Overcomers: An Artist Triumphs over Tourette’s and OCD
I first met Eli Smith at a get-together at a friend’s house. We struck up a conversation and I quickly became fascinated by his life story. He is an American, but grew up in London, UK. He is an artist, both by gifting and by education, but earns a living as a scientist doing eye research. I was curious about Eli’s artwork so he showed me photos of his paintings. When I asked about the motivation behind his work, I was stunned to learn that much of Eli’s art is inspired by the difficulties he deals with every day: the dual challenges of Obsessive Compulsive disorder (OCD) and Tourette’s syndrome.
Tourette’s is a neurological disorder which produces physical and verbal tics. Over the years, it has caused Eli to bark, cough, grunt, roll his eyes to extreme angles, scrunch his nose, jerk his head, punch the air, and even kick his own rear end. He’s gotten really good at doing the physical tics so quickly that most people don’t notice. When people do notice a tic and ask questions, Eli says, “I have a condition called Tourette’s syndrome, and that’s one of my habits.” If they want to know more, he is happy to answer their questions. He says, “Being less defensive about the condition allows other people to approach it. There are so many conditions out there—I can’t expect people to know everything about my disorders. The easier it is for people to learn about it, the easier it is for me.”
Tourette’s was especially difficult for Eli during childhood. His tics were distracting to other students and he was often blamed if they did poorly on exams. He was teased and bullied, too, which resulted in low self-esteem and frustration. When he was 10, before being diagnosed with Tourette’s, he had a loud verbal tic that sounded like a dog’s bark. A teacher took him aside and gently said “I know you must have something, but you need to stop because it’s disrupting the rest of the class.” Eli liked the teacher and says, “I was so nervous that I would let him down, that I managed to not do it.” He adds that when he’s nervous, his Tourette’s symptoms actually decrease.
OCD is a psychiatric disorder involving obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions. For Eli, the obsessive thoughts were often overwhelming, making him afraid that something bad would happen to him or his family if he didn’t perform certain actions. One of those actions was washing his hands whenever he touched something with an odd texture, and then washing the faucet handles, too. “Logically, you know the bad thing won’t happen, but it’s easier to do the behavior than to deal with the anxiety.” Eli says his most difficult compulsion had to do with reading. If he didn’t pronounce every word perfectly in his head, he felt compelled to go back and reread the whole sentence. It was so exhausting that he stopped reading for pleasure, only reading what he had to read for school.
When Eli was 12 his mother convinced their family doctor that he needed to be evaluated by specialists. He was referred to a hospital that specialized in behavioral psychology; it was there that Eli was diagnosed with Tourette’s and OCD. Not a lot was known about OCD at that time, so he was enrolled in a testing program where he received cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and doctors studied him to learn more about the disorder.
The CBT sessions focused on one obsessive behavior at a time. “Flooding” exercises were used to trigger a huge spike of anxiety, and then Eli had to resist responding and wait for his feelings to return to normal. For instance: he was asked to rub his hand up and down a bathroom door handle then stand still, fighting the powerful urge to wash his hands. His homework for the week was to avoid the one habit they’d worked on. The sessions were very helpful. It felt good to be understood and to comprehend what was going on and be taught ways to deal with the disorder. The biggest benefit was group therapy because Eli got to interact with other teenagers with OCD—and see that he was not alone.
Along with therapy, Eli was prescribed Prozac, which took away the edge of anxiety. Together, therapy and medication worked wonders to reduce the OCD symptoms. When Eli came to the US for college, he no longer had health coverage to pay for the Prozac, so he hasn’t taken it since then. At the time of his diagnosis, there was no available therapy for Tourette’s; medication was prescribed to control the tics but, though it was effective, it caused excessive sleepiness so he chose to do without it.
Eli always enjoyed art and over time it has become his source of therapy. Because he knows what it’s like to not be in control mentally and physically, and he knows what it’s like to be mistreated because of the things he can’t control, he chooses to paint in a very meticulous, mechanical, controlled process—leaving very little to chance. Though his art may seem like a back-lash against Tourette’s and OCD, Eli suspects he can credit them for his creative ability. Eli’s brother, who is on the autistic spectrum, is very musical and Eli is an artist, though neither of their parents is the least bit artistic. Since artistic ability is often a side effect of mental disorders, Eli speculates that his and his brother’s disabilities enabled their artistic abilities. Additionally, OCD gives Eli an edge as an artist because it helps him to be consistent and disciplined.
Eli’s day job researching eye diseases is a good, if unexpected, fit for him. He likes it because it gives him financial stability and it gives him a routine and a rigid schedule, which is important because he needs every day to be the same. Ultimately, however, he’d like to be able to do art fulltime.
OCD no longer interferes with Eli’s everyday life; it doesn’t stop him from living a normal life. He’s actually come to view his “disabilities” as blessings. He says they’ve made him a much stronger person and they’ve given him empathy for a wide range of people. Looking back, he says he’s glad for what he’s gone through, that it’s been a character-building experience. He’s able to say he came out the other side and it didn’t destroy him. He adds that though he wouldn’t want to relive it, he wouldn’t change it.
In closing, Eli offers advice for those who have (or think they may have) Tourette’s or OCD:
Learn as much as you can about your condition—then take whatever steps you can to deal with it. Try medication. Try therapy. Take advantage of whatever is available. “Don’t use the diagnosis as a crutch—don’t use it as a way to excuse yourself of responsibility.” Do what you can.
And for parents of children with OCD or Tourette’s:
Don’t blame yourself; it isn’t helpful to your child or to you. Resist being offended on your child’s behalf, and resist becoming defensive. If people ask questions, just answer them politely. The more comfortable you are with your child’s challenges—being able to talk about them and even laugh about them—the more comfortable your child will be with them.
Detail of the painting titled, TS sit stIll (a piece directly influenced by Tourette’s), courtesy of Eli Smith.