“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!”