The contract stated that I had to make eye contact with people, I had to actually talk to people instead of incessantly listening to Thom Yorke’s paranoid wails, and I had to stop wearing my black hoodie every day, as it was essentially a way of shutting out the world, which is not a great way to prepare to re-enter it. If I didn’t comply, I had to go home, which I knew would be a terrible thing, because I wasn’t ready yet, and all of the progress I had made would be quickly washed away. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” I said, scowling as usual. “But I’ll do it anyway.” It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I realized what I’d done: I’d said yes, because I didn’t want to leave the psychiatric hospital. I wanted to stay. Most important, despite what my eating disorder was constantly whispering to me, I wanted to get better. And a tiny part of me believed that if I did the work—as small and silly as it sounded—I would get better. That was the day I started believing.
“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. A couple of months earlier, going to the movies and eating a snack would have sounded as impossible to me as befriending a chupacabra. But I began to recognize such moments as gifts. When you’re dealing 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.
When I got mine, as luck would have it, The Return of the King had just come out. A friend who also had a night pass drove us to the theater, and we ran inside to get decent seats. As the lights went down, we giggled at each other, clutching our hospital-approved snacks and turning our gazes to the screen, which soon filled with images of peril, doubt, faith, hope, and success. Suddenly, I wasn’t a patient anymore, nor was I just another moviegoer; I was part of an adventure, lost in a beautiful place, watching my friends claim victory over evil, and over the darkest parts of themselves.
Watching the movie 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. 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.
And in those tenuous early days of freedom, every time I needed a reminder that dark journeys can end in light, I went back to the theater for another viewing of Return of the King. I pulled out my SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE paperback and read it over and over, underlining important passages, scribbling notes, 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 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 a million books about what it’s like to be inside 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 onscreen depiction ever 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 who murdered his friend when the two came across the Ring of Power. He was shunned by his community, and the ring slowly drove him to madness and obsession, changing him into a pitiful monster 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. He chooses to make a difficult journey all the way to Mordor, a truly dark and frightening place, in order to destroy the ring. He takes small steps, being tempted the whole time by the ring he carries with him. Even after he gets of the ring, he continues to bear its weight, and he needs to leave his familiar world in order to heal. I carry Frodo 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.”
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.
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 we were 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 read 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 darkness, to help us move forward until we were no longer lost, until the path before us was winding with possibility and light. ♦