Howie Mandel opened up about his “painful” experience with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety.
The pandemic was especially triggering for his intrusive fear of germs and illness.
The America’s Got Talent judge sees comedy his saving grace.
When Howie Mandel sits at the America’s Got Talent judges panel, he always has a huge smile on his face. That carefree demeanor makes it hard to believe that, behind the scenes, the 65-year-old experiences a “painful” struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety.
“My coping skill is finding the funny,” he recently told People. “If I’m not laughing, then I’m crying. And I still haven’t been that open about how dark and ugly it really gets.”
Mandel has struggled with a fear of germs—eventually diagnosed as OCD—since he was a child. In 2009, he told ABC News that he was made fun of at school because he wouldn’t tie his shoes—not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t want to touch the dirty laces.
Those intrusive thoughts and fixations have followed him into his adult life, and now, he’s known for his introductory fist bumps in place of handshakes. They may seem like a friendly bit, but the inability to shake someone’s hand or touch a doorknob can sometimes be debilitating for the comedian.
“I’m living in a nightmare,” he told People. “I try to anchor myself. I have a beautiful family and I love what I do. But at the same time, I can fall into a dark depression I can’t get out of.”
His biggest fear is contracting a fatal illness, which, as you can imagine, was exacerbated by the pandemic. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he would wear a mask and self-isolate when family members were sick.
“There isn’t a waking moment of my life when ‘we could die’ doesn’t come into my psyche,” he explained. “But the solace I would get would be the fact that everybody around me was okay. It’s good to latch onto okay. But [during the pandemic] the whole world was not okay. And it was absolute hell.”
Mandel first opened up about his mental health struggles in 2006 on The Howard Stern Show, per ABC News, and he wondered if he’d made a mistake. “My first thought was that I’ve embarrassed my family,” he recalled to People. “Then I thought, ‘Nobody is going to hire somebody who isn’t stable.’ Those were my fears.”
Thankfully, comedy has always been his saving grace. “Comedy saved me in a way,” he said. “I’m most comfortable onstage. And when I don’t have anything to do, I turn inward—and that’s not good.”
You may be thinking, Wait, I’ve seen Mandel shake hands on TV before. But you didn’t see what he felt forced to do afterwards. “I’d think I didn’t wash [my hand] well enough. And I’d go back and forth in a loop washing my hands for hours. I understand the funny in that. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly painful. And I don’t want to defend my mental health. I just want to maintain it.”
Now that he has a better understanding of his condition, he hopes to use his platform to raise awareness and eliminate the shame around it. “My life’s mission is to remove the stigma,” he told People. “I’m broken. But this is my reality. I know there’s going to be darkness again, and I cherish every moment of light.”
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