In year 11 and 12 I did top level English. It was an interesting experience for all involved in my education. I was a bit of a mess at that point in my life and had sub-zero confidence in my ability to have an actual opinion on anything. Despite this, one of the most important things I learned was that sometimes you’re going to be faced with texts that you don’t like or don’t agree with, and you’re going to have to face them as they come.
Life can be the same. In the same way I didn’t get to choose most of my course work reading, I also don’t get to choose what life presents me with, and sometimes I have to face that and read it anyway.
I got good at resistant readings.
So I watched To The Bone. Despite the warning signs the trailer presented, I went and watched it. I knew what I was doing, after 13 Reasons Why I wasn’t expecting a film that did a particularly good job at presenting mental illnesses in a healthy way. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
But here’s the thing: people are going to watch it, no matter how loudly we may shout from the rooftops that it glamorises what is in no way glamorous, that it misrepresents, that it exploits and glorifies. I don’t disagree.
But it is going to be watched, and it’s going to be watched by vulnerable people.
So here’s what I learned from the film, and here’s how I read it as someone who is in recovery. Here’s what I chose to learn.
1// The world is much bigger than the cage you’ve found yourself in
The world is bigger than you. Your illness feels like it is destroying you, recovery will heal you, recovery is about you learning to live. But life is bigger than you.
Sometimes recovering hurts. No, most of the time recovery hurts. It’s terrifying, it’s exhausting. There are days when it doesn’t feel worth it. So many days.
But the world is bigger than you.
When I was at my rock bottom I could not keep going for myself. Because I didn’t want to anymore. I wanted to sleep forever because getting better was exhausting. All the self-love and positivity in the world couldn’t keep me going because I didn’t care for myself.
So I kept going for my baby sister. I kept going for the girls in my youth group. I kept going for the people that loved me at my darkest.
I kept going because I had to trust that God had given me life, that there was a world outside of my tiny little prison cell.
Healing for yourself is endlessly important, but sometimes that isn’t enough in the moment. Why would you care about someone you don’t love?
The impact of Eli’s illness was bigger than herself. She had to be the one to want to heal, but her family was hurting too. Her sister needed her older sister.
The world is big. There are things that will make you feel tiny.
When you can’t love yourself, when you can’t get better for the person within your tired skeleton, hold on for the world.
Recover for the people who love you, who will love you, the people that smile at you in train stations, for the people that need your story.
And then you can begin to love yourself.
2// Change your name, start new
Okay, maybe you don’t need to change your actual name. But change can be a healer. There will be things that destroy you, that scar you, that will try to tattoo themselves across your body.
It doesn’t have to be big. A new journal, a different hair cut, get rid of the outfit that reminds you of the worst nights. Sometimes it just means having a shower and washing off the feeling.
When I was 17 I couldn’t stop looking in the mirror and seeing myself at the moment that things were their worst. So I cut my hair. I had a long way to go before I would be okay, but it symbolised that I was starting afresh again. I was different, and those terrifying moments didn’t have to be my forever.
3// Tell the voice to F*ck off
“Yeah, that’s bullshit. That voice that says you can’t. Every time you hear that voice I want you to tell it to f*ck off.”
This scene was one of my favourites. (next to when the members of Threshold House were giving a toast with their Ensures. Fantastic.)
Know your enemy. Know the voice. Then tell it to go back where it came from.
Don’t believe everything you think.
(My Psychologist and I decided that I would pretend the voice was coming from Donald Trump. Not Someone I personally count as a credible source. Now I have a journal page to write what the voice yells at me above Trump. Pretend it’s a direct quote. Seems less true. Wrong. Fake News.)
4// Stop waiting for someone to save you, don’t wait for things to add up
I learned this when I was pretty young when the majority of my friends seemed to lose interest in me. They were too busy doing their own growing up.
This is one of the (many) things that I believe 13 Reasons Why got so so wrong. It was Hannah who ultimately made the decision to end her life. People will mess up. They’ll hurt you, sometimes on purpose, often unintentionally.
In the end there is no human being that can save you. People can and will stand beside you, but even the most supportive friend has their own mess to deal with.
No one’s going to save you. There is no perfect equation of love plus support plus attention plus late night phone calls and tears that will add up to recovery. Things don’t add up, sometimes that is crap, but that is life.
If you wait for everything to add up you’ll be waiting forever while everyone else grows up around you.
(My anxious, perfectionist, borderline brain does not want to hear this. F*ck off voice, you’re wrong.)
No human being can save you, no relationship can save you, you don’t need the right person to decide that you are worth their love and dedication.
You are already worthy on your own.
Terrifying. But maybe that’s just recovery.
Maybe that’s just life.
5// Love is big, love is messy, love is complicated, love will heal you
If this film did nothing else, it showed how messy and complicated love is. Every relationship that Eli was part of was so immensely complicated. Most people didn’t know how their love for each other should look and seemed to pretty consistently mess it up.
Love is freaking messy. And big. Mostly confusing. But it’s there.
Sometimes it looks small, like the couple that helped Eli from the floor when she fainted in the bus station.
Find it. It’s there. Hold it tighter than anything you’ve held before.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.
So did I like To The Bone? No. I don’t believe it was helpful or a healthy portrayal of anorexia (or mental illness in general), but I know that people have already spoken on that, and I know that there will be endless think pieces on it in the coming weeks, but people are still going to watch it.
Stay safe, watch with your wise mind if you do decide to see it, and talk about it when you need to.
All my love,
(As a film student I didn’t love it either. Like it was okay, but didn’t blow me away. Lots of cliches and that. But anyway.)
Various Resources on Eating Disorders
The Butterfly Foundation
(particularly their information package on To The Bone)
National Eating Disorders Collaboration
Mind UK: Eating Problems
Crash Course Psychology #33: Eating and Body Dysmorphic Disorders (video)