Howie Mandel’s OCD Story and What We Can Learn From Him

This article will cover the basics of OCD, along with delving into Howie Mandel’s OCD story. We’ll take a look at what we can learn from his journey with OCD, and find inspiration and hope even from his darkest times.

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What is OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness categorized by both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts which the individual attaches great significance to, and which cause severe emotional distress and high anxiety. Compulsions are ritualized or repetitive actions carried out to try to deal with the emotional distress caused by obsessions.

Obsessions can be around a variety of themes, such as contamination, sexual, and religious themes to name a few. An individual might struggle with more than one theme of obsession, and more than one type of compulsion. The obsessions and compulsions may seem to ‘fit’ together, such as washing and cleaning compulsions in reaction to contamination obsessions. However, they may also not seem to ‘fit’, such as checking compulsions in reaction to the same contamination obsessions.

The OCD cycle is a vicious one. While the anxiety initially may lessen slightly as a compulsion is carried out, it comes back stronger: this leads to more and more compulsions needing to be carried out. This cycle can take up many hours of the day, make it tough to function, and be debilitating.

There is no one specific cause of OCD, but rather a range of factors which can make you more likely to develop OCD. OCD is known to affect 1.2% of the population: that might not sound like a lot but in the UK that’s almost 1 million people and in the USA there are 2.2 million people who are struggling with OCD. OCD can affect anyone, in any walk of life, at any age.

Who is Howie Mandel?

You’ve likely heard of Howie Mandel! Howie is a comedian and TV show host (among a variety of other roles) who has gained a great deal of fame and respect over the years. One of his most notable roles is hosting the show ‘Deal or No Deal’, which ran for five seasons starting in 2005. For the last decade, Howie has also gained a lot of fame as a judge on ‘America’s Got Talent’.

Originally from Canada, Howie was born on the 29th of November, 1955. Howie is Jewish, with both Romanian and Polish descent. He’s been married to his wife Terry Mandel since 1980, and they share 3 children together. Howie openly struggles with both attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and OCD. He’s been involved in raising awareness for both mental illnesses, and has written an autobiography called, “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me”.

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Howie Mandel’s OCD Story

Contamination OCD

Howie’s obsessions primarily center around contamination. This means that he fears becoming ‘dirty’ or ‘contaminated’ with germs. These fears can be all consuming and have caused him great distress throughout his life.

Contamination OCD is the most common theme or ‘type’ of OCD in the world. It centers around fears that the individual themselves, or their loved ones, are going to become contaminated. The individual might fear that something awful, such as severe illness or death, will happen if they become contaminated. They might feel extreme fear at the thought of germs contaminating them, even if they aren’t sure exactly what the feared outcome would be.

With these fears, it’s common to never feel clean enough or to feel that the home (or other areas) are never clean enough. The individual might feel mentaly ‘dirty’ and be constantly striving for a feeling of being clean. Compulsions which follow these obsessions often involve excessive cleaning of themselves and their environment, avoidance of anything which might trigger their fears, checking behaviours, and more.

Howie’s compulsions have involved excessive washing and cleaning, particularly repeatedly washing his hands in the past. He explains that, “In my mind [my hand] is like a petri dish. … Otherwise I would spend the day, as I have in the past in my life in the men’s room rubbing and scrubbing and scalding.”

In the present washing and cleaning compulsions are still common for Howie. However, avoidance is a common compulsion for him, particularly within his career. Howie doesn’t shake hands as this would trigger his obsessions, instead he fist bumps. This fist bump even became his signature move during his time on Deal or No Deal. He avoids touching hand rails or items which haven’t been washed, including money. Howie also has his makeup artists clean and use fresh items (such as sponges) on his face each day.

Howie’s trademark bald head is even deliberate: he shaves it because it feels cleaner and helps him to avoid his obsessions. He openly speaks about living in fear of triggering his obsessions. Being triggered means having an experience which would bring his obsessions and the anxiety they carry to the forefront of his mind. This would cause extreme distress and in his own words: “My life stops.”

Unfortunately, avoidance is a compulsion within itself. Although it may seem less harmful than other compulsions, and may be less noticable, avoidance actually feeds into the cycle of OCD. Essentially, by actively avoiding triggers (and often going to great lengths to do so), you’re emphasizing that your intrusive thoughts and obsessions are important and significant. You’re ‘giving them attention’ and forming your life around them, which only feeds them and makes them stronger.

In order to overcome OCD, fears must be faced rather than avoided. In fact, the go to treatment for OCD, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), actually focuses on facing your obsessions in a gradual way so that you can break the cycle of OCD.

Avoidance simply fuels more avoidance, rather than breaking the OCD cycle. The International OCD Foundation explains that, “People with OCD tend to not stay with the things they fear long enough to learn the truth about them, or to develop a tolerance to them. The best way to overcome fears is by doing feared things and then learning the truth of what really happens.”

Howie also struggles with checking compulsions. Checking is another fairly common compulsion. This can involve checking anything either visually or physically. This might involve checking that a door is locked, checking appliances are turned off, or checking that an area has been cleaned for example. The checking usually occurs repeatedly and can take up many hours of the day. It can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally.

Howie often repeatedly checks the door is locked when he leaves home: this is a very common compulsion. In this article he gives an emotional example, mentioning that as he was leaving his house for an appointment, he had checked the door handle 32 times before understandably getting extremely distressed. He was getting later and later for his appointment and his anxiety was rising. He then punched the door handle, thinking that if he felt pain it would connect in his mind that he knew the door was locked.

This is a common feeling for those with OCD, the sense that you know logically something is done, such as knowing the door is locked, but you can’t actually ‘feel’ that or connect with that knowledge in your mind. Many people with OCD know that their obsessions and compulsions are not grounded in reality, but they still feel unable to ignore those feelings and urges.

Early life

Howie’s OCD stems back as far as he can remember. He remembers being fearful of germs and dirt when he was a child, but not understanding where these fears came from. Howie remembers taking repetitive showers and constantly cleaning. In a few articles and interviews Howie mentions refusing to tie his shoes as a child, because he feared that the shoes were dirty and he didn’t want to touch them.

Other children didn’t understand these behaviours which made life tough. He often felt isolated and alone, which is a common problem among those with OCD. Many people with OCD feel as though they are ‘weird’, and that nobody else is like them. It’s common to feel ashamed of your OCD and so do your best to hide your symptoms for fear of judgment.

Avoidance of situations which could trigger obsessions can also lead to social withdrawal. It can feel impossible to engage with others or to focus on the present when your mind is so overcome with fears and urges you can’t ignore. If your compulsions take up hours of the day, you may simply not have time for social interaction. You may feel so exhausted by your OCD that you cannot even think about having the energy to see your friends or family. For all of these reasons and more, OCD can be an isolating illness.

The practical side of the situation also made life difficult for Howie in his early years. Referring back to our previous example, since he wouldn’t tie his shoes (similar to the avoidance compulsions of the present), he had to walk without lifting his shoes too much so that they wouldn’t fall off. In the present, he still doesn’t wear shoes with laces.

When he was younger he didn’t have a name for what he was going through, and didn’t realise it was a mental illness. It wasn’t until later in life that he went to see a therapist for other mental health issues, and was told that many of his symptoms stemmed from OCD.

Intrusive thoughts

Howie often refers to intrusive thoughts and describes them very aptly. He regularly talks about intrusive thoughts which started in childhood. He mentions deep set fears of germs and being dirty. He also talks about repetitive thoughts which he couldn’t get rid of or ignore.

In an interview with Everyday Health, he describes intrusive thoughts in more detail: “A thought that enters my head – good, bad, or indifferent – isn’t any different from anybody else’s. The problem is, it’s like a sticking record, and that thought continuously goes through and through like a loop. And I have a compulsion to act on it.”

This description emphasises the fact that we all have intrusive thoughts: every one of us will have them at different points in our life. They’re completely normal. We’ll often have them along the same themes as those with OCD do. The difference is, that those without OCD don’t attach much significance to these thoughts. They might think they’re a bit weird or feel a little uncomfortable, then just let them pass.

However, those with OCD attach great significance to their intrusive thoughts, just as Howie describes. They find them hard to ignore, and the thoughts cause them great distress. They are so bothered by these thoughts playing on their mind repetitively, that they are driven to do something to cope. This is when compulsions come into play.

Treatment and coping

While there is no magic cure for OCD, there are very effective ways to reduce symptoms and overcome your OCD. This means different things for everybody, depending on the severity of your symptoms and your own individual journey. For some, this may mean gaining complete remission from their symptoms: this means that they are symptom free for a long period of time. For others, this may mean a reduction in symptoms and constant management.

For Howie, his treatment and coping strategies have been the latter: he focuses on coping and management skills to deal with his symptoms and keep them as reduced as possible. While he doesn’t go into details of his exact treatments or coping skills, he does mention regularly seeing a physiatrist, seeing a therapist, taking medication, and trying a variety of psychological therapies.

He does say that it’s trial and error to find the right treatment for him, and that he’s still on that journey. This is common in treating OCD, along with other mental illnesses. It’s important to put your all into treatments and give them time to work. However, we’re all individuals so not every treatment is going to work for us. It’s often a process of trial and error to figure out the right treatment for you. This applies even more when it comes to medication.

Howie says that since he’s been regularly attending therapy and taking medication, his OCD is more under control and he is noticing marked improvements. Howie also advocates for family therapy, given the impact OCD can have on loved ones. He mentions that he, his wife, and kids have attended therapy together to help them learn to cope with Howie’s OCD.

How Howie’s OCD affects his family life

OCD doesn’t only affect the individual, it can also have a significant effect on family and friends. Loved ones might not understand what the individual is going through, and may not know how to help. Lack of understanding can often lead to frustration for loved ones and an increased feeling of isolation for the individual with OCD. Tense connections are common, and life can be difficult for all involved.

It’s also common for someone with OCD to involve their loved one in their compulsions, for example asking for reassurance, or asking them to help them avoid triggers. While this isn’t the individual’s fault, it means that the loved ones are actually playing a part in the OCD cycle. This can be difficult for loved ones to recognise, and even tougher to refuse their loved one reassurance if they’re distressed.

It’s important that loved ones learn to recognise occasions when (despite feeling like they are helping) they’re actually playing a part in worsening the individual’s OCD in the long term. The family therapy we mentioned earlier can be very helpful in teaching a family how to cope, as well as how to help their loved one break the OCD cycle.

Howie’s wife Terry is often quoted saying that she could always see the ‘real him’, past his issues with OCD. She loved his humour and personality, and they have been married for 30 years. However, Howie’s OCD has made things tough for his family, as he openly admits.

When the couple were raising their three children, Howie’s contamination obsessions and avoidance compulsions were in full force. Not only did he fear himself becoming contaminated, but also his children. He often didn’t want others to touch his children, and was strict about others washing their hands before they interacted with them.

This is common in those with OCD: big changes and times of stress, such as having a new child, can worsen OCD symptoms. Having parental responsibilities can increase existing obsessions and even lead to new intrusive thoughts. The increased sense of responsibility for another human life can understandably make you more protective. With contamination obsessions, it’s common to become very worried about your child becoming ill or contaminated. It’s also possible to find fears around your own contamination are increasing, such as fearing catching germs from your children.

When other members of his family are sick, Howie’s contamination obsessions come into play again. He wears a surgical mask and rubber gloves to try to prevent himself from becoming contaminated. Howie even had a second house built in his backyard which he can retreat to if a family member becomes unwell.

Howie regularly mentions that his OCD makes him a tough person to live with. He praises his family for being tolerant and patient, and recognises that it’s taxing at times to be around him. In this interview he says: “I spend a lot of time worried or agitated or intolerant, so I’m tough to be with. I have a tough time being with myself, so I can only imagine what it’s like to live in a house with me.”

How Howie’s OCD affects his career

Howie’s career has been very successful, but his OCD has been difficult to navigate. We’ve already mentioned that he no longer shakes hands due his OCD. He also asks that everything be cleaned regularly, particularly anything he’s going to have close contact with.

In the past on a talk show he hosted he did shake hands, but he kept a bucket of Purell under his desk, which is hand sanitizer. He also did a surgical scrub of his hands before and after the show. In this article he explains that this took its toll: “My hands were raw and I had no antibodies and I started getting warts and it was — I was a mess.”

Howie mentions that the travelling part of his career can be difficult to cope with. Being on planes in close proximity to others can trigger his obsessions. He also mentions that being in hotel rooms often results in a lot of time making the room comfortable for him, such as arranging things so he doesn’t have to touch them or removing things from the room which may trigger his obsessions.

Although his OCD has made career difficult, he hasn’t given up. In fact, he has used his career and his success to help raise awareness of mental illness and reduce stigma. Howie first opened up about his struggles with OCD on a TV show after not wanting to touch a doorknob. He explained himself, initially thinking he was off air, but quickly realised he had told the world about his mental illness. He acknowledges that although that was difficult, it actually was freeing and allowed him to feel much less alone as others reached out to him about their own OCD.

Howie is now open about his struggles, along with speaking openly about seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication. He even wrote his book to share his full story and give insight on what it’s really like to live with OCD. This is wonderful as the more people speak out, including high profile people, the more we fight stigma and let others know that they are not alone.

In fact, his career has given him focus and provided a positive distraction from his symptoms. Howie mentions that when he is working he must put his full focus into the moment. This prevents his mind from wandering and worrying, and gives him some relief from the cycle of OCD. In this article when asked if OCD affects his stand up comedy he states: “I may be more passionate about my comedy because that’s the one place where I feel comfortable – because I’m in the now.”

What can we learn from Howie Mandel?

Now we’ve talked about Howie’s story, we can dive deeper and figure out what we can learn from his experiences. Although Howie has ongoing struggles with his OCD, he has come far on his journey. His resilience and courage is admirable, and there are a lot of lessons we can take with us through reading about his life.

You aren’t alone

At first Howie was open about his OCD by accident, but he soon realised that being open has many positives. Through sharing his story he realised he was not alone. He inspired others and in turn, let them know they were not alone in their own journeys. He has, and still is, actively raising awareness and reducing stigma through his openness.

Although OCD can convince you to feel ashamed and hide your illness, being open can allow you to get the support and help you need. It can also allow you to add your voice to breaking down stigma! Remember that there are millions of people all around the world living with OCD, and millions more living with a form of mental illness: you are not alone.

Reach out for help

Howie didn’t seek help for his OCD until he had been struggling for many years. He speaks about wishing he had reached out sooner. Just like being open about your mental illness, shame and guilt may make you withdraw from seeking treatment. You may be worried about how you will be perceived. Although seeking help for OCD can feel frightening, it’s vital that you do so. Seeking treatment is how you can start getting your life back!

In this interview Howie states: “There isn’t anybody out there who doesn’t have a mental health issue, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or how to cope with relationships. Having OCD is not an embarrassment anymore – for me. Just know that there is help and your life could be better if you go out and seek the help.”

As well as speaking out reaching out for professional help, Howie also teaches us the value of seeking support from loved ones and allowing them to be there for us. He also mentions finding support groups with others who have similar struggles where, “people can help you work through your issues and reinforce that you aren’t alone.”

There’s no shame in taking mental health medication

Howie openly talks about taking mental health medication and mentions that there is no shame in doing so. This is very apt: taking medication for a mental illness is just as valid as taking medication for any physical illness.

The medication prescribed for OCD is typically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are a type of antidepressant which are thought to help correct a chemical imbalance in the brain, therefore reducing anxiety and other OCD symptoms. When medication is taken alongside psychological therapy, it can bring very positive results for OCD patients.

Don’t give up on finding the right treatment

Howie mentions that what works for one person might not work for another. He continues to try treatments to figure out what works best for him. While for some, the recommended treatments which are offered first will be very useful, others may need to try a few treatments before they figure out what works for them.

Howie’s story teaches us that it’s vital not to give up hope or determination to find the right treatment. Advocate for yourself, do your research, and keep pushing forward to find the type of treatment which works for you.

He also teaches us to be consistent in attending treatment and engaging with the coping strategies you’re taught, as this is how you will see improvements. Treatment takes time, so although there are different choices it’s important to give one type of therapy a good amount of time and your full effort before deciding whether it is or isn’t working for you. OCD treatment is hard work, but it is also well worth it to be able to gain relief from your symptoms.

Find humour

One of Howie’s main coping strategies for life in general, as well as mental illness, is finding humour even through dark times. Finding ways to laugh even when times are hard is a wonderful coping tool. Humour can also allow you to connect with others and navigate difficult situations. In this article Howie states: “Laughter is a great bridge. It’s been my salvation and has helped me through some hard times and uncomfortable situations.”

Find focus and purpose

We talked about the focus and purpose that Howie’s career has given him. We can learn from him that having focus in your life gives you that sense of motivation. It gives you something to work towards, to fight for, and to keep you going. Whether it’s a career, a hobby you feel passionately about, or something else entirely, keeping yourself busy and working towards a goal can make the world of difference when you’re on a mental health journey.

Not only does it give you motivation, but it also gives you a routine and stability. Purpose allows you to connect with others, to do something you care about, and to keep you engaged. It’s a great distraction tool from OCD symptoms, and can keep your mind focused on something more proactive, just as work does for Howie.

Be mindful

Howie greatly values mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and anxiety. He personally uses exercise as a form of mindful movement to clear his mind. Mindfulness can come in many forms, from getting out in nature and exercising like Howie, to meditation, visualization, and breathing exercises.

We must reduce stigma

One of the bigger issues which Howie speaks about most is the fact that stigma must be reduced. He regularly emphasises that seeking help for your mental health should be as commonplace as going to the dentist or the doctor about your physical health. Howie says that the more people speak up about their mental health, the more the conversation will become normalized and stigma will be gradually broken down.

Mental health must be given more resources

On the same note as reducing stigma, Howie talks about the lack of resources given to mental health. In particular he campaigns for mental health to be taught in schools, so that no children have to go through their childhood feeling alone and confused as he did.

Howie also talks about the need for children’s mental health to be prioritized and assessed in the same way as their physical health. This article explains that Howie, “champions programs like one at a school his son attended in California, where time was set aside each day for the children to express their thoughts and worries to a professional counselor.”

If we teach our children the importance of mental health, we’ll be creating a society that is more understanding and empathetic. We’ll empower children to grow into adults who value their own mental health and know how to take care of it. They’ll know how to reach out when they need help and hopefully lessen the impact of any mental illness they may struggle with in the future.

Although progression is happening all the time, mental health services for both children and adults need more funding and more resources. Everyone deserves to be able to access the support and treatment they need. We need to ensure that no one is left struggling, feeling that they are alone with nowhere to turn.

A beautiful quote from Howie can be found in this article: “We are so behind in the world as to not have something in place that just teaches everyone how to cope. The embarrassment and stigma surrounding mental health issues needs to end. I think the solution to making this world better is if we would just be healthy, mentally.”

You can live a full and successful life

One of the biggest things we can learn from Howie is that despite any struggles you are going through, you can still thrive and live a full and successful life. OCD may involve ongoing management and is undeniably hard work to live with, but it doesn’t have to stop you finding happiness and reaching your goals. There is always hope and joy to be found.

References

OCD UK, (2020), “Introduction to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America, (2020), “Facts & Statistics”.

IMBd, (2020), “Howie Mandel: Biography”.

Made of Millions, (2020), “Living with Contamination OCD”.

Jessica Haddad, Eric M Strauss, David Muir, (2009), “Germs: ‘No Deal’ for Host Howie Mandel”. ABC News.

International OCD Foundation, (2010), “Obsessive Compulsive Contamination Fears”.

Ian Hodder, (2010), “Howie Mandel”. Everyday Health.

Edduin Carvajal, (2020), “Howie Mandel Once Opened up about Living with OCD — inside the AGT Judge’s Struggle”. AmoMama.

Esperanza Magazine, (2017), “Howie Mandel’s 3 Best Tips To Deal With Depression & OCD”. Hope to Cope.

Elizabeth Landau, (2014), “Howie Mandel: ‘We don’t take care of our mental health’” CNN Health.

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