Live Through This

Lost and Found

I was pretty sure that The Lord of the Rings was going to bore me to death. Instead, it ended up saving my life.

Illustration by Caitlin

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” —Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Five days before I left the psychiatric hospital, I was granted permission to use a night pass. The girls who weren’t at pass-level yet, who were allowed to venture outside our residential treatment facility only with staff supervision, asked me where I was going to spend my four hours of precious freedom. I told them I was going to the movies—but in my mind I was headed to Middle Earth.

I had entered the hospital three months earlier with a diagnosis of acute anorexia nervosa and was immediately placed in a wheelchair, as the medical team was worried that walking would tax my weakened heart and send me into cardiac arrest. The acute unit is a place of stabilization: you are there to sit, to rest, and to leave only when it’s time to eat or attend a group therapy session. You have almost no freedom, which is understandable, as you’re medically and emotionally unstable, and the entire point of the acute unit is getting your brain and body working well enough that you can handle the next phase of recovery, which is heavier on therapy and lighter on IVs and captivity.

It’s sort of hard to tell hospital stories. I give minimal details, because most of the things I vividly remember involve other people, who deserve their privacy, and also because the hospital, despite what most movies would have you believe, is a pretty boring place most of the time—it’s basically a giant sitting room where a group of people individually try to recover from their shared disorder together. Since everyone is in a different stage of the process, it’s sort of like being surrounded with former and future versions of yourself—the further along you go, the more you recognize how ill the newer patients are (and how ill you were when you entered the program), and the more you aspire to be like the patients who are almost done—the ones who checked in with broken, blinking bulbs trying to shine through the fog in their brains, and who are now are leaving with the kind of light that only comes after staring into, and pulling oneself out of, the deepest pits of darkness.

***

“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

I never cared for fantasy fiction as a kid. I’d read The Hobbit in elementary school and found it boring; Gandalf the Grey was no match for the ongoing saga of Stacey McGill: Fashionable Diabetic and her fellow babysitting-obsessed friends. It was the right book at the wrong time, one of those beautiful things you miss because it found you before you needed it.

In 2001, three years before I entered the hospital, I picked up a copy of The Lord of the Rings. The first film was set to debut later that year, and it promised to be the kind of blockbuster that takes more effort to avoid than to sit through. Because I am impatient, I decided to read all three LOTR books at once, so I wouldn’t have to suffer the years-long wait between movies in order to find out how the story ends. I am also, on principle, one of those people who will bitchface you to Saturn and back if you complain about people “spoiling” movies based on books that have been out forever and a day. So as to not put myself in that position, I bought a giant paperback version with “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” stamped on the front and went to work. I was pretty sure that this was a tale that was going to bore me to death. Instead, it ended up saving my life.

***

J.R.R. Tolkien takes his time telling a story—this particular one stretches over three books comprising more than a thousand pages. And yet it never drags. I was sucked right into the scenery of Middle Earth–mountains and monsters, underground cities and rolling hills—and, thankfully, away from where I was. But it wasn’t like I was transported to a magical fairyland of rainbows and unicorns—that wouldn’t have been comforting to me. What compelled me to keep returning to Middle Earth was its darkness. Its inhabitants weren’t immune to danger, or sadness, or heartache. There was magic, yes, but with evil mixed in. The ring represented two possible outcomes: submit to ultimate darkness or overcome tremendous odds to rid the world of evil. Our small and unlikely hero, Frodo Baggins, chooses the latter, and the saga is about what it means to choose hope in the face of hopelessness, a challenge I think anyone who has dealt with depression can relate to. LOTR is an optimistic love letter to a terribly pessimistic world.

I saw the first two LOTR movies (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers) as soon as they came out, and I loved them. Director Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth was more beautiful than I had imagined, and he had left intact the story’s message of hope: No matter how small you feel and how huge and overwhelming and unbeatable the thing you’re fighting seems, you are greater and more powerful than anyone knows. Focus on what you know you can do—I can take one more step forward—and you will get there eventually. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried in the theater both times. I couldn’t wait for the third movie, The Return of the King.

***

Two months into my stay at the hospital, the staff pulled me into a team meeting and asked me to sign a behavioral contract. I was making physical progress, but my mind was trapped in doom mode, and I spent most of my free time moping about in my black sweatshirt with the hood pulled up and listening to the most depressing music I could find (tip: listening to Kid A on repeat when you’re trying to recover from depression and anxiety can be counterproductive). People’s attempts at motivating me to “see the bright side” fell short, as I wasn’t impressed with Oprah-esque speeches or “love yourself” posters, and though I tried to write down daily affirmations (“I am a good person,” “Getting better is worth it”), I didn’t believe any of them. I rolled my eyes and went through the motions and scowled whenever anyone accused me of clinging to my negativity as a defense mechanism (bingo). I was the walking embodiment of my favorite Simpsons quote of all time, courtesy of Mr. Burns: “Their flower power is no match for my glower power!”

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62 Comments

  • MarissaWindfee December 4th, 2012 3:18 PM

    Wow, I didn’t even realize before reading this that actually other people could also be obsessed with The Lord Of The Rings in this fate-and-so-on way, although for me it always was about Eowyn. Does anybody get what I want to say but don’t have the words for?

    • ladyofithilien December 5th, 2012 1:45 AM

      I think I understand what you mean… ever since I first started reading the books several years ago, I’ve sort of seen myself as her, trapped in my life and such… I guess the story, and that part especially, gives me hope that I’ll get out one day and be able to do great things.

      (an oh hey look at my username… I forgot that I used that username for this site… ahahah what a coincidence)

      • MarissaWindfee December 6th, 2012 10:43 AM

        Yeah funniest of all coincidences and guess what I didn’t even realize till you said it XD
        I’ve read the books a few days before my eleventh bithday, and I’ve been addicted ever since. And when I watched the movie I was all like “woooah I want to steal all of Eowyns (and Arwens?) wardrobe”.
        I guess I’m just a little bit in love with Faramir, but that’s not what makes Eowyn so important to me. The “trapped in life”-thing, as you said.
        You use different usernames? Funny. I always use the same. It just sort of became what iI saw as “real me” opposed to “me like I pretend to be whenever in public”.
        =)

        • MarissaWindfee December 6th, 2012 10:45 AM

          God sorry grammatically incorrect English up there. I’m sorry for being an idiot. But I’m from Germany, I’m allowed to be an idiot when it comes to English =)

        • ladyofithilien December 17th, 2012 11:43 PM

          I agree with everything you said. oh and I’m in love with Faramir too… ever since I was a little kid even when reading the books, before the movies came out. And yeah I use different usernames based on what I was obsessing over at the time I made the account. But this is the main one that I use because it’s my tumblr url without the dashes ahahah.

  • Flavia December 4th, 2012 3:19 PM

    So powerful and beautiful

  • eireann December 4th, 2012 3:29 PM

    Pixie, this is a fantastic article. Isn’t it amazing how powerful and magical books can be? :)

  • emlo December 4th, 2012 3:31 PM

    this seriously spoke to me. people think i’m weird when i say i cry when i read the Two Towers and anything about the entwives.

    i love lotr and it basically means the world to me. i completely get you.

  • Patricia December 4th, 2012 3:44 PM

    I…I am literally freaking out because everything you felt/thought about the LoTR series is exactly what I think! The unlikely heroes, the fantasy the right book at the right time! It’s great! Thank you so much for this wonderful article :)

  • Claire December 4th, 2012 3:49 PM

    “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.” A lot of people have marveled about the eerie timeliness of Rookie pieces, but this is the first time I’ve experienced this phenomenon. I began recovering from an eating disorder in 7th grade, and I am now a senior in high school. Even though I’ve long since stopped going to therapy, I still see my doctor (and drink a lot of Boost) on the regular, and lately I’ve been feeling scared shitless because this is the life I’ve come to know. After almost 6 years of going in and out of this system, what are you supposed to do? Just dive headlong into the rest of your life and try to forget it ever happened? I wish I could stop waxing nostalgic about it and feeling so attached, because, in all reality, it was a really bleak period. But I don’t know…it’s hard. Thanks for writing the best thing I’ve ever seen on this site (-:

  • 23reasonstosmile December 4th, 2012 3:57 PM

    I tried to read The lord of the rings about two years ago and it was just so boring… Maybe you’re right and it hit me at the wrong time, and after reading this i will definitely give it another chance.

    • chloegrey December 4th, 2012 4:46 PM

      same here on both those counts!

  • Jessica W December 4th, 2012 4:09 PM

    Can I just say… Holy shit I love you.
    (P.S When I was younger I auditioned to be a hobbit. Cool story.)

  • EdLove December 4th, 2012 4:21 PM

    this piece was so insightful and gorgeous. Wow. Wow. Just Amaze.

  • insteadofanelephant December 4th, 2012 4:24 PM

    what a beautiful story. lotr helped me after a really bad break up.

    blog: instead of an elephant
    Creative Director: Thread Magazine

  • Laura Lemon December 4th, 2012 4:26 PM

    I LOVE THE LORD OF THE RINGS, although I never did get past the first half of the first book. I tried reading it again before The Hobbit, but then realized it might make more sense to read The Hobbit before watching The Hobbit.

    I totally agree with what you said about sometimes needing to immerse yourself in a fantasy world to get perspective on your own life/existence/world… pretty much the reason Harry Potter was my life during middle school.

    “I will not say ‘Do not Weep’, for not all tears are evil”
    -Gandalf the Grey

  • I.ila December 4th, 2012 4:29 PM

    Really beautifully written and really touching. I love when rookie writers mix culture and personal experiences, because it always results in some of my favorite articles and usually touches so many people.

  • Nauny December 4th, 2012 4:31 PM

    I think this is a really great and inspirational story.
    I would like to add that Tolkein actually wrote The Lord of the Rings to parallel the Bible.

    J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
    The Lord of the Rings is a Christian myth representing Christian truths.

    Ephesians 6:12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

    Doesn’t that remind you guys of The Lord of the Rings?

    I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings books, although I would like to and I have seen the movies. I think they’re great. But I’ll tell you something else really has changed my life because it transformed my heart and that’s my faith in Christ.

    I really hope that any of you struggling and who have been touched by Tolkein’s book can take a deeper look to where it has been inspired from and share this hope, love, faith and salvation that I have.

    • SpencerBowie December 5th, 2012 1:03 AM

      Brave and and sweet of you to say that. God Bless!

    • sixthgun December 5th, 2012 9:05 PM

      I’m not Christian, I don’t even believe in god, but that’s a lovely message. :) I think we all can find inspiration and faith in different ways. What really matters is if we’re able to love, respect, help and forgive others and ourselves.

  • emrose December 4th, 2012 4:31 PM

    This is the quote that gets me through things:

    “‘I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’

    ‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’”

  • shjaron December 4th, 2012 4:34 PM

    Thank you.

  • chloegrey December 4th, 2012 4:48 PM

    This piece is so touching and lovely.

  • bookworm123 December 4th, 2012 5:07 PM

    This is wonderful. I can’t come up with a more intelligent comment, but this truly is wonderful.

  • byzanthia December 4th, 2012 5:13 PM

    I read the entire LOTR series when my mind was deteriorating because of my eating disorder. I don’t remember much, especially
    of the Return of the King, but I got weirdly obsessed over the hobbit’s second breakfasts. I hung onto Gollum though, a character so corrupted by desire, and I think your opinion on it is very accurate. I really should read them again….

  • firky December 4th, 2012 5:18 PM

    “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.”

    That really resonated with me. Thanks!

  • clairee December 4th, 2012 5:19 PM

    Oh beautiful. This this this this is why I love literature, why I believe it’s so important and so powerful in the face of all those who tell me that it’s ‘frivolous’ or ‘bs’ in comparison to sciences or something like that (thoughts: http://modalityblog.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/human/).

    Your story is inspiring. I think that’s the reason a lot of us kind of nerdy girls loved Harry Potter and LotR, isn’t it? We cling to these heroes who are so normal and are faced with these circumstances, and yet have the immense courage to continue on even though ‘it’s not fair’. Ah. You are reminding me of all my love for Harry Potter in middle school.

    thank you thank you.

    • Julia December 5th, 2012 4:27 AM

      EXACTLY. This made me cry lots, because – although I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness and never even finished LOTR – it reminds me of how much Harry Potter has meant to me. I still reread the books when I need to remember that the good guys win… and of course to escape for a little while.

      I lovelovelove how one book can give so many different things to so many different people.

  • nutella December 4th, 2012 6:27 PM

    This is beautiful. So well-written and deeply felt. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • friendswaffleswork December 4th, 2012 6:31 PM

    I loved this. This reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech. Everyone worships something, we get to choose what we worship. We get to pick our rituals. Books/TV/fandom has been that for me and you articulated why in a beautiful way. This was great!

  • GlitterKitty December 4th, 2012 6:35 PM

    I find the books kind of slow but I enjoyed the LOTR movies. A few of my friends were hardcore obsessed so I gave it a try but it wasn’t really my thing. I looooove Harry Potter though. I’ve watched the movies and read the books so many times. It got me through some stressful times and I read it whenever I can’t sleep at night.

    I would also like to mention that the trailer for The Hobbit movie came on TV while I was reading this. Rookie magic knows no bounds.

  • Keziah December 4th, 2012 6:52 PM

    this is really touching and insightful…
    I haven’t read LOTR yet, but I’ve seen the films. I sure will now, though!

    (ps the fact that you like Harry Potter on its own is wonderful, I’m obsessed with it.)

  • Fen December 4th, 2012 7:22 PM

    Lovely, very very inspiring story!
    I was considering reading the LOTR books, and/or seeing the movies, and I think I will now.
    I understand about the wrong book in the wrong time, I love a lot of books I used to hate because now I can connect to them more.

  • kolumbia December 4th, 2012 7:40 PM

    Pixie, this is beautiful and exactly what I needed to hear right now. This time last year, I was in residential treatment for my eating disorder, and some days are still a struggle. Thank you for reminding me that recovery is possible and worth it. I have all the Lord of the Rings books, and I have never read them, but I’m going to start! Thank you so much for this wonderful article.

  • vix December 4th, 2012 7:57 PM

    Thank you for sharing this, your story makes my heart sing! I was a sophmore in 2001 (yes, high school) and it was also the first year I read LOTR. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I have re-read the series probably 10 times since then and am always finding new inspirations and new connections with the characters and the story. My grandmother calls it “white lighting” when you pick up a book that seems to be calling you. I’ve done this many times and they always seem to be the books I need to read at that point in my life. I’m so happy that it was LOTR for you, and that they helped in bringing you peace. <3

  • geekchic December 4th, 2012 8:57 PM

    I cannot tell you how much this article means to me. LOTR, both the books and the movies, has gotten me through some of the less wonderful times in my life. Also, a common love for the series is one reason my best friend and I are like sisters today. There was a time in which I could not watch the scene in which Frodo sends Sam away; it was too painful as we had been on both sides of that situation. However, we worked through this, and we both have faith that nothing will keep us from remaining friends until we die.

  • Janie December 4th, 2012 9:39 PM

    I love you like Samwise loves Frodo. A lot and adorably.

  • Miss Erin December 4th, 2012 10:36 PM

    I am crying. Thank you for sharing this, Pixie.

  • anadi December 4th, 2012 11:17 PM

    I completely agree with the Kid A line.

  • speakthroughvision December 4th, 2012 11:22 PM

    Well written stories! The first made me smile pretty hard…
    You mentioned Kid A. just earlier today, I realized I have actually never listened to Kid A fully!
    (Shameful of me as a fan of “Thom Yorke’s sad, paranoid wails”)
    I was like, this is depressingly/upliftingly good!
    I admit I was going to go on a Kid A listening spree, but I don’t think it will help with me staying positive.
    Your story made my day :)
    Fans of his sad, paranoid wails unite!

    • speakthroughvision December 4th, 2012 11:25 PM

      *sorry, I meant story not stories.

  • Cerise December 4th, 2012 11:48 PM

    This is beautiful. This is why I get so sad when people I talk to dismiss fiction as a “waste of time.” Stories can be incredibly powerful things–stories like LOTR and this one, too. Thank you for writing this.

    • Tavi December 5th, 2012 12:46 AM

      Stories can be especially powerful because they often don’t tell you they’re teaching you!

  • SpencerBowie December 5th, 2012 1:07 AM

    This made my night. Thank you for sharing a great story and I’m so glad you’re better! God Bless and thank God for LOTR. :)

    • SpencerBowie December 5th, 2012 1:09 AM

      P.S: I sooooo cried at the “time that is given” quote. Gets me every darn time!

  • ladyofithilien December 5th, 2012 1:42 AM

    The whole time I was reading this, I had the LOTR soundtrack stuck in my head, because I listen to it while I do my work. The reason I listen to it is because it inspires me to keep going despite all my stress and frustration. As a massive LOTR fan and someone who has struggled with an eating disorder in the past, this may be one of the most amazing articles I have ever read. Thank you!!

  • shinmachine December 5th, 2012 3:34 AM

    my sister bought me the LOTR once and it took me a year before actually starting to read it.. . .i think i appreciated it well since i took time before plunging into something actually beautiful

  • Erin. December 5th, 2012 12:07 PM

    Pixie, this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing your story. You totally got it right when you said “magic is a very soothing medication.” No matter what form the magic takes, it has the power to save people. Sometimes it seems like out society takes magic and fantasy for granted, as if it is meaningless escapism. But escapism is never meaningless, and magic is a whole lot more important and realistic than it may at first seem. Again, thank you for writing such an amazing article.

  • laurenniee December 5th, 2012 1:17 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am currently struggling with BPD whilst at university; I might curl up with LotR again as a break from my holiday reading :)

  • raggedyanarchy December 5th, 2012 2:18 PM

    I totally know where you’re coming from, about books and this fantasy/fiction saving your life. Except, for me, it was always the Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. They were all about kids facing these crazy odds, and having these expectations they had to fill. The characters just always seemed more real than the people around me, you know? Also the books were just good, and I could read them a hundred times and still find things and references and metaphors that I didn’t catch before.

  • sixthgun December 5th, 2012 8:46 PM

    What an amazing text, Pixie!!! Thank you so much, that was exactly what I needed! I suffer from major depressive disorder, so I think I know what you went through. Many fragments of your text touched me – especially that where you talked about that “kind of light that only comes after staring into, and pulling oneself out of, the deepest pits of darkness.” I know exactly what it is like to have my mind “trapped in doom mode” and how hard it is to believe that we, who suffer from mental illness, can get better. I’m a huge fan of fantasy and science fiction, so I totally understand how “escaping into alternate worlds” helps when we need to believe in something – anything. Finally, I want you to know that that text was really important and made a big difference to me. I felt understood, I felt like I’m not alone. I think I have a little more faith now that I read that. Thank you.
    Your writing is great, I hope to read more texts written by you soon. Rookie never disappoints me, it always gets better. It’s the best magazine ever! You guys are incredible, congratulations for your amazing work!!!

  • cancercowboy December 6th, 2012 1:06 PM

    thanks for this, for various reasons.
    plus, my mother read parts of the first book to me as a child. good memories. maybe part of the reason i never liked the movies.
    the only thing i cannot agree on is Kid A; it always felt kinda hymnal to me, even though someone cries in Treefingers.

  • Ella W December 6th, 2012 2:11 PM

    Thank you for this. This article nearly brought me to tears, it’s so beautiful. I adore LOTR, and its so heartwarming to hear that it helped you through a difficult time.
    Great article.

  • aylaluvsBM December 6th, 2012 6:12 PM

    oh my gosh, you are an amazing writer. You are my new role model.

  • Pixie December 7th, 2012 2:19 PM

    Thank you for all of your kind comments, crew! Much love and many happy thoughts to you all. xo

  • the_boudica December 9th, 2012 9:50 AM

    I can’t decide which I loved more: the article, which made me cry, or the comments. The idea of so many people being so deeply affected, for the good, by a book by an obscure Oxford professor of ancient languages, is so wonderful to me.

    I read LotR when I was 11 and spent the next 7 years obstinately living in Middle-Earth. Without the books to read, the radio-play to listen to, the films to look forward to, Elvish to decipher and teach myself, I’m not sure I would have got through school.

    At 23 I had a depression that I couldn’t express in words of my own, despite being quite a wordy person. I felt like Denethor – “Against the power that now arises there is no victory” – and Éowyn – “The walls of her bower closing in around her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in”. And for the first 6 months of my recovery, can you guess what I listened to? LotR on repeat.

    There is a power of faith in the indestructible goodness of the world in that book to defeat the darkest monsters. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully.

  • Kathryn December 10th, 2012 4:01 PM

    Such a beautiful piece, Pixie.

  • Josefina December 17th, 2012 7:03 PM

    I cried. Fantasy has saved me from the exact same thing. I have such a strong desire to talk to you because – because someone relates! I have met lots of people with EDs, but nobody who have had fantasy saving them from the delirium that an ED is. It’s so hard for me to make friends and find people that truly, deeply understand what I’m going through, but books have understood. I’m speechless – such a magical feeling, to have someone that doesn’t know you understand and walk your path.

  • hannahsophia December 17th, 2012 11:22 PM

    This is absolutely perfect in every single way. For me, my saving book was/is The Hobbit. I’ve read it again and again, every time I read it it seems to get better. Bilbo is my inspiration for everything! He always wishes to be back in his comfy little Hobbit, but he never gives up. We can wish for things to be as they were, but we must always keep moving forward. THANK YOU PIXIE!<3

  • Princess Kitty February 22nd, 2013 5:46 PM

    Wow Pixie. I so appreciate your words, your writing, and you telling you story. I’ve been reading a number of your articles on Rookie over the past few days and I feel nourished and moved and cheered by your work. I’m so glad you are part of Rookie and that I found you here!

    I got thru my adolescence reading fantasy novels, mostly ones with female protagonists who had to go on a quest and triumph over significant obstacles to discover who they are and how to own their own power. One of my favorite authors is Patricia McKillip, and I have read and re-read her trilogy that begins with “The Riddle Master of Hed” through many seasons of my life. I have turned to those books sometimes lovingly, sometimes desperately, and every time they are a balm for my spirit.

    Thank you Pixie, and those who commented, for celebrating the healing and sustaining power of stories in our own lives!

  • orthopedicsaddleshoes April 3rd, 2013 4:30 PM

    “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 haven’t finished this article yet, but I just wanted to say how grateful I am for reading it. Stories are so important because they give you faith. I can’t hold on to religions, for the possibility of a ”higher being” is preposterous to me. However, when you read a book, there are no dogmas to follow – there is no RIGHT WAY how to read fiction, at least in my humble opinion.