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.
With the explosion of mobile apps and websites such as PatientsLikeMe, which help people chart symptoms, medications and side effects, we’ve entered a new era of unprecedented medical self-monitoring.
Is this a good thing when it comes to psychiatric medications and mental health?
Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” ever since reading a recent post post on the topic by blogger Natasha Tracy.
Natasha contends that using the politically-correct, cheerier-sounding term “mental health” trivializes psychiatric disorders and ends up shortchanging those who suffer from mental illness. That got me thinking again about a question I’ve often pondered: Can long-term, maintenance treatment with psychiatric medication take someone with a “mental illness” and restore him or her to “mental health?”
The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem.
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:
What are the issues involved in taking stimulant medications for ADHD from early elementary school onward? And what happens when someone who has done this decides to quit the drugs in college – only to find her motivation and academic capabilities diminish without the meds, and to suffer a crisis of identity and mood problems upon resuming them?
Two recent guest posts from a reader raised these questions and prompted ample discussion and comments from readers. In those posts, I let the young woman in question speak for herself. Now, I’d like to highlight some of the larger issues her story illustrates.
I just wrote a book arguing that taking psychiatric medication from a young age has a profound effect on people’s lives and identities, far more profound than most – including those who take the medications in question – even realize.
But sometimes it’s possible to go too far with this view, to see everything through the prism of mental illness and medication. It’s can be unfair, even dangerous, to assume that just because someone has a history of psychiatric problems and medication use, that that’s the cause of their present problems.
I was reminded of this myself over the weekend.
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 borrowed the title for today’s post from Is It Me Or My Meds?, a very interesting book by the sociologist David Karp that examines how people taking antidepressants understand the drugs’ impact on different aspects of their identity.
I keep coming back to this question with regard to a new medication I’m taking and some rather unpleasant and difficult-to-place cognitive effects I’ve been experiencing.
Karp’s book asks the question broadly, invoking it in big, existential ways and also with regard to smaller, more prosaic topics such as side effects. This second point is actually more fraught than it might seem: It can be amazingly difficult to tell drug side effects from psychiatric symptoms, something I’ve been reminded of lately as I’ve had my meds adjusted.
My whole medication regimen has been in flux lately, because, as I think I mentioned in a previous post, I’m trying to get my migraines under control and the drugs used to treat migraines can interact with those used to treat anxiety and depression.
Lately, I’ve been feeling anxious, jumpy, and have been having trouble concentrating. But it took me a while to even think to tie this to my medications.
Given how long I’ve been taking meds (more than a decade), and the fact that I’ve written a book about the complicated and unexpected effects of psychiatric medications, you’d think I’d know better. But it just goes to show that one is inclined to think one’s moods are organic or innate. It takes a bit before you think to ask if it’s the drugs you’re taking.