Smith's WillBy Jennifer Lenhart Posted: Sep 12, 2006
Mchelle Ray Smith uses the word "thankful" a lot, so much so that she jokes she should get it tattooed on her arm. She's thankful that Ava, her role on GUIDING LIGHT, was specifically created for her and is not known as the "token girl in the bikini." She's thankful for her family's health and for finding the perfect boyfriend, Brian, via the Internet (see sidebar). She's thankful for her dogs; she's thankful for her modeling career; she's thankful for therapy. And most of all these days, she's thankful for her place in the spotlight, if only because she can help raise awareness about a subject close to her heart: suicide, from which her father, Jeff, died.
At the time of this interview, Smith was preparing for "Out of the Darkness," an overnight, 20-mile walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org), held in Chicago on August 12. "For the first time since he died — it's been three years in September — I feel at peace. I'm excited about the walk; I can't wait to identify with people. It's so therapeutic. I want to be as honest as I can be with everything because we're all human and everyone has skeletons in their closets. It's just part of life. I've gone through many phases of trying to heal myself and one of the most common places to be is, 'What could I have done? Maybe I should have listened to him when he asked me this question or maybe I should have been there when he said this.' You hold on to every last moment that you had, wondering. It's tough. It's such an empty, hollow loss that you just cannot ever really get over, I don't think," she explains, which is why it's so important to open up to others about the experience. She was inspired to join A.F.S.P. after a special LARRY KING LIVE last Christmas featuring celebrities like Mariel Hemingway and Melissa and Joan Rivers discussing how suicide had affected their lives. "It was the first time I had ever seen anyone really speak out. People don't even want to talk about being depressed; forget being suicidal. It's like if you're depressed they think you need to go to an insane asylum," she says. "The second leading cause of death in college students is suicide. It affects so many people; it's like a ripple effect. It's so common and it's something that's very treatable with therapy and medications. It's a sickness. I know my father, I was looking at pictures this week end when I was at home and he was not behind his eyes. He was not himself. He was in a place where he just couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, which is why 'Out of the Darkness' is such a great name for the walk because that's how you feel: like you're in the dark and no one's there. This career has given me such a great opportunity to be involved and to change people's lives and I've already done that, I know I have because people write to me and tell me that. It's the best thing that's happened to me in my entire life, by far." It was Jeff Smith who taught his daughter one of the most important lessons in her life, which she called upon to build the career she has now. "My father was always supportive of everything I did. He would say, 'Shell, if anyone can do it, you can do it.' He was a very hard worker, he drove a truck for an electric company and he was very proud," she says. "He never finished college, but he instilled in me the value that if you apply yourself to everything you do, you have that confidence of saying, 'I might fail at this, but I know I've done my homework and prepared myself. I know I've done the best I can.' Once you have that in your heart, it's so satisfying. And it makes everything else in life, even the disappointments, easier to deal with."