An examination of how television has the power to heal the scars of mental illness
Words by Issy Anthony
I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was 14. I’d actually had OCD for many years, without knowing what was going on. My uncontrollable urge to touch objects an even number of times, and that incessant nagging in my head that something awful would happen if I didn’t, finally made sense. I wasn’t crazy. I was ill. And help was available. I still struggle with OCD today, but it’s no longer a fight in the dark.
Aside from the awful anxiety that OCD causes me, one painful part of it is the utter lack of understanding. When people found out I had OCD, they’d ask if I would wash my hands all the time, or if my room was super tidy. In fact, my frazzled mind meant my tidiness and hygiene took a backseat while I allowed the ‘what if?’ to take control.
Not fitting into the stereotypes made me think that maybe I was crazy. No one could understand my thoughts, or relate to them, and I truly felt alone in the world. And then I found Girls. Lena Dunham, Girls‘ writer and creator, plays Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of the show. Hannah and I share quite a few traits. We are both writers, we never know when to shut up, and most critically, we were both given the god-awful bad luck of OCD.
One particular episode delves deep in Hannah’s OCD, as we see Hannah deny to her parents that she is experiencing a relapse. Every time mine rears its ugly head, I feel as if I am 10 again, sobbing in my room because I made a mistake counting and now have to start my hour long routine all over again. The desire to deny that it’s happening is very real, and then Dunham takes it one step further.
While talking to a therapist, Hannah says that as a child she would ‘force herself to see things on a loop of eight, like sexual things, murderer things’. The highly disturbing intrusive thoughts that OCD forces upon you are probably the biggest shame of the illness. They’re the thoughts that make you question if you are truly disturbed, if you are what your mind forces you to think about. If anyone with OCD is reading this I want to remind you, right now, that you are not those things. They disturb you as much as they disturb any other normal person, but our brains like to remind us of this. Essentially, those of us with OCD torture ourselves continuously until the cycle breaks, either through help and therapy, or by finding an even more disturbing thought to haunt ourselves with. By bringing disturbing intrusive thoughts into Hannah’s narrative, Dunham, who herself has suffered from OCD, broke a cycle of OCD’s presentation in the media as an obsession with order, rather than a mind that cannot ever rest.
When I first watched this episode, I had only experienced OCD where intrusive thoughts were dealt with via a routine, like counting. Hannah has this too, talking of having to move a toothbrush a certain amount of times until ‘suddenly it’s three in the morning, and you’re fucking exhausted, and you go to school the next day looking like a zombie’. I remember this line making me feel like I wanted to collapse on the floor and cry tears of joy, because, finally, someone had encapsulated how tired I was, of OCD, of the thoughts, and of the late nights caused by endless routines that will never fully satisfy an obsessive mind. But in more recent years I have experienced ‘Pure O’, the OCD that causes Hannah’s intrusive thoughts, one that doesn’t require a physical routine, rather, the compulsion is the thought itself. They are both equally awful.
What Dunham does best, however, is not her diversity of OCD. It is the humour she manages to work into a very painful illness, but one that I myself have found to be, at times, rather funny.
At a restaurant, she bumps into a man, causing her to have to go back and bump into him seven more times, each bump more awkward than the last. When he reacts angrily -‘you just hit me like five times!’- she whips around, replying that ‘it was eight times!’. For me, this is OCD shown honestly.
When you finally get some space from your illness, you see how peculiar it was that all the syllables in your book just had to be even, or why you convinced yourself that you definitely just exposed your breasts on zoom. I’ll never get back the time that I’ve lost to OCD, but what it has given to me is a strong sense of empathy, and a good sense of humour about life, too.