Breaking Free From OCD

If Ethan Smith’s life with obsessive-compulsive disorder were a movie, it would have a Hollywood ending. The writer, director, and actor in North Hollywood was held prisoner by extreme OCD for most of his life. In fact, Smith, 36, believes he was born with it. Today, though, he has a brand-new life thanks to his parents and mental health experts who refused to give up on him.

A person with OCD has many unwanted thoughts and images about particular things — obsessions that cause anxiety and lead to time-consuming behaviors or compulsions as coping mechanisms. Most people can function but struggle to do so because they spend so much time on their compulsive behaviors, says Jeff Szymanski, PhD, executive director of the International OCD Foundation in Boston.

Smith’s earliest memory of OCD is when, at age 4, he became convinced that his head would explode if he swallowed a bug. “I would try to close every hole in my face to make sure a fly didn’t get in there,” he says.

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Later on, OCD and separation anxiety affected him at school. “I was afraid to leave my parents; I was afraid of getting sick in class; I was constantly crying and hiding in the bathroom,” he recalls. He would take his temperature secretly some 60 times a day to make sure he wasn’t sick. A psychiatrist put him on antidepressants at age 14.

Acting was the only thing that helped him keep a semblance of real life, so he threw himself into youth theater. “My passion could override the OCD at times,” he says.

In early adulthood, Smith dropped out of college because of his issues. He went to live near his parents in Florida and found various acting jobs. Still, though, OCD had a grip on him. He continued his compulsive temperature-taking and fell apart at the thought of getting sick.

The Levee Breaks

In 2009 Smith decided to stop taking medications to see how he would fare. Shortly afterward, a romantic breakup and the death of his grandfather sent him into a tailspin. He was no longer able to function.

Fearing he was suicidal, a doctor asked Smith whether he thought he was a danger to himself. Smith then became obsessed with the thought that he might be able to harm himself, even though he didn’t want to. He became afraid of his own hands, believing that somehow they would take on a life of their own and feed him poison or bash him in the head. To protect himself, Smith wrapped his hands in the back of his underwear and lay on his arms all day long. His parents fed and cared for him.

Eventually he was placed in a psychiatric ward, where he was misdiagnosed with psychosis.

Recovering From OCD

Desperate to help their son, Smith’s parents found the NeuroBehavioral Institute in Florida, where he began aggressive therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP).

In ERP, a person with OCD faces his fears but cannot use the compulsive response he usually uses to ease the anxiety, Szymanski says. Eventually the person can overcome the obsessive thoughts. It’s not an easy treatment. For a person with OCD, “it feels like standing in the middle of a highway watching a car coming at you,” he says.

Smith made some gains but needed to separate from his parents. His therapy team arranged to send him to Boston to be treated at the respected Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute (OCDI). But the OCD and the separation anxiety made the transition extremely rocky. Smith was disruptive and was kicked out after about two months.

Still, his therapists in Florida and Boston didn’t give up on him. With the approval of his parents, all of his possessions were sold and Smith was told he could not return to Florida. He was given one choice: Find a place to live and a job in Boston and attend OCDI as an outpatient.

He took these steps but was scared to death. His obsessive thoughts kept him a prisoner in bed for six days. Realizing he would die if he didn’t get up and eat something, Smith decided to walk to the store for some food.

“That was the aha moment,” he says. “My therapists realized I had to be stripped of everything to not indulge my OCD — if I did, I would die.”

Smith got better and, at 32, moved to Los Angeles, where he continues to recover. He’s currently developing a book, television show, and movie loosely based on his story. Smith recently shared his journey at an International OCD Foundation conference.

“Today I’m unbelievably happy, and life is amazing,” he says. “If you’ve been locked in a cage for 32 years and suddenly the door is open and the world lies at your feet, it’s always a good day.”