Girls, Interrupted (or, A Very Special Episode)

Another Tumblr post that kinda blew up past its original perimeters, so I decided to repost:

I got a txt msg from my younger sister in Chicago asking if I’d seen the last episode of Girls.  I hadn’t – I like Girls, but it’s also uncomfortably accurate in it’s depiction of self-absorbed privileged kids in their late twenties, and I have limited patience for television that reminds me why I hate myself.

But sister told me this episode was about OCD, and I figured, okay, this one I should probably watch.

I’m only partway through the first season of Girls, so 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 the disorder on Hannah, the principle character, instead of the nerdy one, Shoshonna, who would have been the obvious choice… and then immediately lost those points by showing that Hannah’s manifestation of OCD was counting, because of course it was, because 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 were not mine.  (Which is great!  There are very few people I’d wish my OCD symptoms on, with the possible exception of Andy Breckman, creator ofMonk, because fuck that guy).  There’s a certain cohort of sufferers, a number of celebrities among them, who seem to suffer one or two major episodes of the disorder as kids and then just sort of get over it.  It’s like the bell in the Polar Express, those assholes can’t hear it any more even though I still have to listen to the damn thing constantly, and it’s magical, believe me, like the sound of angels piddling on rooftops.  I forget the point I was trying to make.

I started to write the episode off, 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 – like, say, right after a breakup.  The show illustrated this without making a big deal about it by paralleling Hannah’s OCD relapse with Adam’s visit to AA.  Our culture condemns alcoholics, and pretends to understand and sympathise with OCD sufferers while ridiculing and demeaning them at them at every opportunity.  Girls portrays both types of illness as exactly that,illness, and suggests they have more in common than we might like to imagine.

-Hannah’ immediate reaction to the return of her symptoms is denial: “this 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 went through that myself, and I’ve noticed it with a lot of folks I’ve met who deal with mental health problems; proper diagnosis is one of the first steps to effective treatment, but at the same time that means accepting that you have an untreatable disability, and it can be attractive to try to reject that.

– Just when I was giving up hope that we’d get anything more than a superficial look at Hannah’s symptoms, she blurts out how 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 got real real fast.

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 onelikes to talk about sexual and violent OCD symptoms – not the media, not educators or therapists, and certainly never sufferers, who (because they’ve never learned about intrusive thoughts from the media or educators or therapists) frequently assume that they’re losing their goddamn minds and becoming a dangerous perverted psychopath and only discover the truth of their condition by looking up OCD on Google.  Not that I’d know anything about that.  Anyway, I’d never heard of Hannah’s combined counting and intrusive thoughts symptoms, but apparently they’re the same ones that Dunham herself wrestled with.  I’m always grateful when another sufferer teaches me something new about OCD – and 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.

So I raise a glass to Dunham, and I hope this episode encourages folks to get help.  If her description of her symptoms struck a chord with you, please do some research (I recommend Baer’s Imp of the Mind and Grayson’s Freedom from OCD), and maybe look into treatment.

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