Lena Dunham might share a few traits with her Girls character Hannah Horvath, including anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the kind of anxiety each of them face is very different.
“At the end of the day, I would say I have more anxiety than Hannah, only because Hannah has very specific anxiety about what’s going to happen to her,” Dunham said. “‘Does this boy like me?’ ‘Did this job interview go okay?’ I’m slightly more aware of what’s happening on the planet, and I care more about how other people feel, so those are added elements to be anxious about. Sometimes when I have really bad anxiety, I do go, ‘Well, I’m just Hannah today. She has so many fewer problems than I do!’ And I’ll just put on ‘Stronger’ and be her. No one’s mad at her on Twitter!”
During a talk Tuesday night at the 92Y with Dr. Ann Marie Albano of New York-Presbyterian’s Youth Anxiety Center, Dunham shared her own history with anxiety, which included separation anxiety (her dad would have to hide from her when he was near her school, so as not to set off what she called “school refusal”), hypochondria, which resulted in her pestering her third-grade teacher every day with a new symptom (“My eye is yellow. Do you think it’s jaundice?”), and obsessive-compulsive behavior (which included feeling up statues at museums). By the fifth grade, doctors and teachers were recommending medication, and by the eighth grade, she started on a series of drugs.
“I’m no doctor, even if I like to think I am, and I know now that they were over-prescribing for every single symptom that presented itself,” Dunham said. First she took an SSRI (Fluvoxamine), but when that didn’t work, they increased the dosage, until she was on 350 milligrams, “which is enough to take down a horse,” she said. It made her gain 30 pounds during her freshman year of high school. The drug also made it difficult for her to stay awake for school, so she was prescribed Adderall. “That made me feel crazy,” she said, “so then they were like, ‘We’re going to give you some Risperdal so you’re able to sleep.’”
Taking this cocktail of drugs, which didn’t really solve her problems but kept causing more of them, “really broke me,” she said. One day, she was standing outside her house in Brooklyn, staring at the headlights of a car. “I felt like, ‘I could just walk right in front of that car, and I wouldn’t have to worry about this again. Maybe other people can move around on these drugs, but I can’t do it.’” That feeling scared her enough that she went back inside and told her parents that they needed to come up with a new treatment plan to manage her anxiety. Fewer pills helped, as did talk therapy, but Dunham also said that working on Girls really helped her cancel out the noise in her brain. “One place that I feel really happy and safe is on the set,” she said. “I love the business, I love the distraction, I love the camaraderie.” Ironically, she said, she finds “very stressful situations” to be places where she functions very well, with less anxiety.
“There’s still a lot happening in my brain all day that people around me don’t need to know about,” she added. For instance, she tries to refrain from obsessively asking people, “Are you mad at me?” — save her producing partner, Jenni Konner. “She’s the only person I’m allowed to ask,” Dunham laughed. “It’s a really bad habit.”