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Actor Experiences Success Despite Years of Anguish

June 22, 2014 Print

Hollywood loves a good medical drama, but for Ethan S. Smith, a successful actor, writer and director, the anguish he experienced due to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) was all too real.

Although Smith now successfully manages his OCD, it was just a few years ago that he was in the depths of despair, willing to injure himself to the point of needing to be rushed to the emergency room by paramedics to seek reassurance: all because of the irrational thoughts in his head.

For as long as Smith can remember, his thoughts told him to be afraid—afraid of dying, afraid his family would die, afraid to be alone. By the time he was six, everything in the world scared him and if he didn’t follow exact patterns of blinking, counting, or tapping, death would come to him or those he loved. Although his family knew there was something wrong, it wasn’t until he was 14 that a doctor diagnosed him with OCD.

Unfortunately, Smith's OCD was not properly treated and the illness continued to rule his life. By the time he started college, the childhood rituals that he believed helped keep him and his family alive had evolved into darker and scarier thoughts. He was convinced that he was going to die and became debilitated by the thoughts. He was forced to drop out of college after his first semester and OCD completely ruled his life.

Fourteen years later at the age of 33, Smith was finally admitted to McLean Hospital’s OCD Institute, where he spent several months undergoing treatment. His first weeks at the OCDI were tumultuous, with days spent forcing himself to vomit, faking injuries, screaming at staff and hiding—all in an effort to avoid facing his OCD head on.

“The day after New Year’s, I kept wishing that I wanted to die. I wasn’t suicidal, but I kept trying to convince myself that I wanted to die. I was living a nightmare,” explained Smith.

One day after an intense treatment session, Smith convinced himself that his brain was bleeding and he decided that he needed to go to a medical hospital and took extreme measures. He found a jagged rock behind a building and raked it against his forehead until his face began to bleed excessively. He then threw himself into a snow bank hoping that passers-by would see him and call 911. He knew how to fake a head trauma and thought that if he pretended to have a concussion, he would get a CAT scan. Twenty-five minutes went by before someone called for an ambulance, resulting in Smith getting hypothermia.

“I laid in bed for six days. I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and I hadn’t showered. Then I realized, I didn’t want to die. I thought what do I have to do to not die? I needed to go to the grocery store.”

It was at that moment, Smith had a breakthrough. Self survival became more important than the OCD. He decided to wholeheartedly throw himself into his treatment at McLean, He got a job, a girlfriend and nine months later, he moved to LA to pursue his dreams of having a career in Hollywood. Within two weeks of moving to LA, he booked a movie and has been working steadily ever since.

“Today, I live an unbelievable life and it’s not something I thought was ever possible.” said Smith. “I have normal relationships and I am healthy. Whether its bad times or good times, it doesn’t matter…because I’m living.”

Smith was the keynote speaker during the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation conference last month in Los Angeles. To read more about Ethan Smith, read his guest post in Checking In, the newsletter developed by the staff at McLean's OCDI.