By Mairead Ruane
Kirstie Swain’s TV adaptation of Rose Cartwight’s memoir Pure, which recently hit UK Netflix, is revolutionary in its demystification of one of the top 10 most disabling illnesses of any kind globally- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) (The World Health Organisation). OCD is a mental health condition characterised by “intensely negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, combined with a chronic feeling of doubt or danger (obsessions). In order to quell the thought or quieten the anxiety, [a person with OCD] will often repeat an action, again and again (compulsions)” (OCD Action). But despite the fact OCD consists of both intrusive thoughts and compulsions (internal and external), representations of the illness in mainstream media have repeatedly focused on only a few of the external compulsions, namely hand-washing and cleaning, creating what writer Sam Martin calls ‘the OCD trope’.
The mainstream media’s (mis)representations of OCD have had very real consequences. OCD Action reports that “one of the greatest challenges that people with OCD face is the need to fight both the all pervasive stigma of mental health disorders and the widely held belief that OCD is a mild or even “quirky” problem that is nothing more than hand washing. Many people now use the term ‘a bit OCD’ without understanding the onerous nature of the disorder in its severe form”. As an individual living with OCD up until the age of 20 with no understanding of what was going on inside my head, and no support for it, it comes as no surprise that “there is an average delay of 12 years between the onset of OCD and treatment being received” (OCD Action). How are we, as people living with OCD, to understand that our intrusive thoughts and resulting anxiety are symptoms of the fourth most common mental illness, when it is repeatedly misrepresented in the media as a cleanliness fetish?
Pure shatters such stereotypes and manages to visualise the most internal of experiences, bringing to the screen the O of OCD- the intense intrusive thoughts that drive the compulsions in the OCD cycle. The mini-series achieves this with sharp humour, a dynamic cinematic style and masterful performances (from newcomer Charly Clive, Joe Cole, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Niamh Algar and Anthony Welsh) ensuring that it remains relevant and gripping. Pure’s protagonist, Marnie, suffers from sexual intrusive thoughts- a common but lesser known theme of OCD. Other common OCD themes include, but are not limited to, fears about violence/harm (especially of loved ones) abhorrent, blasphemous or sexual thoughts, dirt, germs and contamination (OCD Action). It is important to emphasise that the themes and content of intrusive thoughts are ego-dystonic- they are the opposite of a person’s values or actions- which is why they cause the sufferer such distress.
Pure captures this distress and its effects on all aspects of even an otherwise highly-functioning individual’s life. It also captures the automatic and frequent nature of intrusive thoughts for those with OCD who find it more difficult to brush them aside than those without the disorder. It’s important to note that we all experience intrusive thoughts but it’s the inability to dismiss them that marks the disorder.
Ultimately, the show strikes a brilliant balance- offering enjoyable and educational TV- through its use of dark humour, which steers it well away from becoming a high school mental health presentation, while also weaving in honest advice: no one can control the onset of intrusive thoughts but everyone can learn to change their relationship with their thoughts and anxiety to live more freely. Whilst it’s a toned down version of Rose Cartwright’s memoir of the same title (which I’d urge you to read) it is groundbreaking in visual culture. Pure communicated the most honest portrayal of OCD I’ve seen and left me hopeful that it could mark the beginning of a new wave of more truthful representations of OCD realities which could literally save so many of us from years of silent suffering.
Learn more about OCD at: https://www.ocdaction.org.uk/
To read Sam Martin’s article on the OCD Trope:
To watch Pure:
Channel 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/pure
To read Rose Cartwright’s memoir Pure: