By Ethan S. Smith, IOCDF National Ambassador
What happens when OCD is no longer the biggest challenge you face in your day to day life? After successful treatment, does life become easy, with OCD mere background noise rather than the seemingly immovable barrier that it once was? IOCDF National Ambassador, Ethan S. Smith describes the surprising insights and lessons that came in the wake of his successful OCD treatment.
I remember a conversation I had with my girlfriend at the time, shortly before moving from Boston to LA to “start my life.” I told her “Let me move out and get settled first. I should be able to make a half million or so in six months as an actor. Then you move out and we’ll get a place together.” I was one hundred percent sincere making that claim. Made complete sense. Even with OCD tying both hands behind my back, I had been able to eke out a relatively successful acting career, appearing in commercials, television, and movies. And from Florida no less! Where I was afraid to leave my parents house because of my OCD and anxiety. Now with the cage door open and the wind at my back, I was set to fly off to Los Angeles and make life my bitch.
For those of you familiar with my story, it’s a cautionary tale of how malignant and terrible OCD can get. How physically ill a mental disorder can make you. How after 31 years of tortuous thoughts, compulsions, missed experiences, milestones, ill-equipped treatment providers, and living life on the sidelines, I finally got better through insane amounts of tough love, support, and that elusive effective treatment.
I’ve been living close to 8 years now in a state of successfully managing OCD. I simply define that as living my life as close to my values as possible without OCD interfering in decision making or functioning. This doesn’t mean I don’t have obsessive thoughts. It definitely doesn’t mean I don’t ritualize at times (I just finished googling “How many times can you re-heat Chinese food?”). It just means that OCD doesn’t play a primary role in my life. I am grateful. I am blessed.
And then… I’ve begun to learn a very valuable (and painful) lesson in the past few years: Achieving freedom from OCD’s grasp doesn’t guarantee all my dreams will come true.
I spent thirty-one year’s imagining what my life would be like if pesky OCD wasn’t a factor. All the things I’d be capable of achieving. How much easier life would be. All my dreams and goals a reality for me to bask in the glow of. And… it was a logical leap. For all intents and purposes, I was a successful actor unable to take the next steps because of my OCD. I had successful relationships torn apart by OCD. Every problem and failure in my life I could point the finger at OCD and blame it. So, if OCD goes away, life becomes clear sailing with the wind at my back and my dreams ahead. But my OCD is in check. And so why am I still trying to afford a boat that stays afloat, let alone sail the waters of life towards the sunset?
No longer having OCD to blame for failures and missteps is a staggering revelation. Granted, I’m in an industry with a soul-crushing amount of judgement and rejection. That aside, I had an expectation that life, free from OCD, would be easy. After all the suffering I had experienced, I deserved and should experience an obstacle free life.
At first, I shrugged off life’s hardships pretty well. Overtime, however, the day-to-day struggle started creating immense doubt and insecurity in my mind. With OCD mostly out of the picture, if things didn’t go my way, the only thing to blame… was me. Every project gone wrong, failed relationship, inability to succeed, perform, pay a bill? MY FAULT. The truth had been unraveled. Ethan the individual finally exposed as less than, not good enough, a fraud, a let-down, loathsome, an embarrassment to everyone who ever believed in me. Life proved me wrong, and that absolutely crushed me. I understand that this is a pretty harsh judgement (see below for my New Year’s resolution to treat myself better!), but this is how it felt at the time. There are times where it still feels that way.
The last two years have been fraught with life’s ups and downs. Life is really hard, and it’s harder for those of us that struggle with mental illness. I can only speak from my own experience, but that wasn’t obvious to me at first. I wasn’t prepared for it. When I got better, I was new skin exposed to a bright sun with no sun screen. I got burned!
So what now? This morning I wrote in my self-compassion journal. Turns out self-compassion is where it’s at – my aforementioned New Year’s Resolution. I have realized that I currently have very little of it. I took a test. On a scale from 1-5 (with 5 loving yourself a little too much), I scored 1.43. At least I’m fantastic at not being self-compassionate. But I’m working hard to change that. I’ve started seeing my therapist twice a week for a while. I’m working on my self-compassion workbook. I’m reading two other books on self-compassion. I’m meditating more. Thanking myself more. Trying to love myself again. It’s going to take time. I’m on my way.
When it comes to advocacy, I’ve always taken a transparent approach. This is me. This is where I am right now, as you’re reading this. The journey doesn’t end because the OCD chapter closes. It actually gets harder because life is not a straight line (we’ve all seen that meme). But I don’t tell you any of this to discourage you. In fact, quite the opposite. I tell you this in case you are feeling alone with similar feelings. So, you know I’m with you in this process.
Keep getting up when you’re knocked down. Keep fighting for you. Keep being proactive and continue to work the process. Don’t be fooled by self-stigma, lean on your friends and family. There’s no shame in struggling just because you’ve struggled in the past. I’m just learning that. Life is tough, but you’re tougher. Discover your silver linings. I think they’re the most beautiful parts of life, and they only come, after the storm.
Also, you should only re-heat Chinese food once.