As often as I’ve lamented the lack of accurate media representation of the other aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—taboo intrusive thoughts, mental compulsions, less quirkiness and more torment—I’ve also understood it’s hard to capture on film. Today’s guest, Peter Cannon, has managed to do just that in Exposure, his new movie that’s about OCD but not just about OCD.
Let’s hear from Peter on why he made the film and what he hopes viewers will get out of it. Thank you, Peter!
You’ve written and directed a film about OCD called Exposure. Can you tell us about Exposure and what inspired you to create it?
Exposure is mainly the result of having OCD for over a decade.
So, after seeing that opportunity, I wrote a script and surrounded myself with a team of filmmakers more skilled than I am. A couple years later, we had a movie.
One thing that really helped is the fact that people with OCD struggle with concepts that are universal when stripped down. Anyone can understand fear, and anyone can understand facing fear is harder than avoiding it. You might notice that we avoid loading up the viewer with all the terminology that we learn with ERP, CBT, and so on—and try to stick to just showing them. That’s on purpose.
Exposure’s protagonist is terrified someone is going to poison him. We see him panicking over a drop of blood, begging a frustrated doctor to help him, avoiding certain foods—he will do seemingly anything to avoid what he considers his fate. And it gets pretty creepy! How did you decide on a psychological thriller to show how OCD invades every part of our lives?
I’m sure you’ve noticed over the decades that OCD has taken on this media identity of being a fun quirk. I’ve even had people suggest it’s helpful in some situations, which is. . .wild to me.
I’m no doctor, but I wanted to show the experience in the way that I do, which is relentless. Terrifying. An assault on the brain. I figured there had to be a couple other people out there that wanted to see an OCD movie like that. So we landed on “psychological thriller” as our genre, and we went from there.
The cast, crew, and I had to walk a bit of a tightrope in making this. We wanted to show the OCD experience from a few different angles, but it’s always been a movie first. Early drafts of the script dug so deep that my (now) wife told me, “This isn’t a movie, this is an essay.” The reality is, when you want to introduce a concept unfamiliar to larger audiences, serving it up in the form of a story just makes it more palatable, and (gasp) enjoyable. The last thing we wanted was for someone to feel like they just attended a lecture.
I did have a therapist look over the representation and give a secondary “thumbs-up” before we made the film, but our job as filmmakers was to introduce and represent this idea via a work of fiction. Actual education and therapy rests in the hands of the professionals.
Let’s talk about the title of the movie, Exposure, and one of the lines from the movie, “Discomfort’s the point.” Imagine my readers don’t know how OCD is treated and explain what this is all about.
I’ll preface this by saying I’m not a therapist, I’m just a filmmaker with OCD. I’ve been saying that a lot these days!
Exposure (or the better term for it, exposure response prevention therapy) is the best tool that exists right now in overcoming obsessions. It’s a practice where the OCD sufferer is placed in some kind of proximity with whatever content spikes their anxiety while resisting a compulsion. If OCD is a cycle, ERP is designed to break that cycle.
To use that contamination obsession example everyone knows about—it could be that someone places their hand on a common doorknob, allowing their anxieties around contamination to be activated. They’d then have to sit with that anxiety, letting the feelings rise, and eventually fall, without giving in to the obsessive urge to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. That’s essentially a practice of “exposure.”
An old therapist used to tell me that it’s actually quite difficult for the human body to feel anxious about something for long periods of time if you just let it sit. Ironically, what actually feeds the obsession is allowing yourself to avoid that discomfort with a compulsion. So if you can face down the anxiety spikes without running to comfort yourself immediately after, you’ll be stronger for it.
So in that sense, “the discomfort’s the point.” If you see the movie, you’ll see the character take this idea on in more ways than one.
One thing that causes problems for our protagonist is that he thinks ERP is a cure, and that “the more intense he goes, the better he’ll feel.” I’ve felt that way too—I was so full of hope that exposure was my ticket out of OCD forever, and it’s just not that simple.
The tension starts to rack up when he puts himself in more extreme situations, against the advice of the unlicensed therapy group he’d been attending. Our character struggles with learning that exposure is simply a tool to help manage a lifelong condition, and that acceptance is a key part to real mental peace. All of us, including people without OCD, need to accept that our worst fears have some non-zero chance of happening, and that it’s no reason to stop living.
Those of us with OCD can become so focused on how OCD affects us that we sometimes forget the impact it can have on our loved ones. Exposure captures so well how seeking reassurance, avoiding triggering situations, and taking drastic measures to feel safe takes a toll on our relationships. Why was it important to you to show that side of it as well?
None of us live in a vacuum, and many of us have people in our lives that are privy to our struggles with obsession. Some loved ones, partners, spouses, or parents can feel like they’re getting a constant play-by-play of the thought patterns themselves—which makes them the first line of defense for comfort from the mental onslaught. And because the nature of some obsessions are pretty out-there, the list of people to which we feel comfortable telling all this is pretty small.
This isn’t a bad thing by itself, we obviously need people to lean on as we make it through life. However, there are some corrosive side effects to burying yourself into the care of another to avoid each and every anxiety spike.
First off, it’s barely a step away from just being a classic compulsion. Being comforted over and over that “X” won’t happen doesn’t raise your tolerance for anxiety nor take the strength away from the obsession. It feeds it.
Secondly, a relationship is a two-way street, and no human being on the planet is a tireless “care machine.” Being there for someone is work, and this work takes time and emotional energy. Don’t get me wrong, this work is a good thing and necessary in relationships. But so is balance and reciprocation. OCD has a nasty habit of eclipsing the needs of our loved ones, which are just as important. They need care, fun, self-actualization, safety, and health just as much as the one with OCD. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess there are similar situations out there with addictions, other chronic illnesses, and so on.
There’s been a saying bouncing around the internet that goes something like, “Mental illness isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility.” I think that idea influenced a lot of this movie.
What do you hope people will walk away with after seeing the film?
I sure hope some people change their definitions of OCD, for one. There are several characters in the film we meet with OCD, all with extremely common versions/themes. But rather than say, “Hey, the themes aren’t just contamination! It’s also religion! And sexual orientation! And this one! And that one!”, I think I’d rather people walk away understanding OCD as a cyclical pattern of thoughts, feelings, and actions. The actual content, as that old therapist used to say, is irrelevant.
Apart from that, there are a few smaller points the movie makes that I hope people pick up. OCD’s close relationships with PTSD and substance abuse are in there. The dangers of oversimplifying ERP and not getting information from the right sources are there too.
On top of that, the movie touches on the uncomfortable nature of sexual orientation obsessions, as I’ve seen plenty of discussion on whether or not certain versions of it are informed by homophobia (and if it is, what effect that has on treatment).
It also wouldn’t be an American indie film without some heavy-handed complaints about policing, guns, and inaccessibility to healthcare.
I also want people to have fun watching it, so I hope all this preachiness didn’t take the “thrill” out of “thriller!”
If you could give just one piece of advice to someone with OCD, what would it be?
I’m so far from having this all “figured out,” but I can tell everyone this: more often than not, there’s this threshold of shame and embarrassment about the exact nature of an obsession that stops people from seeking help. OCD thrives on shame. Shame keeps you isolated and performing compulsions for any scrap of comfort rather than dealing with the actual problem, which is the thought pattern.
So, if you are getting help for obsessions, take that leap. Tell the therapist about the exact nature of the obsession. I promise you, reading this, if the therapist is worth their salt then they have heard it before. Yes, even that one. You have to do it if you want to tangibly get better, and I’m telling you, once the work starts, you will.
I personally have good days and bad days with it, but because of a combination of therapy and the right medication, the ratio of good days to bad is looking a lot better to me now.
You don’t deserve to feel this miserable, and if you find the courage to properly deal with it, you won’t have to.