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“Girls” Gets OCD

The controversial HBO series "Girls" takes on OCD with a special episode

I got a text message from my sister in Chicago asking if I’d seen the most recent episode of Girls —HBO’s wildly popular and frequently controversial dramedy, starring creator Lena Dunham. I told her I hadn’t seen this episode; I like Girls, but find it’s uncomfortably accurate in its depiction of self-absorbed privileged kids in their late twenties. Then my sister told me that this episode was about OCD, and I figured, okay, this one I should probably watch.

Now, although Girls is in its second season, I’m only partway through watching the first, so, leaping to this episode, my first impression was narrative whiplash (The hot one broke up with the doormat!? The nerdy one is dating!? Hannah’s ex-boyfriend is a multidimensional character now and not just a terrifying aggregate of weird sex ideas!?).

The show immediately earned points for inflicting OCD on Hannah, Dunham’s character and the show’s protagonist, instead of on the nerdy one (Zosia Mamet’s Shoshonna), who could have been the obvious choice…

…but then immediately lost those points by showing that Hannah’s manifestation of OCD was counting, because of course it was, since counting and hand-washing are Hollywood’s very favorite OCD symptoms.

I started to remind myself that Lena Dunham’s story is not my story, and that her OCD symptoms are not mine. There’s a certain cohort of sufferers, a number of celebrities among them, who seemed to suffer one or two major episodes of the disorder as kids and then just sort of got over it. It’s like the bell in The Polar Express—those people can’t hear it any more, even though I still have to listen to the darn thing constantly, and it is not magical, believe me.

Anyway, I began to write off the episode, as a well-intentioned but routine media depiction of OCD, another missed opportunity. And then Dunham surprised me. The episode isn’t perfect, but it’s an effective, candid portrayal of the disorder, and it really gets a couple of tricky things right:

– OCD, like most forms of mental illness, spikes during stress. It’s at its worst when you’re least prepared to manage it—for example, right after a breakup. The show illustrated this without aggrandizing it by paralleling Hannah’s OCD relapse in the wake of a difficult breakup with her ex, Adam, and his return to AA. Our culture often condemns alcoholics and pretends to understand and sympathize with OCD sufferers, while ridiculing and demeaning them with many depictions. Girls portrays both types of illness as exactly that—illnesses—and suggests they have more in common than we might imagine.

– Hannah’s immediate reaction to the return of her symptoms is denialthis isn’t happening, it isn’t a problem, OCD was something I dealt with when I was a kid but it isn’t part of my life any more. I practiced such denial myself, right before I was hospitalized, and I’ve observed it in a lot of folks I’ve met who deal with mental health issues. Proper diagnosis is one of the first steps to effective treatment, but at the same time that means accepting that you have a challenging disability. Rejecting that prospect can have a certain appeal.

– Just when I was giving up hope that we’d get anything more than a superficial look at Hannah’s symptoms, she blurts out that she sometimes needs to visualize a murder eight times, or masturbate eight times at night. After twenty-eight minutes of bumping into strangers and blaming your parents, Girls actually got real about OCD’s most disturbing symptoms, very quickly.

One of the most admirable/indulgent things about Girls is Dunham’s compulsive (dare I say naked?) honesty and relentless self-criticism, but this still shocked me. No one likes to talk about sexual and violent OCD symptoms—not the media, not educators or therapists, and certainly never sufferers, who (because they rarely learn about intrusive thoughts from the media or educators or therapists) frequently assume that they’re losing their minds and becoming dangerous perverted psychopaths. Some, like myself, only discover the truth of their condition by researching OCD on the internet. I’d never heard of Hannah’s combined counting and intrusive thoughts symptoms, but according to interviews, they’re the same ones that Dunham herself wrestled with.

So I raise a glass to Dunham, and I hope this episode educates viewers and encourages some to get help. I’m always grateful when another sufferer teaches me something new about OCD. It makes me wonder how many sufferers experience a similar combination of symptoms, but don’t ask for help with the intrusive thoughts because they’re ashamed or confused. OCD thrives in silence, so I’m grateful to Dunham for adding her voice to the conversation.

You may also be interested in my columns: 'Has “Girls” Cured OCD?,' and 'Why "Monk" Stunk'

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013.

Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”

Read my Psychology Today blog: Triggered

Image: Copyright, HBO "Girls", 2013.

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