What I Learned About Anxiety From ‘Girls’
Earlier this month, HBO’s “Girls” ended its second season with Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) incapacitated by anxiety-induced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, her ebook on the lost generation of 20-somethings looking more and more unlikely; I read the first few chapters of Phillip Lopate’s new book “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction” and Lopate’s thoughts on a writer’s obsessions; and I started to have a panic attack at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., during a promotional screening of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”
It had been three medicated years since the last one, but I knew immediately what was happening. There is the initial trigger: a jolt, a kick, you’re aware that your breathing is a little unusual, or that your body isn’t reacting the way that it should. You extend your breathing to see if that will slow your heart, but your body is shifting, moving, trying to find a comfortable position. You become obsessed with the thought of relaxing. You notice that you wore really tight socks. You need to be composed, and stay composed. The thing you fear most is embarrassment. As soon as your conscious mind forms the words “panic attack,” it is over: that thought will metastasize, it will be the only thing in your brain. “Don’t pass out” becomes a hopeless mantra, and you lose consciousness.
Or: you realize what is happening. You grab your coat, leave, try to find somewhere quiet to settle down. Your head is a weird combination of heavy and light, your vision blurs. Outside the theater I propped myself up on one of those green plastic boxes where they dispense brochures for the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. But I need to sit down, and the only thing I see are the snow-wet steps leading to the Anthropologie on the second floor of the Design Research Building at 48 Brattle Street. I’m not sure how long I sat on the steps, relaxing. Two girls passed me: one only said excuse me; one asked me if the store was closed. There was an ambulance almost exactly in front of the theater. If it was there before, I didn’t notice. I wondered if they watched me keel over on the plastic box, and if they thought to help. By then I was feeling closer to normal. Those thoughts meant that I was close to normal. I pulled out my phone, saw there was a bus coming, and left. I’ll have to go back in April to see the movie.
I never wanted to write about “Girls” because so much has been written about “Girls.” By now it’s even cliché to start a piece on “Girls” by apologizing for adding to the pile of writing on “Girls.” But I also had nothing to add. The only thing I ever wanted to say about “Girls” was that the media debate over its Whiteness was really a proxy for the general lack of diversity on TV, and even a proxy for the fact that middle-class college graduates still cloister themselves in racially homogenous social groups. But that idea was taken before an editor could respond to my pitch.
Then Hannah had her breakdown. I know that Hannah’s anxieties aren’t the same as mine; to paraphrase Tolstoy, “every anxious person is anxious in her own way.” But I also know that I wouldn’t try writing about Hannah and “Girls” if I hadn’t experienced what I experienced last week — and that experience includes Lopate’s advice to a student worrying that she didn’t have the necessary obsessions to write, that “obsession was overrated.” Obsession is overrated. Ask Hannah.
Out of nowhere she started to do things in eights: she pinches herself eight times, turns her head eight times to one side, then eight times to the other. There was a cartoonish quality to it; it seemed more like someone’s imagination of what incapacitating OCD looks like than a mirror of personal experience. The show needed expository dialogue to fill in the gaps: Hannah’s parents were conveniently visiting, they saw their daughter counting, and diagnosed it as a recurrence of adolescent OCD. They took her to a child psychiatrist; he prescribed medication. She said she didn’t want to take medication because of the way it makes her feel. The episode ends with Hannah and her parents straphanging on the subway. The parents are weary, but Hannah is dopey. She clutches a pharmacy bag with her other hand.
The storyline grew more convincing as it continued. Medication (if she’s taking it) doesn’t resolve her problems. Her editor hates her writing. Her friends have disappeared. In a beautifully composed shot, Hannah stands in front of a mirror manically cleaning her ear with a Q-Tip, pushing it inside her body until she shoves it too far and winces in pain. The Q-Tip is stuck and she will have to go to the hospital to get it removed. The mirror makes the scene: Hannah watches her actions, she sees herself doing something she should not. She knows she should stop. She recognizes, clearly, what is happening. But recognition cannot stop the action. It almost never stops the action. Later, back home from the hospital, proudly bearing her bloody Q-Tip as a talisman, Hannah starts cleaning out the other ear, shoving a Q-Tip inside. Her obsessions won’t allow her to leave one side alone. This is what happens in anxiety attacks: you do things you know are irrational and bad for you. You need them, and then hate yourself for needing them.
Everything after this is an anti-climax. The last episode brings people together and splits others apart. But it was always going to be an anti-climax: you can’t honestly resolve obsessions and anxieties in a half-hour episode of a sitcom, not if you’ve been honest about those anxieties, as “Girls” was in the season’s penultimate episode, during the Q-Tip scene. All you can do is retreat to a moment of calm.
The most admirable part of the show’s treatment of anxiety is its refusal to connect Hannah’s breakdown and her ebook. The two coincide, and the viewer is invited to link them. It even comes up in her meeting with the psychiatrist. But they never explicitly say that Hannah’s anxiety is about writing and the pressure of being the voice of her lost generation. They never diagnose this as the cause, because it’s not the cause. Anxiety and panic are never as sudden as we imagine them to be. There’s a trigger, yes, but the attack is only set off because the sufferer is already in an elevated state of stress. Hannah’s OCD manifests itself not because she has to write a book, but because she had a terrible breakup, and her friends have moved away or betrayed her. Not even her parents will help her. They are too tired to help her. In a different mood, the book wouldn’t have triggered her attack. She could write if she weren’t so alone. On a different day, “Upstream Color” would have been just another movie.
Dunham has said that she suffers from OCD during times of extreme stress. Like her character, she counted in eights, and touched herself before bed. But despite our desire to use “Girls” as a lens on the youth of America, “Girls” is TV show, a half-hour comedy mixed with drama. (A dramedy? A sitcomerama?) Dunham could have had Hannah suffer from any anxiety disorder; OCD was an aesthetic choice, one chosen to say something about the character, one chosen to say something, perhaps, about writing.
As Lopate tells us,
Obsession tends to go nowhere. I have met obsessive types in my wanderings, and mostly they were pretty boring. Obsessives repeat themselves, while ignoring other people or stories breaking around them; it’s an exceedingly redundant form of thinking, so I’m not sure how useful it is in the production of nonfiction.
Hannah’s obsessions occlude everyone else from view. Hannah’s obsessions make it impossible to tell anyone else’s story. In a moment of desperation, her editor suggests making her memoir into a novel. He’s giving her a way to focus only on her self, to stay inward. Hannah refuses to listen.
The meeting with the editor is essential for understanding what Dunham is trying to do in “Girls.” Her editor fixates on her sex scenes and tells her to make up sex if she isn’t having it. The viewer cannot miss the reflexiveness of the situation: uncomfortable sex is the most talked about aspect of “Girls.” It was the centerpiece of Emily Nussbaum’s trendsetting New York magazine cover story. We fixate on Dunham’s body, and what it says that she’s willing to undress in nearly every episode. The focus on sex and nudity seems obsessive, taboo-busting for the sake of taboo-busting, or for the sake of verisimilitude. The editor wants her to concentrate on uncomfortable sex because he is a part of this media culture: he knows, with the right promotion, it will start a dialogue about her book.
That Hannah doesn’t immediately start writing about sex tells us something about “Girls.” The moment is a way of getting us to see that Dunham writes about sex not out of obsession with the act and with how uncomfortable it can be, but because of what it says about the people involved. Sex and intimacy are not the same. People lie about themselves in the bedroom. They hide their tastes, their fetishes, their true selves. Hannah’s ex, Adam, doesn’t know if he can be himself around his new girlfriend, a fact brought home in discomfiting, even horrifying fashion. A failed sexual encounter early in the season punctured the gloss of perfection around Marnie. Sex shows us what the show really is, and here Dunham re-establishes the distance between her and her character. Hannah may want to be the voice of her generation, but Dunham only wants “Girls” to be another show about relationships: how difficult they are, how isolating, how hard it is to tell what matters, and how easily the anxiety of trying to make them work can destroy them.
Everyone who suffers from anxiety problems knows their double-edge. Anxiety can make it impossible to work. Anxiety can shut you inside your apartment, indulging in your worst habits. Anxiety forces you to leave, or forbids you from entering. But anxiety can also be what lets you connect to others, what lets you write, what lets you remember what is important. You’re never quite sure if it’s a gift or a curse.