HBO Program Offers Rare Look at OCD Reality

Posted by Phil Cardenas on Mar 26, 2013

When the entertainment media sees OCD, it sees comedy. A more accurate portrayal would be a dark drama by Alfred Hitchcock. That’s why the recent HBO episode of “Girls” in which Hanna (portrayed by Lena Dunham) confronts her OCD is remarkable.

Rather than playing for cheap laughs, Dunham (who besides being the lead actor in the series is also its creator, director, writer, and executive producer) offers a realistic look at OCD, its causes, its manifestations, and its treatment.

As can happen in real life, Hanna had her disorder under control until a “triggering event” caused it to resurface. Rather than manifesting in quirky, easily recognized behaviors such as Adrian Monk’s compulsive touching of parking meters or insisting on only one brand of bottled water, Hanna has shown no outward OCD behaviors in previous episodes until a looming book deadline triggers a compelling need to do things in eights. She denies that the behavior is compulsive at first, unwilling to admit that a disorder she had suffered from before has returned. She even denies that she had it in the first place. But as the obsession becomes undeniable, she overcomes her initial anger when her parents point out the relapse and suggest she get treatment.

Rather than trivializing the disorder, the show points out, sometimes directly and other times by inference, the sense of irrational, uncontrollable anxiety that is at the core of OCD. While anxiety is part of everyday life, most people can recognize the source and understand the manifestations as normal reactions to a stressful situation such as losing a job or facing an unpleasant situation. They can accept it, get through it, and move on. But Hanna can’t escape the trap her OCD has caught her in until she accepts and confronts it and decides the way for her to break its spell is with professional help.

Here again, the therapy session is realistic. Rather than drifting into a rambling psychoanalytic discussion, the therapist, who obviously knows how to diagnose and treat OCD, describes it as “a classic presentation,” which thanks to Dunham’s realistic script, it is. He prescribes medication to treat her, perhaps because it’s the best approach in her situation, or perhaps because it lends itself to a tighter resolution for the audience. Another possible course of treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, in which sufferers deliberately put themselves in triggering situations and try to desensitize their response. It’s a difficult, but highly effective treatment that can have longer lasting benefits. Given that Dunham herself suffers from OCD and doesn’t back away from out-of-the-ordinary situations on “Girls,” she may even address CBT on future programs.

Regardless of how Hanna’s OCD plays out on “Girls,” Dunham is to be congratulated for showing the true face of OCD.


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