The 32-year-old actress appears on the latest episode of Dax Shepard's podcast, Armchair Expert, where she opens up about her addiction to Klonopin, a benzodiazepine used to treat panic disorder.
Initially unsure if she was going to share her sobriety in public because she didn't "want to advertise it and seem like you're so proud of yourself," she decided to be transparent so others would know they're not alone.
"What people don't recognize is that the benzo epidemic is equally as rampant [as the opioid one]," Shepard, 43, comments. "... They say one of the toughest things to detox from is benzos."
"It is a rough hang, Klonopin," Dunham agrees, after saying that the drug made her feel like she could "operate in the world."
"It is the most normalized, especially in our industry," Dunham says of anxiety medication. "Everyone's got a f**king pill in their purse, a thing in their bag. I want to make sure I have it with me because I'm going to this event, take half of a Xanax. I have an early call time. I fly a lot."
Dunham is no stranger to prescription drugs, having been prescribed opioids multiple times for her "10 abdominal surgeries in the last three years." But the results of Klonopin, she says, were "shocking," and made her wish she'd been warned about the detox process.
"Nobody I know who are prescribed these medications is told, ‘By the way, when you try and get off this, it’s going to be like the most hellacious acid trip you’ve ever had where you’re f**king clutching the walls and your hair is blowing off your head and you can’t believe you found yourself in this situation.'"
Dunham's use of anxiety medication started in her childhood when her mom told her, "'We're going to get you on medication because there's no reason to ever suffer.'"
Though she accepts that "you don't need to be a hero about things," Dunham "really took that [mindset] to heart."
"When I was having crazy anxiety and having to show up for things that I didn’t feel equipped to show up for I was like, 'There's no reason for me to ever suffer,'" she says. "... I know I need to do it, and when I take a Klonopin, I can do it."
"[It made me] feel like the person I was supposed to be," she adds. “It was like suddenly I felt like the part of me that I knew was there was freed up to do her thing. And I didn’t have any trouble getting a doctor to tell me, ‘No you have serious anxiety issues, you should be taking this. This is how you should be existing.’"
Dunham says that things got out of hand when "It stopped being, 'I take one when I fly' and it started being like, 'I take one when I'm awake.'”
After taking medication for years, Dunham's anxiety progressively got worse after multiple traumas and diagnoses.
"I took [Klonopin] on and off and then I was diagnosed with pretty serious PTSD. I have a few sexual traumas in my past and then I had all these surgeries and then I had my hysterectomy after a period of really extreme pain," she says. "... Basically, it stopped feeling like I had panic attacks and it started feeling like I was a living panic attack. The only thing that was notable were the moments in the day where I didn’t feel like I was going to barf and faint.”
The former Girls star was so low at one point, that she thought, "If I don't take this how much worse will it get?" That mindset led to "a solid three years" of "misusing benzos."
"Even though it was all quote unquote doctor prescribed and I had convinced somebody to tell me that this was the way, I can recognize now the way my own manipulation played a part," she says. "My thought was like, 'I'm not in pain because I take pills, I take pills because I'm in pain. And I'm not anxious because I take pills, I take pills because I'm anxious.'"
"I still feel like my brain is recalibrating itself to be able to experience anxiety," she says of her progress.
"I look back at who I thought that medication was allowing me to be more myself and I actually see all of the things that the world sort of wrought on me," she continues. "I don't blame myself for my illness. I don't blame myself for the sexual abuse I experienced. I don't blame myself for the physical abuse I experienced. I don't blame myself for the challenges of being a woman in this world and an anxious woman in this world and living in this body. But I do see the way that I medicated myself, negatively impacted people around me, decimated my decision making, hurt my creativity and so I just feel literally, like, on my knees grateful every single day. "
Aside from having a medically necessary hysterectomy -- something she says caused "the deepest grief I've ever had in my life" -- Dunham's lowest point actually came at the height of her success.
"At my lowest point, I was in a relationship with a really amazing, loving person. I'd won a couple Golden Globes. I'd had an incredible career. I had a family that loved me. I owned three houses," she says. "And I felt like trees would look like they were menacing me. It was so dark."
That experience led Dunham to be a staunch advocate for women's mental health support.
"What I care... the most about is the intersection for women of trauma, mental health and addiction, because I just think that in that nexus is, like, I can see how I would've been lost to the kind of a gravitational pull of my own pain and drowning it out," she says. "I think we lose so many good women. We talk a lot about like, 'What are the things that are holding women back?' And one of the things... [is] the lack of resources around... trauma."
"We think PTSD is reserved for Iraqi soldiers or whatever, but tons of women are experiencing incredible amounts of trauma," she continues. "... I feel like my job -- having survived and by the grace of God surviving every day and staying clean and staying in the world -- I feel like my job is to try and give a voice to that story."
Dunham tweeted about her experience on the podcast, calling it "pretty raw n' real" and saying that she's an advocate for "decreasing shame and emotional transparency."
It was actually during this interview I realized that if I’m an advocate for anything, it’s decreasing shame and emotional transparency. I’ve been through a lot and I’ve learned a lot and I love to talk. I love connection. I love you!