“My dad was just a big Joseph Campbell nut. I was young enough when that Power of Myth series came out that I really didn’t believe I was making the big connection. But I was like, ‘Oh, Star Wars is a religion; that counts.’ Now I have actually come around to believe that.” —Trey Parker, New York Magazine
Being on a pass from the hospital is like being on a secret mission. You’re undercover, in a way; you’re still a patient, but you’re transitioning, little by little, into being a citizen of the world again. You have to act “normal,” I guess, and you realize how dumb a concept “normal” really is. You also start to realize how much you’ve missed your life after an eating disorder has taken it over: you don’t linger on numbers or “plans” as much as freak out over ordinary, boring things you’ve taken for granted. To go to the movies and eat a snack would have sounded as impossible to me as befriending a Chupacabra a couple of months earlier. But I began to recognize that these lovely moments are gifts. In order to deal with mental illness of any kind, the tiny choices you make—to look someone in the eye, to let your guard down, to have a little faith in something, anything—are the steps that bring you a little closer to feeling better.
Watching The Return of the King in the theater was a validation of all that I had accomplished: I’d worked hard enough to reach my goals, mentally and physically, and the reward was an escape into my favorite story of all time. It was especially important because it was the last film—the complicated but happy ending. When I returned to the facility, everyone asked how the movie was, and I went on and on about it. Everything seemed perfect: the story had ended beautifully, and now I was going home. A few days later, I was back in my parents’ house, without a 24-hour medical staff, without pre-made meals, without 20 other women going through a similar situation. I was responsible for my own recovery. I was scared out of my mind. I will admit that more than once, I sat down to eat my breakfast and thought of the last lines of The Lord of the Rings: “He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” Of course my next thought was always “Ah, crap. Now what?” which, as far as I know, is not a direct quote from Tolkien.
In need of an escape and a reminder of how dark journeys can have bright ends, I went to see Return of the King again. And then I went to see it again. And then I pulled out my SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE paperback and read it over and over, scribbling notes, underlining important passages, and staining pages with frustrated and hopeful tears. Every time I thought about flaking on my meal plan or felt angry that things like eating, leaving the house, and existing seemed so easy to other people, I’d go back to the book. I needed to follow unlikely heroes, and I needed them to step up and win. (This was also, I should add, the same reason I went through a very intense Harry Potter period.) I needed to wrap my own journey in the cloak of fantasy in order to get a little perspective on how much work, faith, and hope it takes to defeat a merciless and powerful enemy. Magic is a very soothing medication.
There are many paths that people take post-hospitalization in order to help them re-acclimate to the world. I decided to live in a fictional one for a while. As a bit of a sweet joke, my then-boyfriend even bought me an Evenstar necklace, which I started carrying around as a panic charm—something I could rub between my fingers whenever the world overwhelmed me. I still have it. I still need it, once in a while.
There are a million books on what it’s like to be inside of a hospital, but there aren’t many that deal with the weirdness that is leaving. Whenever I felt the pull of my eating disorder, I thought of all the LOTR characters, particularly Gollum, whose desperation for the ring may be the best on-screen depiction of what it’s like to deal with an ED voice, though I’m sure that wasn’t the intention. For the uninitiated, Gollum was once a Hobbit named Sméagol who murdered his friend Déagol when the two came across the Ring of Power. He was shunned from his community, and the ring slowly drove him to madness and obsession, changing him into a pitiful monster of sorts, corrupted by evil power and his desire to hold on to it. Like the ring, an ED voice takes over your mind and fights as hard as it can to keep you in the dark, obsessed and alone, closed off to the outside world, willing to lose your entire identity to something that is slowly killing you. Choose to follow the bully in your head who only wants “the precious,” and you fall deeper into illness, until it eventually consumes and destroys you.
Frodo Baggins, on the other hand, reminds me of anyone going through recovery and making hard decisions—the choice to carry the ring, for example, and to continue on, no matter how difficult the journey becomes, to Mordor, a truly dark and frightening place, in order to destroy it (and, you know, save the world). He takes small steps—all the while being tempted by the force of the ring. And even after the ring leaves him, the weight of carrying it doesn’t, and he needs to leave his familiar world in order to heal. I carry him with me, as there are days when moving forward is the only way to avoid falling back, or worse, staying still.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who happen to live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
When people make fun of The Lord of the Rings, I imagine the story just hit them at the wrong time, or maybe it’s just a story they don’t need. In the hospital, we were never forced to cling to any religion, but asked to consider having a little faith—if not in a “higher power,” then in the idea that recovery was possible, and that we were stronger than the illness that was trying to kill us. Some people went to church, some people clung to self-help manuals, some of us escaped into alternate worlds, and many of us did a combination of all three. All we wanted was a spark to guide us through the gloom, to help us wander until we were no longer lost, and the path before us was winding with possibility and light. ♦