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The Fear Factor: Hartford Doctor David Tolin Stars In New VH1 Show On OCD

By ROGER CATLIN

May 26, 2010

A Hartford doctor is an unlikely new star on VH1, where its leading personalities have usually been the likes of Flavor Flav, Bret Michaels and assorted relationsip-abusing "tools."

Dr. David Tolin of Hartford Hospital's The Institute of Living admits he hasn't watched too many VH1 shows before, or rubbed elbows with the stars of "Celebrity Fit Club" "Flavor or Love" or "Tool Academy."

But Tolin, 41, of West Hartford, been tapped to host and conduct a new eight-week series starting Thursday at 10 p.m. on VH1, "The OCD Project."

Tolin a founder and director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living, who is also an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine has appeared on TV before, on shows including "Oprah" and "Hoarders." But he was selected from a list of qualified psychologists to conduct an intensive 21-day program in Los Angeles confronting people with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder to overcome their fears.

Unlike other VH1 shows, "The OCD Project" doesn't involve the rehabilitation of minor celebrities, nor is it associated with Dr. Drew Pinsky, the host and producer of "Celebrity Rehab," "Celebrity Sex Rehab" and "Sober House," whom Tolin dismisses as a "media doctor."

But there is something compelling and photogenic about Tolin's TV-hosting debut as well, when he looks at the camera and promises like a trained barker for a circus sideshow or modern-day reality show: "What you're about to see on this show may shock you. It's going to look dangerous. It's going to look gross."

"But I can assure you," he adds, "this is how we treat obsessive-compulsive disorder."

Before the intro is over, he confronts some of the six patients' unhealthy fear of dirt by licking the bottom of a shoe of a fellow doctor.

"As soon as I did that," Tolin says from his office in Hartford this week,"I thought: From now on people are always going to come up to me and say, 'Aren't you the guy who licked the bottom of the shoe?'"

"That's what happens when you don't get to edit your own show," he said, likely another jibe at Dr. Drew, who as producer can make his image look the way he wants to.

Shoe-licking and other shocking scenes are part of the process in "exposure and response prevention," in which patients face their fears.

So a mother with an irrational fear that her son will get cancer must perform a fake funeral and eulogy for him; a woman with a fear of HIV must touch puddles on skid row; and a woman with a fear of hitting pedestrians with her car has a stroller cross her path.

"It's a process to retrain the brain so as not to be afraid of these sitiations," Tolin says.

"It's certainly not for everybody," he says. But it can be very effective for people who have lost control of their lives.

And it makes for compelling TV, along the lines of the two A&E series "Obsessed" and "Hoarders." Except that the patients all live together (and to their horror, must share a bathroom) and the drama is ratcheted up by the producers, whose other big series is "The Biggest Loser."

Still, Tolin says "The OCD Project" "represents a change of emphisis for VH1, with this show going beyond presenting things soley for shock value, or ridicule. And it's not a platform for celebrities."

As in the "Rehab" series, not all the patients will complete the program, and there will be in-house conflicts while others will have breakthroughs. Part of the series involves checking back with the patients a month after the 21-day treatment to see how things are progressing.

"It's another thing I found to be very rewarding," he says.

As for the shoe-licking, Tolin says, "it's not that easy to die from dirt. The human body is pretty resistant to these kinds of things. Put it this way: I'll lick a shoe every day and you eat a Big Mac every day. Let's see who lives the longest."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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