Why The Very Special OCD Episode Of ‘Girls’ Is Important

Mar. 8, 2013
S.A. Ryan is a bookseller and aspiring novelist in Texas.

My least favorite TV show of all time is Monk. To be fair, I have never actually watched an episode of Monk. I’m not even 100% that it’s still on the air. But that doesn’t stop me from hating it, more than I hate dumb sitcoms, televised singing competitions, and an army of Kardashians combined. The reason for my hatred is as personal as it is unreasonable, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a tiiiiny bit valid all the same: it’s the cute OCD thing.

The moment when I reveal to a new friend or love interest or court-appointed psychiatrist (…just kidding) that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder is always a little fraught for me. It’s not like it’s a secret; it is, or so I’m told, nothing to be ashamed of. I’m kind of crazy, yes, but it’s not the bad kind of crazy. It’s not like I’m convinced I’m Vladimir Putin’s secret wife, or murdering people and making a onesie out of their pelts, or anything. I just like to count things, and do things a certain way a certain number of times, and occasionally wash all the skin off my hands. No biggie! But I am never sure if knowing this about me will make people perceive me differently, and when any relationship reaches the point when I can no longer hide what’s going on with me without actively lying about it, I’m nervous about what kind of reaction my admission is going to elicit. That reaction generally turns out to be compassion, which is great, and sometimes curiosity, which is completely understandable. But ever since the “defective detective” (ugh, really?) showed up on TV, another response has become irritatingly common: “Oh my God, you should totally watch Monk!”

This is generally followed by rhapsodies about how funny and adorbs Monk’s mental illness is. He’s always freaking out and like putting on hazmat suits when he thinks there might be germs and stuff. It’s so wacky! But also super-great and really handy, because it gives him like preternatural crime-solving abilities. People who have seen this show seem to be under the misapprehension that OCD is a) so debilitating that it basically rules out the possibility of even pretending to be normal, yet b) not really a big inconvenience in any way, not to mention c) something that they are now an expert on thanks to USA Network original programming. As you can imagine, this can make any further discussion on the subject… awkward. I usually just smile and nod, and promise to Netflix Monk, and try not to ever bring it up again.

***

The first time I realized there was something wrong with me, like really wrong, I was eight years old. I had just read a magazine article about a Dallas heiress who had died of strychnine poisoning, complete with a detailed description of exactly why that is not the best possible way to die. It was a pretty trashy, gossipy article in a magazine that was essentially the society pages printed on glossy stock, but I found it to be excellent, eye-opening journalism: specifically, it opened my eyes to how pretty much everything in the world was probably poisonous and I was for sure going to die in hideous, convulsive agony. Cleaning products, medications, the plant food my mother bought for her garden: toxins were all around me, and trace amounts almost certainly clung to everything I touched, just waiting to do me in. Luckily, there was a simple solution to this problem: just don’t touch anything. When this proved difficult, I developed workarounds — pathological handwashing was a given, plus repeating a made-up prayer a certain number of times, or touching something “safe,” or… My original panic spiraled and grew, two new compulsive behaviors springing up every time one went away, like some kind of hydra of neurosis. Within a few months, it was obvious to everyone that I was a fucking wreck, though probably not as obvious as it could have been if I weren’t obsessed, already, with hiding what was happening. Because I knew it was weird. I knew that things I was thinking, the things I was doing, were not normal. Grade schoolers do not, as a rule, have much frame of reference for this kind of thing, and I was pretty sure that there was no difference between me and, say, that guy in the Dracula movie I’d seen who sat in a padded cell eating bugs and cackling. Crazy was crazy. I was crazy. I just couldn’t let anyone find out.

I figured out about thirty seconds into the latest episode of Girls that it was going to be about obsessive-compulsive disorder. I had recently heard that Lena Dunham has OCD, had been meaning to get around to reading the Rolling Stone interview where she talks about it, etc. — but even without all that, the counting, the ritualized actions, and the look of terrified resignation on her face when she stuffed exactly eight potato chips into her face were too familiar for me to mistake. (For the record, it was the terrified resignation that struck a chord with me, not the shotgunning half a bag of snack food, which, gross.) And my first thought was, “Motherfucker, not this show. Not this show.” Because I really like Girls, and I never miss it, and at the end of another week of work and paying bills and having boy trouble and, yes, okay, dealing with a severe anxiety disorder, I just want a half hour to sit back and relax and titter derisively at Hannah’s awful behavior/unflattering shorteralls. And if the characters’ unrelenting fuckery occasionally serves as a harsh mirror for my own shortcomings, that’s fine. I just wasn’t sure I wanted it to mirror that one part of myself, the part that I guard closely and steer conversations away from, the part that I don’t think I’m ever quite going to be comfortable with.

Something you hear a lot about OCD, when you finally figure out what’s wrong and start reading up on it and going to doctors, is that an important feature of this particular brand of mental illness is the lack of psychotic features. I might, say, have to make sure to cross the street when the countdown on the “walk” light hits 17 lest I get hit by a car, but deep down I do actually realize that such a thing has absolutely no effect on whether I end up a smudge on the pavement. But knowing that my rituals are empty gestures that do nothing — what difference does that really make? Acting crazy is acting crazy, whether you are actually delusional or whether some fucked-up wiring in your head forces you to do things that you are fully aware are delusional. And that is, I think, at the heart of what makes OCD so hard to talk about: it sounds so much more batshit insane than it actually is. You can try to describe the motivations behind it all you want, you can punctuate every sentence with a nervous laugh and an “I mean, I know it doesn’t really do anything,” but you are still describing seriously weird behavior and the even weirder thought patterns behind it. It’s hard to make people understand. Even if they say they do, you still wonder: do they genuinely get it, or, behind their understanding smile, do they think you just sound like a lunatic?

***

In a scene from the new episode of Girls that I found immediately recognizable, Hannah stares into a public-restroom mirror, repeating a formula to herself: “You are fine and good. You are fine and good. You are fine and good.” She pauses, then resumes speaking more quickly, getting it over with: “Youarefineandgoodyouarefineandgoodyouarefineandgood.”

Later, irritated by a psychiatrist’s assertion that her symptoms are “classical,” she rants about having, as a teenager, to perform endless compulsive behaviors. “And the next thing you know,” she snaps, “it’s three in the morning, and you’re exhausted.” In the next scene, she is riding the subway home, clutching a bag of the medication she hadn’t wanted to go back on, her face drawn and utterly defeated.

Hannah is not always a likeable character, and her OCD is not cute or picturesque or inspiring. It doesn’t lead her on hilarious adventures, or help her fight crime. It’s just shitty, and humiliating, and tiring. It’s also the most honest and true-to-life representation of OCD I have ever seen, and unlike commercials for Monk or the cute guidance counselor on Glee, it didn’t make me mortified to be alive. Lena Dunham has succeeded where shows like Monk and Glee seem unable to help themselves from failing: she has depicted OCD, not as a collection of precious quirks or a goofy personality type or the kind of balls-out insanity that you don’t want to admit to having, but as a burden carried by real human beings, a struggle that some of us just have to make the goddamn best of. I would be lying if I said that it didn’t make me feel enormously validated to see my own experience reflected so well, but that’s not why I’m so excited about Dunham’s take on OCD. I’m excited because she made a difficult topic into something that anybody can understand. I’m excited because there can be no real conversation without honesty, and the wacky OCD so often seen in pop culture is not honest. What I saw on Girls was honest, and has, I think, the potential to push the cultural conversation — and the conversations in my own life — on this topic forward, to a place of unprecedented realness and dignity.

And the next time somebody tells me I should totally watch Monk, I’m going to tell them, “Oh, my God! You should totally watch Girls!” TC Mark

S.A. Ryan

S.A. Ryan

S.A. Ryan is a bookseller and aspiring novelist in Texas.

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