they put Monk in talk therapy was to give a good framing device to the theme and mystery of the episode. But, like, there’s a reason Monk doesn’t improve until the later seasons when he starts pushing himself to sit with his anxiety and stop safety behaviors! The humor about OCD would work a lot better if the people around Monk actually helped him through his illness, rather than being annoyed with him until he’s useful in a crime scene.