On Sickness, Life, and the Movie Up
I’ve devoted so much of my life to being sick. And when I say devoted, I truly mean I enthusiastically prolonged my illness. I know the ways mental illness colonizes the mind, anxiety making you feel like you’re finally seeing the truth, depression telling you you’re not worth anything better, and the eating disorder making you tremble before the basic necessities of life. I know that these things aren’t my fault, per se.
But at the same time, my biggest barrier to recovery has always been my unwillingness to let go of being sick. Maybe this is ableist, maybe it always has been, I’ll sit with that. Nevertheless, I dug my heels in during recovery. You cannot help a person who isn’t ready to be helped. That’s just, tragically, a fact. And yet there’s this gray space between ready and not ready, where you want to change but are unwilling to put in the work.
This space, for me, has lasted a long time. I put in the work sometimes, in some ways, and not others. I salivate at the thought of returning to regular self-harm, to my lowest weight. It’s more than just being afraid of change, it’s an intoxication with the idea of being sick.
Last night I watched Up for the first time. I’m late to the party, I know, but I wasn’t always emotionally resilient enough to watch Pixar films. I’ve always known it was sad. I sat in a Best Buy TV display as a teen and wept my way through the saddest part while my parents shopped. But last night, I was finally ready.
Life is so short. We’re told this in a million different ways but we largely fail to take it for granted. Life is short and it’s our only one. Even if you believe in an afterlife, it’ll never be like this again. We’re told this finite time makes it meaningful, makes it beautiful. Whether or not you agree, the brevity can’t be denied. Eighty years seems like a lot when you’re 10 or even 20, but as you see more and more people gone before eighty, that far off number seems less and less reachable.
I tried to kill myself for a long time. I’ve spent over a decade starving myself. And at my worst, I weathered several active suicide attempts as well as constant ideation and passive behaviors. Life was so painful I wanted to leave.
I watched Up and I saw a long life being not nearly enough. We could live a thousand years and to us humans, it would never be enough. We are greedy for life and I finally understand why. There are a million quotidian joys that exist to be collected and treasured in the way that Wall-E (watched that one and wept recently, too) gathers special items to himself.
It shocks me, watching these buoyant, charming films, that I spent so much of my life wishing and trying to die. It shocks me that at the age of 26 I am still fighting health to regain my prepubescent body. It shocks me that the consequence of this behavior- a shortened life span of ill health- has never stopped me before.
I cling to life now in a way that would be concerned under non-mentally ill circumstances. I cherish it, I adore it, I hunger for more. I fear losing it. And yet I fear gaining weight so much that I knowingly shorten it. In my youth the health consequences of my eating disorder were reparable if I changed my ways. I tried, I really did, but the behaviors just kept enticing me back. And now, still young, but less so, those consequences are becoming less and less temporary.
Something shifted in me recently. It does for a lot of people around my age. Maybe it was the reproductive clock ticking into action. Maybe it was the passing of the quarter-life mark of the absolute longest life expectancy. But time shrank and grew for me at once.
My lifespan seems so short now, so inadequate. But time, time feels infinite. There is more than me. There always has been and always will be.
Watching the lives of the Up couple unfold and race towards completion made me feel so foolish. Foolish for clinging to illnesses that hurt me when life is so brief. It made being sick seem rather insignificant in the face of life.
I’ve been clinging to this identity. I am the Sick One. I am Still Sick. I’ve been greedily counting up the years of illness as if they’re some kind of trophy. But that trophy crumbled to dust when I watched Up. It’s meaningless to count your life in the number of times you tried to die.
I’d rather count my life in bouquets of sunflowers or number of cats petted or cartons of raspberries consumed. It’s these little things that keep me alive- so why aren’t I counting by them?
I could vow I will from now on. Maybe I should. I could swear off being sick. I could say this moment changed my life. It did. But it takes a collection of these moments to really create big change. I’m not going to eat perfectly today because of a movie I watched last night. I’m not cured. But I’m invigorated to try. I’ll try harder today because of what I experienced. And I’ll hope that that carries into tomorrow and the next day. I’ll curate reminders for myself to make it so.
It’s tragic that it takes a movie (or for some a book or a song or or or) to make me reflect on the harm I’m causing myself. Many people think this knowledge should be inherent. It’s not. Mental illness twists your mind until the obvious becomes shrouded in irrelevancy.
It’s tragic, but it doesn’t matter. We do what we have to do to survive, yes, but we also do what we have to do to thrive. We need these reminders. We need these reasons, these inspirations. We take them, hold them close, and press on.
Life is short. I’d rather not be sick for all of it.