How did Lena Dunham turn OCD and ‘countless psychiatric meds’ into a hit TV show?
Part of the cringe-inducing delight of watching Girls is hearing Hannah say things and do things she knows she shouldn’t. And part of what’s refreshing about Dunham herself are her irreverent, indecorous comments and self-revelations, whether on Twitter, New Yorker essays, or interviews.
So I was especially curious to hear what Dunham had to say about her obsessive-compulsive disorder and medication use in a just-released Rolling Stone cover story. Especially since it was titled Girl on Top: How Lena Dunham Turned a Life of Anxiety, Bad Sex, and Countless Psychiatric Meds into the Funniest Show on TV.
As often as Dunham gets cast as one of the most insightful and prominent voices of her generation, she is, at heart, a profoundly personal commentator. So I didn’t expect any illuminating, sweeping insights about psychiatric meds and Millennials.
Still, the sub-headline billing “countless psychiatric meds” as a source of her inspiration certainly piqued my interest. I was curious what she’d have to say on how taking medications – and, later, quitting them – shaped her sense of herself, maybe even her artistic vision.
Turns out I was hoping for a little too much.
Dunham on Having OCD
Dunham dishes plenty, though not very revealingly, about her OCD symptoms, which began at age seven and has led to her seeing a therapist more or less ever since. A childhood obsession with the number eight and a fear of sex, for example, prompted her to proclaim one time to her mom, “I just had to imagine having sex with you eight times.”
What’s lacking is the self-analysis I’d expect from someone who is in other arenas so hyper self-aware. The having-sex-with-her-mom comment, for example, is free of any account of what it’s like to be a child who imagines such a thing.
Instead, she just remarks that her mom “really took it in stride” and reassured her that the whole thing was in her imagination.
Perhaps that really was the end of it, though I’m not sure such a reassurance would necessarily be comforting for someone with OCD. The torment comes not from believing your thoughts are real, as in psychosis, but rather from being unable to get the obsessions out of your head. Dunham, though, doesn’t elaborate on what it felt like to be absorbed by such thoughts and compulsions-she merely relates them for us.
Maybe she was strategically stoking speculation and saving the drama for her character’s upcoming resurgence of OCD. But I’d still like to know what it felt like for her personally to be enveloped by such upsetting thoughts, especially as a child.
Dunham on Taking Medications
Dunham’s account of her medication use is even less revealing. Maybe it’s the interviewer’s failure to draw her out in any kind of interesting way on the topic, but basically she limits her discussion to saying that by high school she was “drugged like a big horse,” taking “massive” doses of antidepressants.
The meds made her tired, gave her night sweats, made her gain weight. Those side effects are hardly insignificant, but the article doesn’t offer anything interesting or probing about how the side effects affected Dunham’s attitude toward her OCD and her treatment, except to imply she disliked them (who wouldn’t?).
Left unanswered are loads of important questions that too rarely get asked of celebrities or even ordinary people coming public with their psychiatric problems. Did the meds control Dunham’s symptoms? Did she consider the side effects worth it? Why did she taper off the meds in college?
And, importantly, given the debate over the relationship between creativity, mental illness and medication, does Dunham view her post-college productivity – which the interviewer implies resulted from no longer taking the meds – as related to her disorder or her treatment in any way ? Does she agree that it results from feeling more energetic and clearer-headed without medications? If so, does she thinks she lost anything by stopping medication?
Or does she view herself as having outgrown the worst of her symptoms or having better learned to manage them?
How She’s Managing Lately
On the outside, Dunham has been excelling spectacularly. But she acknowledges lingering anxiety (hardly surprising for someone with as much on her plate as Dunham has).
Since last year, she’s been taking a “small dose” of the antidepressant Lexapro, which she reports takes an edge off her anxiety. So does the antianxiety medication Klonopin, which she carries around in her purse but seems to take a little reluctantly, having Googled the drug and found some of the prevalent internet horror stories on it and other benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Ativan.
But she keeps mum about whether she thinks the nature of her anxiety has changed, how she thinks meds affect it, or what prompted her to try them again after quitting them toward the end of college. We do learn that she has resumed Transcendental Meditation, something she began practicing at age nine, inspired by her mom.
Her Overall Take
Dunham’s final word on her disorder?
“Some of my anxieties might be better solved by a better awareness of what’s actually befalling this planet and what makes everything run and what’s come before us,” she tells the Rolling Stone interviewer a little cryptically. “But it overwhelms me too much. It makes me want to take a nap.”
“And in that respect,” she adds, “I really relate to people in my generation.”
Too bad Rolling Stone didn’t give Dunham a chance to go beyond “shocking” revelations about OCD symptoms and jokes about medication side effects. Those are attention-grabbing, sure, but it would be more enlightening to see them supplemented with some real insights about how diagnosis, symptoms and side effects have affected Dunham as she’s grown up and achieved such success.
Bell Barnett, K. (2013). How did Lena Dunham turn OCD and ‘countless psychiatric meds’ into a hit TV show?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/my-meds/2013/04/lena-dunham-psychiatric-meds-girls-tv-show-hbo/