Shrink Tank is proud to award its first annual Champion of Mental Health award to a celebrity who has made a great impact in reducing the stigma of mental health and who has created awareness for a condition we don’t talk enough about. We had narrowed the field down to three: HBO’s John Oliver who used his show as a bully pulpit to push for mental health reform. Jack Harries, the YouTube star with over 4 million followers who talked about his own struggles with depression and pushed for greater awareness and acceptance of mental health issues. But this year’s winner was Reid Ewing, who got two-thirds of the readers’ votes and was also the choice of our writing staff.
Reid is familiar to fans of the hit ABC comedy Modern Family. He plays fan-favorite Dylan, Haley’s on and off boyfriend, on the show. He’s also starred in films like Fright Night and The Truth Below. In a year when several celebrities have talked openly about their struggles with mental health concerns, Reid has stood out for his honest, deeply personal, and powerful piece he wrote for the Huffington Post in November. In it, he talked openly about his struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition that affects around 6 million Americans, but is rarely talked about it.
I recently spoke with Reid by phone. He was warm and engaging and genuine. His interview didn’t feel like a lot of the usual celebrity interviews that seem tightly controlled. He came across as a guy who was being honest and didn’t have it all pinned down, but was taking steps to be the healthiest person he can be. The interview can be heard here.
“I definitely did not want to be helped,” he said, referring to the dark days when his Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a condition that involves obsessive preoccupation with some perceived flaw about one’s appearance, had engulfed him, driving him to desire one plastic surgery after another. “I knew what I was doing was destructive, but I really genuinely believed, I idolized appearances. It was so incredibly harmful and made my life extremely miserable.”
In many ways the stage was set for his struggle well before he became famous. He had a long family history of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and when he was a young boy, he would repeatedly erase and scratch out his homework. He had so many obsessive “rules” he had to abide by, so many rituals that ate up his time and ruined his work. As an older teenager, around 17 or 18-years-old, he developed bulimia, an eating disorder that persisted for three or four years.
“I think they are all linked,” he said, referring to the obsessive-compulsive traits, the bulimia, and the body dysmorphia. “I think it all has to do with self-worth and me not feeling like I had any. I feel like that was the root.”
Even as he was becoming famous and getting good work, the condition gripped him tighter, driving him into secrecy. “I was so isolated during my period of about four years…and unaware and ignorant to what was going on and the implications of everything that was happening and what I was doing. I was going down a really miserable path, but it made sense to me in my head.”
The secrecy and isolation made him feel like he couldn’t reach out to others for help. “It was honestly pretty much on my own… The secrecy keeps you not wanting mentors, not wanting help. I didn’t really have that. I mostly just wanted to keep undercover.”[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“I hit what I would call rock bottom,” he said.[/mks_pullquote]
He also kept it secret from his family, at least for awhile. “My parents, they didn’t know about it most of the time because I was really embarrassed by it and I didn’t want them to know.” Eventually, though, the truth began to come out, mostly because he was so “completely single-minded” about his desire to have more surgery. “I hid it from them until I talked to them about it, but I was very manipulative. I wanted them to be on my side, to be on the side where they would let me borrow money [for surgery],” he said. “My mother and father, they both said, “We’ll I don’t see what you are talking about, but this seems to be something that is insanely important to you so we’ll lend you a little money to do this.” He realizes they had no experience with this condition and no real understanding of it. They didn’t know how to best respond to him.
He was incredibly persistent, pleading, insisting. He had to have just one more surgery. His mother, in particular, would repeatedly say no. She told him she wouldn’t give him money for surgery, but he would wear her down, talking about it incessantly, telling her repeatedly of all the reasons why it was necessary, why it was so important to him.
What his parents saw was a young man who was in agony, completing suffering and desperate. They didn’t know what to do to help him. According to Reid, they thought, “Maybe we should loan him money so he can do the surgery so he’ll stop suffering.” However, his “solution” only continued his unhealthy obsession. It continued for years.
He got to a desperately bad place before he was ready to make a change. “I hit what I would call rock bottom,” he said. “There was just one point where I was like, ‘This has to end.’ It was such a low point…and that’s when I made my promise that I would never do it again, no matter what, even though there was still things that bugged the hell out of me about the way I looked and I felt needed correction and could be corrected. I still made that vow and I said I’m never, never going to do that again.”
Reid’s creativity helped him devise a strategy to get better. When he was younger, he used to play a video game where the player battled massive demons and monsters. To deal with his real-life struggle, he called upon that analogy. “It made it more manageable if I saw it through this perspective, as if I were a character in a game dealing with an actual monster,” he said, adding, “I imagined myself in that context in this kind of like good vs. evil battle and that I was literally fighting this monster. And somehow that brought me relief and clarity.” His ability to personify his disorder as a monster let him wage battle against it, a battle that he is currently winning. “You wouldn’t think that would really help but I can say firsthand that it really did.”
On his road to healing, he decided to write the article because he felt like he could use his story to help others. “What good is my checkered past doing anyone if it’s just a secret in my life when it could actually do some good?” he asked.
He didn’t feel worried about the impact of the Huffington Post piece, though. “I care what people think about me a lot, as much as anybody, but in this particular instance, I just didn’t.” He added: “I wasn’t anxious. I’m kind of weird. In some ways I am very self-aware and self-conscious, but then there are other areas where I don’t have any reservations.”
The reaction has been “really surprisingly positive” since the article came out. “98% of what people said were positive things or saying they know somebody with it or saying, ‘I never knew about this before,’” he said. When people contact him to tell them their own stories or that they know someone with BDD who has been helped by the article, he feels like he has done what he set out to do. “That’s like ‘mission accomplished’ for me because that was really the point of it.”
Still, even though the overwhelming majority of people have been kind, there have been a small majority of Twitter trolls who have been nasty, making jokes at his struggle. He claims these don’t bother him, that he lets these comments roll off of him. “Honestly, I wasn’t offended at all,” he said. “I have a sense of humor.”
He didn’t offer easy answers for those struggling with body image issues, including Body Dysmorphic Disorder. He said a starting point for those who are concerned they may have the condition would be to immerse themselves in research and information to get a greater awareness of what they might be dealing with. He also said more conversation about it in the media that isn’t dismissive or jokey—the way people talk about the Kardashians getting plastic surgery, for example—would be helpful.
As far as BDD not getting much media coverage, despite affecting millions of Americans, he believes it’s discussed all the time, just not through the lens of a mental health condition. “There is a lot about it in the media but it’s just not given that name,” he said. “You wonder about these young girls, these starlets who get tons of plastic surgery and it’s like why do they do that, what was the motivation? I would speculate it has something to do with self-image, maybe BDD, because they are already on blast about their looks because they are in magazines, they are all over the place, so they’re so fixated on their looks because their looks are always projected everywhere so they end up having a ton of surgery. I don’t believe that is healthy for their psyche. I’m not in their shoes, but that’s what I would suggest from my own experience.”
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“It’s given my life meaning. That’s why I think I had BDD in the first place because my life really lacked anything substantial, any meaning.”[/mks_pullquote]He believes he is on his own road to health and recovery. However, like many in the spotlight who try to portray all struggles as past tense, he knows he still has to remain vigilant. “There are times when people are looking at me and I have to check myself—and that’s several times on a daily basis—like when someone’s looking at me and I’m imagining how I look through their eyes and it’s disturbing to me and I have to check myself. In that sense, you could say, no, I’m not over it, but in another sense, there are lots of times when I can go out into a public setting and turn it off. I can do that. Also, for working and acting, in that setting I can turn it off, as well. And that’s a really good thing that I am able to turn it off at all.”
For him, he said a decision to consider medicine has helped immensely, which helped not only the BDD and the depression that followed it. At first, he was incredibly resistant to the idea of medication and it took “constant pressure” from his parents and a psychologist to get him to the place where he was willing to consider it. However, once he did, he found it to be extremely helpful. “When I decided to get on medication, it changed my entire outlook of life. It literally made me go, ‘Well, why I am choosing the harder road in all these instances. Why don’t I choose the road that doesn’t have as many obstacles?”
In the midst of his struggle, he had to realize that his brain was often lying to him about his appearance and his desire to correct it. “There’s like a blindspot I have and I’m not being able to see this with clarity and I’m not being able to see this in a way where I can help myself, so I just had to accept that I don’t understand the situation and not give in to these impulses.” Since then, he’s been winning the fight against his monster.
He believes more education is key to helping others. “Imagine if in schools [BDD and body image] was taught about,” he said. “I feel like people have self-image issues in varying degrees and I feel like if I had known more about it maybe I wouldn’t have been so in the dark and making all these mistakes.”
His decision to leave L.A. “for obvious reasons” brought him first to New Orleans for about six months. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t a good fit for him, so he decided to return to Salt Lake City where his parents live. Being near them has proven to be good for him and he has their strong support. “It’s made my life just that much better, to be near them, to have them there. It has been completely just a huge step in the right direction.”
These days he’s an English major at the University of Utah. For a creative person who is a good writer and loves to read, it seems like the perfect choice for him. “It’s given my life meaning. That’s why I think I had BDD in the first place because my life really lacked anything substantial, any meaning.” He’s also doing a side job that lets him serve people with health needs, which also feels like a wise step in his own healing. In his home life, he has four dogs that he loves. “I’m all about the dog life! One hundred percent!” he said. As far as acting, he’s not pursing any auditions these days, but is willing to take the right jobs that come to him. And if you thought we couldn’t love Modern Family more, he said one the Executive Producers of the show contacted him to compliment him on the article and let him know they would put him back in an episode the next time the right story opportunity comes open. We may be seeing more of Dylan yet.
It’s easy to see why we picked Reid as our first annual Champion of Mental Health. His honesty and genuine spirit are refreshing. His candor and openness are already helping others in their own journeys. Reid Ewing was bold last year, but the impact of his words and his example will be felt throughout this new year and beyond.
Please share this article with your friends and family on social media. The more people with similar struggles that Reid can reach, the better. It may be a good first step in their own healing. For more information about Body Dysmorphic Disorder, check out these reputable sites:
To hear the actual interview, check out a special edition of the Shrink Tank podcast located here. You can also subscribe to it on iTunes and get the interview as soon as it becomes available. If you listen to it, I’m sure you’ll agree he comes across really well. Check it out.