Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in the Media

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in the MediaSometimes, I overhear people casually using the term “OCD” (obsessive-compulsive disorder). They’re ‘OCD with being clean’ or ‘OCD with organizational skills.’

In fact, however, a real struggle with OCD is a manifestation of anxiety that creates an actual disturbance in one’s life.

Lena Dunham, creator/ writer/ producer/ star of the HBO award-winning series “Girls,” showcased the leading character, Hannah, (played by Dunham herself) in very raw and honest encounters with the illness toward the end of this past season. Hannah had dealt with OCD in high school. It resurfaced when she was faced with two significant stressors: trying to write an e-book in a short time frame, and dealing with the rocky aftermath of a breakup.

Whether the scenes illustrated episodes of relentless tics, counting, or a compulsive habit that brought her to the emergency room, “Girls” took on authentic territory that invited other OCD sufferers to feel less alone.

An article here on Psych Central characterizes obsessive-compulsive disorder as “recurrent and disturbing thoughts (called obsessions) or repetitive, ritualized behaviors that the person feels driven to perform (called compulsions).”

Unwanted impulses and bothersome images may also invade the psyche of a person with OCD. While compulsions are usually served to neutralize the excessive thoughts or obsessions, those acts may spark further anxiety since they become very demanding to maintain.

Allison Dotson’s recent article featured on the Huffington Post discusses how the OCD storyline on the series allows other people, dealing with the disorder, to relate.

“As someone with OCD, I find it refreshing to see this often-misunderstood illness portrayed in a realistic way on an acclaimed television show,” Dotson said. She remarks how OCD may be presented as a “charming slapstick character trait,” but “Girls” definitely wasn’t gunning for easy laughs.

“In the real world, OCD symptoms can rear their persistent head just as Hannah’s did under the pressure of a book deadline,” Dotson noted. “Mine certainly did – new obsessions would pop up at bedtime and stick around for months.”

Lena Dunham talks about her own experiences with OCD to Rolling Stone in their cover story, “Lena Dunham: Girl on Top.” She was diagnosed at age 9, after displaying recurring symptoms.

“I was obsessed with the number eight. I’d count eight times … I’d look on both sides of me eight times. I’d make sure nobody was following me down the street, I touched different parts of my bed before I went to sleep, I’d imagine a murder, and I’d imagine that same murder eight times.”

While she tapered off her medication toward the end of college (which produced unpleasant side effects, including extreme exhaustion and night sweats), she still takes a small dose of an antidepressant to alleviate her anxiety.

I have nothing but respect for Dunham, who shared her private (and sometimes dark) history with OCD to the public via “Girls.” A disorder that may be portrayed in the media as humorous or lighthearted now is receiving a bit more attention and awareness. Others who are faced with OCD’s symptoms may be able to connect to Dunham’s character, identifying right alongside her.

“These episodes of ‘Girls’ appear promising,” Kent Sepkowitz wrote in his article in the Daily Beast. “They are ready to show, I hope, that real mental illness is not eradicated by a pill or a better diet, by three visits to a shrink, or by a thoughtful walk along the beach.”


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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Apr 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.