What I Want to Tell Tony Shalhoub From 'Monk' as Someone With OCD
Tony Shalhoub has had a successful acting career, with roles in “Men in Black,” “Galaxy Quest” and “Wings.” However, he’s certainly best known for starring as a private detective who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in the hit show “Monk.” This series has stirred up some controversy in the past over its portrayal of OCD. Some believe the show was too gimmicky, or that Tony Shalhoub’s character was too extreme. So I know there are plenty of people out there who will disagree with what I’m about to write. But I want to tell Tony Shalhoub, “Thank you.”
“Monk” started to become popular right around the time that my OCD was becoming unbearable. I was in junior high and we had just moved 500 miles away from my friends and the school I’d been attending since kindergarten. This added stress, paired with the fact that I had very few friends, and therefore, nothing to distract me from the constant nagging and fears in my head, elevated my symptoms to the point that I was losing sleep and feeling absolutely stuck.
One day, my mom called me into the living room and told me I should check out the show she was watching because the main character shared some of my habits, but he was also a great detective. So I sat down, and lo and behold, the character and I did have some similarities, things I had never had in common with anyone else before. We both washed our hands a lot (albeit for different reasons — mine is not because of contamination OCD), worried incessantly and preferred certain numbers. Of course, Monk and I didn’t share all the same compulsions or fears. I don’t clean as one of my compulsions. Monk doesn’t turn lights on and off. But I was finally not alone, even if the “person” I shared this experience with was a fictional character.
I won’t deny the show had its obvious downfalls — the “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine” episode comes to mind. But beyond all that, there were unique elements about Monk that moved the portrayal of OCD beyond simply having a tidy house and being afraid of germs. And I believe part of this is due to Tony Shalhoub’s careful and thoughtful approach to his character.
If you watch more than just a few episodes of the show, it becomes clear that Monk’s compulsions are not just “quirks.” His compulsive hand-washing, avoidance of certain foods, and tendency to dress in similar clothes each day are derived from intrusive, unshakeable fears of contamination, and a consistent, nagging worry about what other people think of him. Tony Shalhoub has multiple scenes throughout the series where he convincingly describes the pain and loneliness that comes from being so frightened and nervous on a daily basis.
One of the most heart-wrenching and relatable episodes, for me, is “Mr. Monk and the Kid.” In this episode, Monk agrees to temporarily foster a young boy. Throughout their time together, he grows to love the toddler and considers permanently adopting him. By the end of the episode though, after talking to his therapist and coworkers, Monk comes to the painful realization that, for the time being, he doesn’t have enough control over his illness to be the kind of father the young boy needs. This scenario is something many individuals with OCD, including myself, wrestle with; and it portrayed the disorder as something so much more difficult than simply liking a clean house.
I mentioned in a previous post that until about nine months ago, I didn’t realize my constant fear of hurting others was a symptom of my OCD. At first glance, it seems as though Monk doesn’t address this issue of intrusive thoughts at all. However, after learning about that aspect of my disorder, and then re-watching the series, I began to see even this little known symptom of OCD was portrayed by Tony Shalhoub’s character. Monk avoids nakedness in any shape or form and feels guilty for pursuing relationships after his wife passes away. This avoidance and guilt often gets in the way of his everyday life, which is something I, and many others with OCD, can identify with. While having a TV character to relate to did not even come close to curing my symptoms, it provided some hope and relief to see a character with my illness portrayed in a positive light.
A couple years ago, I did have the incredible privilege of meeting Tony Shalhoub at a benefit in a nearby town. Before meeting him, I practiced what I was going to say. I ran through the words over and over again in my head. I knew there were about forty other people waiting to meet him, and I wouldn’t have much time to say what I wanted to. I was so nervous. What if he thought OCD was all a big joke? What if all that brilliant acting was just to make money, and he didn’t really care how his character was portrayed?
When Tony Shalhoub walked over to my husband and I, I quickly poured out the words. I told him how much I appreciated the show because it made me feel less alone, and it opened a door for me to talk about my illness with my mom, which helped her understand what I was going through. I said I liked that the show displayed how serious OCD is, while still maintaining a sense of joy and hope. Then I waited. A look of overwhelming relief lit up Tony’s face. He put his hand to his chest and said, “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that.” He said he always hoped that’s what his character would do for people. He asked if I had seen any improvement with my symptoms over the years and then genuinely listened to my response. He was astonished to hear that we came from out of town to meet him and thanked my husband and I repeatedly. During the rest of the event, we listened to him interview on the stage, where he talked about how the part of Monk was originally written for Michael Richards (better known as Kramer), and that he (Tony) felt the original draft of the script was far too light-hearted. Because they were dealing with such serious subject matter, he insisted they do a better job of portraying the struggles and suffering that OCD can bring. This was incredible to hear. Sitting in front of me was a celebrity who genuinely cared about shedding light on the difficult subject of mental illness.
After the benefit was over, Tony specifically sought out my husband and I to ask if we had a place to stay in town so we weren’t driving home late at night. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and humility, but most of all, by his genuine desire to portray my illness with accuracy and sensitivity.
I wish I had another opportunity to speak with Tony Shalhoub. I would tell him how much his genuine kindness calmed my fears and how I appreciate his portrayal of even the lesser known symptoms of OCD. I hope the future holds more awareness of mental illness, on TV or otherwise, and that more actors like Tony Shalhoub, who genuinely care about the people they’re representing, fill those roles. So, Tony Shalhoub, thank you.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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