Do you clean too often, and sometimes feel a little embarrassed about it? Just as watching reality shows often improves one’s mood through the schadenfreude of peering into lives that are more disordered, TLC has a new special airing soon that will make you feel comparatively normal. Neat Freaks, a one hour special airing on Wednesday December 5 at 10 p.m. features people who literally spend their entire lives scrubbing their homes.
Meet one African-American character named Alfreta. She is so compulsive in her disinfection regime that she not only scrubs her own bathroom with bleach daily, she also cleans the bathrooms in homes she visits — and public restrooms.
The show follows her as Alfreta does her daily routine of detailing her home from top to bottom. As she explains it, “I clean once a day, but once a day is all day.”
Neat Freaks will also introduce audiences to a man named Caleb, who sprays himself and dates down with hydrogen peroxide before sex, and Christy, who hates having guests over because they might sully her sterile interior.
In keeping with similar hits like Hoarders that profile the mentally ill, Neat Freaks might be a smash if this special is picked up and airs as a series. Yet, while we are shaking our heads at these crazy antics, we must remember that we are watching people caught in the grip of a tormenting condition.
According to the trusted medical resource WebMD, engaging in repetitive rituals such as cleaning as a means of fighting a fear of germs is a symptom of OCD or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
“Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a type of anxiety disorder, is a potentially disabling illness that traps people in endless cycles of repetitive thoughts and behaviors,” the outlet states. “People with OCD are plagued by recurring and distressing thoughts, fears, or images (obsessions) they cannot control. The anxiety (nervousness) produced by these thoughts leads to an urgent need to perform certain rituals or routines (compulsions).”
In the case of the Neat Freaks cast, cleaning might allay each person’s fear of germs, as the repetition of certain acts becomes a calming activity similar to the predictable nature of a church service. Yet, for OCD sufferers, the respite from anxiety is only momentary.
“Although the ritual may temporarily alleviate anxiety, the person must perform the ritual again when the obsessive thoughts return,” the WebMD outline on OCD states. This means that people such as Alfreta and Christy remain trapped repeating acts that keep them from living normal lives.
You may think Alfreta is a rarity among African-Americans with this problem, but, unfortunately there is very little data about the prevalence of the issue among blacks. Many think of the popular main character of the beloved show Monk when germphobia comes to mind, and may balk at the idea that OCD also plagues African-Americans — but people like Alfreta are not an anomaly.
It may be found that OCD affects blacks at the same rates as other groups when sufficient information is collected about this demographic. What is known is that when blacks do suffer from the disorder, they are less likely to seek treatment.
“OCD among African Americans and Caribbean blacks is very persistent, often accompanied by other psychiatric disorders, and is associated with high overall mental illness severity and functional impairment,” relates an abstract from a paper on the subject published by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. “It is also likely that very few blacks in the United States with OCD are receiving evidence-based treatment and thus considerable effort is needed to bring treatment to these groups.”
I am not diagnosing Alfreta with OCD, and watching her scrub her bathroom fixtures with a toothbrush might indeed make for “can’t look away” television. But, a show such as Neat Freaks can’t help but remind us of the symptoms of OCD, which is a serious disease — one that research shows not enough African-Americans receive help with it. Hopefully, this show will be a gateway for more blacks to become aware of its symptoms and lessen the cultural stigma against psychiatric treatment that pervades our community as it entertains.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.
(This piece has been edited for clarity.)