Golden Globe winning actress Lena Dunham, whose groundbreaking HBO series Girls is in its sixth and final season, has been making the media rounds discussing the show’s impact before its premiere on Sunday, February 12th. Last night, however, Dunham was at the 92nd Street Y with Dr. Anne Marie Albano of the New York Presbyterian Youth Center, focused on a different subject. Moderated by Jenni Konner, Dunham’s artistic partner in crime (writer, director, executive producer on “Girls,” as well as co-founder of feminist magazine Lenny Letter and their production company A Casual Romance) they discussed what it is like to grow up with anxiety disorder. Dunham spoke candidly about her own struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder while Dr. Albano, an expert dedicated to the field, offered insight and tools for parents, adults, and children on how not to let the disorder take over your life and how to release the stigma surrounding it.
Anxiety is obviously a timely subject that seems to be of paramount concern for all Americans as they read the news these days. Dunham and Konner appeared at this event at the request of Anna Wintour who also attended. 29% of Americans will have anxiety disorder during their lifetime. When defining anxiety Dr. Albano described it as a “natural normal emotion, too little of it and you’re a sociopath and run for President, but too much of it of course and you take yourself out of your life.”
Dunham admitted at the very start of the event the toll anxiety has taken on her life, “I don’t ever remember a time not being anxious. I know a lot of people will say, it was so great to be a kid, what a carefree moment! I don’t remember a single second of being alive where it didn’t seem like there was looming disaster.”
She explained further, “I think that probably the first four years of my life my parents were probably like we have a kind of quirky and unusual child who sometimes tends to have a glass half empty attitude…I was often dissociative and not responsive to my teachers, not responsive to other kids, going into, not a catatonic state, but a state where I can hear people but I was so focused on my own looping thoughts focusing around numbers, feeling as though I could fix some of the anxiety if I was able to repeat certain patterns again and again and that made it hard for me to interact with other kids”
Then things got interesting.
Manifesting itself in tics and quirks such as “turning around behind me, spinning around, turning on and off light switches” Dunham was keeping her parents awake at night. This instigated visits to a series of therapists who helped her address the issue so she could function. “God bless my third-grade teacher who dealt with me every single day. ‘I looked in the mirror, my eye is yellow do you think I have jaundice?’ I loved historical fiction so I had a horrifying litany of no longer even relevant diseases that I was convinced I had.”
Dunham was reluctant to start medication in those elementary grades, “What if I’m no longer fun to be around? The funny part is “I wasn’t fun to be around. The first year on medication I gained 30 pounds which as you can imagine as a ninth grader who hasn’t grown an inch it was a real pleasure.”
An audience question and answer period followed the frank talk, and when answering the question of “Who has more anxiety, your character on ‘Girls’ or you?” Dunham took a few thoughtful seconds before responding. “I would say it’s different anxiety but at the end of the day it’s me only because Hannah has very specific anxiety about what is going to happen to her. Her anxiety is very focused on “does this boy like me, will this job interview go ok. I am slightly more aware of what is happening on the planet which gives me more things to worry about and I care more about how other people feel so those are added things to be anxious about. Sometimes when I have had really bad moments of anxiety I have thought, well I will be Hannah today. She has so many fewer problems than I do and I could just put on this romper and be her. No one is mad at her on twitter.”
After a bestselling book of essays and six seasons of brutal honesty and a self-obsessed characterization of Hannah Horvath, it’s a fair assessment that many of us have a complicated relationship with Dunham. She has been an easy target by critics, myself included, for her occasional tone deaf remarks from her point of privilege. A wunderkind, Dunham signed her HBO deal after the success of Tiny Furniture at age 24, and has grown up before our eyes, learning as she goes. Last night it became apparent that through it all her motives have remained the same. She wants to create art and a sense of community for women to feel empowered and able to be honest about their struggles. She hasn’t always been successful in her approach, but her intentions don’t seem to be swayed and Dunham doesn’t seem to be stoppable.