Jenny Jaffe, originally from the Bay Area, is an incredibly funny and talented writer and founder of Project UROK, a safe space for people to talk about their mental health. We sat down with Jenny to talk about hew IFC show, Neurotica and her personal experience growing up with OCD.
What have you been working on in L.A. since you arrived back [from New York]?
Jenny Jaffe: Well, I moved out here to write for Big Hero 6 on Disney, so that’s my day job. Honestly, I’ve trying to get my bearings mostly. [L.A.] is just a weird city to make friends and build connections, so that’s been tough. Also, getting to know my way around and that sort of thing has taken up most of my energy. I’m starting to get back into doing other writing projects, promoting my IFC series, and trying to re-enter society at large. I feel like I really did have to take a year to figure it all out. I started a brand new relationship when I moved out here, I moved apartments twice and I was just sort of all over the map and I’m finally felling a little bit settled and it’s really nice. But, it’s definitely taken until now to feel that way.
LA is a weird, weird city.
You just don’t run into people.
It took me about 6 years to make real friends. Everything was really surface and I think when I first got here it was like party-friends, but then you need to get real friends and there’s a weird transition into adulthood. I’ve been here since 2010 it’s just hard to make connections.
Well, because all my friends I have in New York are friends that I’ve had for a really long time and it’s just a fully different thing as an adult.
Yeah, it’s really hard. I always feel like I’m hitting on someone.
Me too! (Laughs) Like, I don’t want to come on too strong.
And then seem desperate for friends, although… I kind of am.
Right, exactly. How many times to text somebody is like, too friendly?
Exactly! So, what is the series that you’re on and working on right now?
I created and star in a series called Neurotica, where I play a dominatrix with OCD. You can watch it on IFC.com or on the Neurotica Facebook page. I’m completely proud of it. It’s a completely ridiculous, fun, cool series that I got to make with some of my favorite people and I hope there’s more to come.
Awesome! How many episodes are there?
There are six.
When did it come out originally?
A couple of weeks ago… it’s pretty new.
You were the writer and creator, which is amazing and awesome. How did you come up with the premise?
Honestly, I don’t even remember the full origin story. It felt like the title was there and somebody is going to do this but I know I can do it better and more honestly than anybody else. I was just tired of seeing things like 50 Shades of Gray, where sexuality is treated like this serious, sad, and intense, thing. If it’s done right, it should be fun. Also OCD is [treated] kind of the same way – or any mental illness – like, ‘Oh, we better talk about this in a hushed tone’. To me, the idea of creating anybody who’s just a full person is exciting and creating this character who’s neurotic, but also very sexually confident, is more relatable to me than a lot of comedy characters. I love Jerri Blank [from Strangers with Candy] because she’s a big ‘ol freak and weirdo, but she thinks she’s the shit. I love Lucille Bluth for that same reason.
I love her!
I love female high-status idiots. I think the character in Neurotica is very sweet. She’s a good person and a big weirdo, but she’s also very confident and idiosyncratic. Like, ‘Oh, she’s bad with boys’ is comedy short hand for female comedy characters, which can be great, but… I was like, ‘No, that’s never been my problem! I’m a big weirdo for other reasons.’
Totally, same. I love that. So, you mentioned that you have OCD?
So what part does that play in the show and when were you diagnosed?
I was formally diagnosed at about 15, but it had been manifesting my whole life. I have anxiety disorder, I have a panic disorder, so then figuring out that OCD was kind of the more specific thing that was going on was something that came later.
In the show, the part OCD plays is that my character, Ivy, has known that she’s had OCD for a long time and, as she puts it, has made a life for herself in spite and because of her specific challenges. Like, this isn’t a character who’s figuring out if she has OCD, it’s one who’s worried that it’s going to resurface in some way.
The other thing about it is that everyone in her life knows that about her and nobody judges her for it. But she does have some limitations that she pushes up against and the people around her push up against too.
We know there’re different type of OCD spectrums, can you tell us what kind of OCD were you diagnosed with?
Yeah, I don’t really know if there’s an official one. I think “OCD Classic” is the best way to put it. There’s literally a psychology textbook that’s coming out that I’m in as an example of a person with OCD, so…
Yeah, I’m pretty proud of that. (Laughing). I am a psychology book model… so…
Ooh, look at that!
The thing about OCD is that it’s like two-fold. There’s the compulsions that manifest as hand washing and being super clean and sort of ritualized things in all these ways, like counting. But then the obsession, which is the part that people talk about less, because it’s scarier – it’s that you get these intrusive thoughts. It’s like getting a song stuck in your head, but it’s like a horrifying thought… over and over and over again and your brain’s way of dealing with that is to say ‘Here’s somethings I can do that will make the better.’ But the problem is that you get caught in these endless loops and it’s like: ‘I’m going to wash my hands until I make them bleed, but it’s not going to make it any better’. Or like, I used obsessively check my temperature and I know that, logically, it isn’t going to not make me sick but my head it telling me that. So, you’re just one of those prisoners, sort of, of a weird chemical reaction in your brain that’s happening. It’s pretty awful to deal with and you’re just walking through the day trying to interact with people, but you’re constantly trying to fight this battle. I got really lucky that I got into therapy, got on the right medication for me, and have just had a lot of support around me, from my family. It’s not an easy thing to deal with or explain to people.
Yeah, I think that unless you’re dealing with it, a lot of those things literally feel crazy to the outside world which can be incredibly frustrating. Like, ‘I don’t want to feel this way! I just want it to stop. I swear, I’m not controlling it.’
Like, trust me, if I could… I would. If there’s anything I could do.
Yeah, absolutely. So, did that lead to your other project, UROK? When did that start?
Yeah, it was created directly because of it in 2014. I wrote an article for XOJane about going to exposure therapy for OCD. The response to that was really positive, to the point where I was like, I should do another project that basically has to do with this. I was so nervous to talk about it publicly because I was trying to get a career off the ground and I was like, ‘People won’t want to work with me and people won’t want to be my friend’ or whatever. So then, Project UROK came up out of it. At first, the idea was that I was going to make some videos with some friend who I know have similar issues and we’re just going to talk about it in a way that might help somebody. But then there were so many people who were interested in doing it that it became this thing where I was like, ‘Oh, we need to have a system in place so we can keep making these.’ Then it became a non-profit and I was figuring out how to run a non-profit on my feet.
Wow, that’s incredible.
Yeah, I just spent two years just really focused on getting it off the ground and last year it was acquired by the Child Mind Institute, so it’s still going. It was a very intense time and we’ve been able to do a lot of really cool stuff. We also tried to figure out how to connect them to resources that they might need and that sort of thing because that’s tough. We don’t live in a world where we prioritize mental health to the point where people can find access to mental health care and it’s very difficult for most of the country to find affordable mental health near them. I’m lucky I lived in the Bay Area, in L.A. and in New York.
If you live in a rural town…
Yeah, it’s not the way we have it here, where there’s a therapist in every corner.
I actually never really thought about that. It’s a great point.
Yeah, it’s a tough thing. Of course, that leads to a lot of drug use and abuse and there are all these cycles and all these social justice issues are tied into, I think, to mental health.
Everything is always connected to everything, but if we could figure this piece there would be a lot of things that would get better. People need to make [mental health] a priority and it’s tough to get people to do that because it’s tough to talk about.
Absolutely. For me, it was tough to talk about my mental health issues because it made me feel crazy – instead of realizing that everyone is going through the same issues, to some degree.
Right, I agree. That’s absolutely right. But I’m glad Project UROK has hopefully made some kind of difference.
That’s so awesome. Do the videos only focus on OCD or all aspects of mental health?
It’s everything. It goes [along the lines of] the philosophy that you can’t go wrong when telling your own story. So everyone can come in to talk about whatever they feel comfortable talking about, within the realm of mental illness. There’s a huge range and we’ve pretty much just told people that if you don’t see yourself represented here, make a video. We want everyone who comes to the site to see a video with someone who represents their story. I think sometimes the mental health community, in trying to make it a more palatable movement for people, excludes certain diagnosis that are more difficult for people to relate to. It’s easier to talk about something like depression than it is to talk about something like bipolar, which is super misunderstood. I think it’s important to let people represent all of it and recognize it’s all under this one umbrella and we can’t stigmatize it in the mental health community. Otherwise, what’s the message going to be?
It’s funny, because people who don’t have any of those issues see it as ‘if you’re bipolar, you’re just talking to yourself’ or if you’re OCD ‘you’re just sitting around counting’. But no, you can just live your life and deal with these issues. Not everyone is this stereotyped version of a mentally ill person, we’re all normal. I think that’s one really big misrepresentation of it. I actually told someone from college about our project and my struggles with depression and she was like ‘but you always look so happy.’ I just wanted to say, ‘yeah, it’s just social media.’ (Laughs). I’m not going to post my morbid suicidal thoughts online.
(Laughs) Well, sometimes I even think about myself, like ‘I wish I lived the life I lived on Instagram.’ That seems great.
Nothing bad ever seems to happen. Because of UROK I’m pretty open, I’ll post stuff like ‘Hey, I’m having a panic attack today. Today sucks.’
I also just saw your latest tweet, if you don’t mind repeating it for us.
Oh! [it was] "I don't ride rollercoasters but I do have fragile self-esteem, which is kind of like the same thing." It’s just that I had a really good day yesterday and then something happened that hurt my ego a little bit and I just felt so sad. I was just on this emotional rollercoaster and it’s very up and down.
I love it. It’s a great descriptor and it’s sad because even when I’m in the best mood ever, I’m just like, when is that going to be taken away from me.
I feel that constantly. I feel that with work too. I feel like I’m constantly moving because you never know which shoe is going to drop and when. It’s not a healthy thing necessarily, and the normal thing [would be to think] ‘Okay, maybe this will end and if it does, I’ll be okay.’ But I’m just like NO! I just can never let this feeling end.
It’s scary, especially when you’ve lived with a bad feeling for most of your life. When you start to feel all the good stuff again, you’re just like, ‘I can’t feel this way anymore.’
Yeah, like, I know how fragile this is. (Laughs)
Watch all the episodes of Neurotica on IFC.com and check out Jenny’s Project UROK to watch “funny, meaningful videos” for people “struggling with mental health issues, made by people who have been there before.”