How Lena Dunham’s real-life OCD made it onto Girls
How closely does a writer’s work mimic her life experiences? It’s a perennial question made all the more irresistible as it pertains to Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old creator of one of TV’s most talked-about shows, and her recently-revealed history of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
In the first season of HBO’s Girls, Dunham stirred up debate by, among other things, repeatedly revealing her less-than-perfect body while playing the show’s main character, Hannah Horvath. What got people talking as the second season progressed, though, was how serious the show seemed to be getting, especially with its depiction of Hannah coping with a resurgence of her OCD symptoms.
Critics, fans, mental illness activists and patients have largely praised the Girls’ depiction of OCD, which they’ve hailed as convincing and nuanced, but agonizing to watch. One hollywood.com writer and self-described former OCD patient called it “some of the darkest, most difficult material with which Girls has wrestled to date,” lauding the show for avoiding the temptation to turn OCD into a mere joke.
The fact that Dunham revealed in a March cover story for Rolling Stone that she’s struggled with OCD since childhood – and taken medication for it on and off – gave the topic more buzz. (I discussed what she revealed-and what she didn’t-here).
In a HBO behind-the-scenes look at one of the episodes, Dunham disclosed a little more about the connection between her experience and the show’s representation of Hannah’s OCD – though she didn’t go into specifics.
For those looking for a more direct comparison, here’s a look about what Dunham has said about her own experiences with OCD symptoms and treatment – and how they compare to Hannah’s.
How it all started
In the Rolling Stone story, Dunham reveals her symptoms started at age seven and that she’s been seeing a therapist ever since. On Girls, we learn from Hannah’s parents, who happen to be in town to witness the return of her compulsive behaviors, that she struggled with OCD back in high school. It’s not clear if that’s when her symptoms started – or just if that was the last time they posed a serious problem for her.
The Number 8
Dunham discusses at length in the Rolling Stone article her obsession with the number eight and her compulsion to perform behaviors eight times as a way of dealing with what were evidently disturbing thoughts. She’d imagine a murder eight times, look to either side of her eight times to make sure no one was following her, and once even confessed to her mother she’d just thought about having sex with her eight times in a row.
Hannah’s anxiety, which flares up again in the face of a short-turnaround e-book deadline, largely manifests in the same compulsion to perform activities in sets of eight. She jabs her elbow into a stranger’s elbow eight times in a restaurant, and confesses that when absorbed in her compulsions, has to imagine a murder eight times in a row, or masturbate eight times a night to keep her anxiety in check.
Going on the record in a national magazine about one’s psychiatric disorder is more or less the opposite of denial – even if some commentators have characterized the move as a not-so-subtle way of hyping the show in advance of the OCD episodes.
Talking publicly about her disorder doesn’t mean Dunham’s never been in denial about a relapse herself, but she does capture beautifully on the show the way even people with a long history of psychiatric problems can delude themselves into thinking that they’ll be okay – that the old symptoms cropping up are no big deal.
Hannah’s parents confront her about the symptoms’ reappearance, but they leave Hannah feeling infantalized. Like so many young people with a history of psychiatric problems, she wants very much to believe she’s over her old troubles.
As I discussed in a previous post, Dunham hasn’t said much about medication that hasn’t been said a many times before. In high school, she felt “drugged,” and gained large amounts of weight. She weaned off the medication toward the end of college, and, the Rolling Stone story implies, has engaged a flurry of productivity and creativity ever since.
Although Dunham now takes a small, regular dose of the antidepressant Lexapro and takes the antianxiety medication Klonopin as needed, her hypochondria causes her to worry excessively over side effects. Her tone in the Rolling Stone profile is light, self-deprecating, but it’s hard to know if her relationship with medication is more complicated than she lets on.
As for Hannah, it’s a little tough to tell what’s going on with her medication – whether she’s been taking it ever since high school, or has gone off it before.
Toward the end of the season, when her parents recognize what’s wrong and make her see a psychiatrist, she emerges with a prescription.
Her father later asks her over the phone, Are you taking your meds, sweetie?” Hannah snaps back, “Of course I’m taking my meds!” In fact, she’s decided they make her too sleepy to write her e-book, so she’s quit them. The irony, of course, is that going off the drugs leaves her completely unable to write the book at all.
Dunham suffered from intense hypochondria as a child and says the tendency continues to this day- especially when it comes to critical Internet commentators. ““I channel most of my anxiety into intense hypochondria,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. But she appeared to make light of her tendencies, maybe as a way of not seeming to be too troubled by her critics.
Hannah’s hypochondria is a running joke on Girls, but it turns serious in the show’s final episode, when an unwashed, housebound, anxiety-wracked Hannah starts obsessively Googling some of her irrational worries: “Do millions of microbes really live on our skin?” “How does your body know to stop breathing?” “At what age does your body start melting down?” and “Normal tongue.”
For all that Dunham still struggles with anxiety, she’s something of a hyperproductive wunderkind. Besides creating, writing, starring in and sometimes directing Girls, she’s written personal essays and humor pieces for The New Yorker and received a much-publicized $3.7 million advance for her memoirs.
Hannah, in contrast, is so wracked with anxiety and compulsions that she falls miserably behind on her commissioned e-book, disappoints her editor, loses the assignment and prompts him to threaten to sue her for the advance
In a now-famous scene, she deals with a compulsive need to clean her ears by aggressively mining her ear with a Q-tip – and gruesomely puncturing her eardrum. When the ER doctor refuses to clean her other ear to even things out and assuage her anxiety, she does it herself.
The second season ended on a generally hopeful, even romantic note for most of the characters. For Hannah, it concludes with her ex-boyfriend Adam dashing through the streets to rescue her from a cocoon of bedclothes. In the season’s final shot, he sweeps her up in his arms like a little child.
Hannah may not have a therapist or doctor she likes, or be taking her meds as prescribed, but, the finale implies, she at least has a protector. Will that be enough? We’ll have to wait until the third season to find out.
Bell Barnett, K. (2013). How Lena Dunham’s real-life OCD made it onto Girls. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/my-meds/2013/04/lena-dunham-ocd-tv-show-girls/