Mr Robot plays chess: an analogy for OCD

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Mr Robot season 1 and 2 and you plan to watch it you might not want to read on.

There are very few accurate media portrayals of OCD out there, but one that really struck a chord with me wasn’t even about OCD, it was about Disassociative Identity Disorder. It was a scene in Mr Robot season 2 when Elliot (the main character) plays chess against his dead father who he interacts with due to his mental illness. Elliot thinks he can outsmart his “father” and get rid of him, this is the scene where he learns how futile this approach is. I think this is a point that many of us with OCD can relate to.

Of course not every part of the scene is applicable to OCD, but it really was an ‘aha’ moment for me when I watched it the first time. When I refer to OCD here keep in mind that this game of chess is when we attempt to beat OCD with compulsions rather than evidence based interventions.

Anyway, here’s a breakdown of the quotes that I found very relatable to OCD from the clip.

You’re locked into a set of moves as determined by your previous choices…Your options dramatically changing with every decision.

Depending on how you react to the obsession will determine the options next available. Obsessions are not choices, but compulsions are (even if they are extremely hard to break).

There is no external force at play. It is a pure battle of two opponents, or in this case, one….Stalemate.

OCD sometimes feels like a separate entity, a Mr Robot. In fact some people actually do give their OCD a name. Someone or some thing you are at war with. Elliot convinces himself he is playing chess against an actual external opponent. He isn’t. The same with OCD, you cannot defeat OCD, because OCD is you. Every time you try to outsmart it you will end up in a stalemate in the end with no further way forward. OCD knows your every move.

We need a winner. Let’s reset.

Yet we continue to play against OCD thinking we can beat it. The compulsions continue, surely there is a way to satisfy the uncertainty.

You can think all the moves you want, but at the end of the day, the moves that I’m making are the ones you’re telling me to make.

Although thoughts can be random, the compulsions play a key role in telling the OCD brain what moves to make next.

Another stalemate. What are the odds? There over 9 million different possible positions after three chess moves each. There are over 288 billion different possible positions after four moves. The number of 40-move games is greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe

Yet we fail to beat it again. How is that possible? Surely there must be a way? The amount of moves we can make against OCD, and it against us, is essentially infinite. There are always more questions, always more what ifs. There can never be certainty.

You don’t need to know those outcomes. You just need to be able to see ahead of your opponent. But how can you when your other opponent is… you?

Again, when we think of OCD as a separate entity we can be fooled into thinking we can get ahead of it. We cannot. Because it is us.

Stalemate. Three in a row. The odds of that are… Impossible. Go again? I can’t beat you. And you can’t beat me. We could play again, but… we will always be at this impasse.

We have to realise that engaging with the OCD in a battle directly is futile. However, unlike Mr Robot, OCD can actually beat us if we play for long enough. For some, it can (sadly) end in loss of life. Which makes the stakes even higher for us.

fighting me is a waste of time. No. No, we’ll go again. I can beat you. I can beat you.

But even if you are able to continue trying to outsmart OCD, Mr Robot is right, it’s a waste of time. Deep down people with OCD know this, at least on some level.

The takeaway point

So remember, every time you engage in compulsions: whether you try to work something out, check something, seek reassurance. Every time you try to outsmart OCD, you are essentially playing yourself at chess. OCD knows all your moves.

The trick is to stop playing the game, and this is where evidence based therapy can help you.

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