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.
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.
Ever have a hard time remembering to take your meds regularly? Now try tallying up all the psychiatric meds you’ve ever taken, their dosages and side effects. It’s harder than you might assume – especially as time goes on.
When I was interviewing my peers for my book about growing up taking psychiatric meds, I started with what I thought was a basic question: Can you give me your medication history – which meds you’ve taken in the past, and for how long?
I was shocked at how many people couldn’t answer the question with any confidence.
A recent article in USA Today about the challenges of dealing with ADHD at college suggested students keep their conditions – and their prescriptions – secret from their peers.
The reason? Abuse of stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin is rampant on college campuses, where the medications are used as “study drugs” and also to provide a boost of energy during long nights of drinking and partying.
As a result, students with such prescriptions can find themselves under intense pressure to share or sell their pills.
But when students keep their meds a secret from peers, does anyone actually benefit?
People who take psychiatric medications long-term are no strangers to stigma, or the threat of it. We perennially face, for example, the question of whether it’s worth risking others’ judgment and the potential negative repercussions of disclosing our conditions — and the fact that we take medication for them.
But you can commit to taking medications long-term and still perpetuate or further the stigma associated with meds. And I don’t just mean that in the sense of keeping your medication regimen secret. Most of us do so in another way altogether that we’re largely unaware of.
The fact is, most people have some kind of internal barometer when it comes to medications – which ones they are willing to take, and which ones they’re not.
With all the attention on the misuse of psychiatric drugs, I think it’s worth taking a look at how the increased scrutiny affects people who have a diagnosis and a legitimate prescription.
I don’t mean to suggest that just because someone has been diagnosed and a doctor has seen fit to prescribe her medication that she necessarily needs the meds – or even that she “should” be on them. Plenty of people have unjustified diagnoses and unneeded prescriptions.
But for those who do benefit from treatment, you’ve got to wonder how all the media attention affects their experience.
Last week, I featured a guest post from M., a reader from Texas who began taking Ritalin for ADHD when she was 12, then quit before college.
M. concluded in retrospect that taking that taking Ritalin taught her she couldn’t rely on herself to control her behavior. Instead, she learned to look to others for feedback, which she thinks provoked her anxiety.
Today, I’m following up with the second half of M.’s medication story, about her experience starting Zoloft in her mid-20s to treat some of that residual anxiety. Read on to find out how she fared during a second stab at medication treatment.
In this post, M., now 34 and living near Dallas, discusses how her views about Ritalin shifted as she got older. Ultimately, she came to suspect that relying on the medication actually exacerbated her anxiety – and may even have led, in a roundabout way, to her going on antidepressants later on.
And now, in her own words:
A little while back, I asked readers to share their experiences with medication. CJ, who first took medication at age 12 and is now 21, was kind enough to write in. At 12, CJ had self-harmed and was suicidal, which was the initial impetus for drug treatment.
Some medications have helped with those tendencies, some only exacerbated them – a controversial topic I’ve addressed in previous posts.
Eight years later, mood swings and sleep continue to be problematic, and antidepressant and antipsychotic medications that help with these issues are ones CJ considers to work. Forgetting the drugs for even a day has alarming results, and CJ sees medication as necessary for living a “normal” life.
Despite reservations about lifelong medication treatment, CJ fears that doctors will think the medications have cured the disorders and stop drug therapy, triggering a frightening breakdown. Another lingering worry – and one I found particularly poignant – concerns meeting someone and falling in love, only to have the person leave upon finding out about CJ’s diagnoses and medications. Even with a team of doctors, therapists and other mental health professionals and a cocktail of medications, this young person sees a long road ahead to recovery and many obstacles ahead.
If you would like to share any aspect of your experience taking medication from a young age, please feel free to email me at kaitlin.b.barnett [@] gmail.com. And now, in CJ’s words:
I stayed up late the last few nights reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, engrossed in large part by the subplot involving Leonard Bankhead, who suffers from bipolar disorder and what might be called a typically complicated relationship with both his manic phases and his medication.
The book is set in the early 1980s, which gives Leonard few viable options for pharmaceutical treatment. Now doctors often prescribe anticonvulsants such as Tegretol and Depakote, and atypical antipsychotics, but back then lithium was more or less the only choice.
Leonard began to experience depressions early in high school but wasn’t diagnosed or treated until his freshman year of college, when he began taking a low dose of lithium apparently without incident.
But as college graduation nears, he begins to chafe at the idea of taking the medication at all, which sets him on a terrible merry-go-round of breakdowns, high doses to get him back on track, side effects from the high doses and then rebellions against the side effects, followed by more breakdowns.