Lena Dunham, “Hannah” on “Girls,” and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

In real life, 27-year-old Lena Dunham, the Golden Globe-winning and again-nominated-for-2014 star of Girls, admits that she’s had a diagnosis of OCD since about age nine. Reportedly she is treated with medication, and she’s had the same therapist since she was 16.

In addition, ever since that initial discovery of having OCD, she’s been practicing Transcendental Meditation. According to Lindy West, Jezebel, Dunham told an audience at a charity event that her mother and grandmother also do it, as did her great-grandmother.

I feel forever grateful that instead of assaulting me with a barrage of medications my mother decided it was time for me to learn to meditate…Although when you’re nine you have trouble articulating the sort of internal shifts you feel, I know that it made an incredible difference. It made it possible for me to understand what I was going through, and to process what I was going through and to calm down.

Last March Lena Dunham’s character Hannah also had her OCD exposed. One of her symptoms, for example: Hannah has to do things in eights.

But something harder for viewers to watch, says Kent Sepkowitz, The Daily Beast, is when Hannah then “inserts a Q-tip into one ear and traumatizes it, causing a bloody mess…Then comes the requisite sitcom schlemiel-like ER visit with a doctor and some drops and some close-ups. But in the episode’s last scene, she grabs the difficult third rail of mental illness once again, showing us Hannah placing a new Q-tip into the other ear. And counting.”

Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation and author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook, explains OCD and Dunham’s portrayal further on Psychology Today:

The why with OCD is unrelenting anxiety…Not just ‘Oh I feel anxious today.’ Paralyzing, all-consuming, pervasive anxiety…With OCD, individuals recognize that the intense anxiety they are feeling doesn’t exactly make sense. Lena’s character demonstrates this well in the episode. Her anger covers up — barely — a sense that she realizes this has gotten the better of her. That she doesn’t want to be doing these things. These aren’t quirks and being eccentric. These behaviors are done as desperate attempts to quell unending anxiety. And now she is being found out.

Szymanski approves of how this was handled on Girls, including the family dynamics. Her parents worry about her—the OCD affects them too.

How does the series handle Hannah entering therapy?

In the therapist’s waiting room, Hannah again struggles with what it is like to have a mental illness. The stigma associated with it. She has to see a therapist who successfully treated ‘an arsonist who strapped frogs to rockets and was deeply disturbed.’ If I have a mental illness, what category do I belong to?…

…The therapist’s nonplussed response to a description of the characters’ symptoms was perfect: he calls it ‘classical presentation.’ While it may not be a comfort to hear, it is an important distinction to make, since most people assume OCD is about hand-washing. In fact, hand washing is not the ‘classic’ OCD presentation: intense anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors are the hallmark of the disorder. While many people with OCD have hand-washing and contamination concerns, to only focus on this group misses an even larger part of the OCD community. Counting, repeating, intrusive violent and sexual obsessions all fall within the realm of OCD.

The next season of HBO’s Girls starts January 12th. A newly released brief promo includes a tiny bit of Hannah’s session with her therapist, played by Bob Balaban.

Update, Jan. 2nd, 2016: The clip, however, is no longer available on YouTube.

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