Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 – “A Spoonful of Sugar: Recovering from Anorexia with the Magic of Cinema” (Feature)

MHALOGO

Written by Toby
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The rum thing about recovery from an eating disorder is that most of the hard work has to be done by the sufferer. Friends, family, doctors, nurses and psychologists are all invaluable, but, until you find your own inner strength to fight back, the process is an impenetrable uphill struggle. 

In December 2015 I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. As a male, heterosexual, in his early twenties, the revelation that I was suffering from a mental health condition that is all too often stereotypically presented as being the preserve illness of teenage girls and a small handful of gay adolescents came as somewhat of a shock. The surprise of this, a notion that I initially fought with a certain reticence in denial, was nothing on the destabilising effect that the illness would have on the next year of my life. By March 2016 I had been admitted to a General Hospital; before the month was out I was given a bed on a specialist inpatient ward in Leeds; this was to be my home for the following eight months. It is an experience that makes me shiver even now and drives my desire to never undergo it again to this day. 

As I have stated, there is no easy way to recover from Anorexia. No pill can wipe the slate clean and no degree of weight maintenance can cure the depression and anxiety – or whatever has brought on the condition – that underlies it. Whilst I could sing the praises of the innumerable, selfless individuals who have helped set me on the right path, and continue to do so, till the world ends (or James Cameron finally releases the last-ever Avatar film), there is an unsung hero in my story that I wish here to champion: cinema.

During my stay on the inpatient ward – think The Shining set in a Premier Inn – regular trips to my local picture house were off the cards. Prior to my admission, the last experience of the big screen I had been able to squeeze in was for Kung Fu Panda 3, and if anything was going to motivate my recovery it would be a refusal to have that fact printed on my epitaph. Thus, I subscribed to Netflix, logged into my parent’s Amazon Prime account, and regularly sent my Dad to our local library to borrow as many DVDs as could be squeezed into his satchel. As for the latest releases, I did not make it to a multiplex until the May release of Florence Foster Jenkins, and even then cinema trips remained highly limited until my eventual November discharge. For the most part, then, I was forced to miss out. Blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War, Zootopia and Batman Vs Superman (small mercies) past me by, whilst  Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! would have to wait. I say ‘for the most part’ because my well-meaning Uncle did manage to smuggle me a dodgy copy of Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book. I’m not proud, but my goodness it was worth it!

Of course, having limited access to the watching of films, even for a cinephile like me, is hardly the worst of crises. In the year that France and Belgium suffered repeated terrorist attacks, the UK voted to leave the EU, and David Bowie died, ‘Wannabe Film Critic Misses Midnight Special’ is unlikely to leave a significant imprint in the history books. Even within my own personal sphere, having neared fatal starvation, I did – quite literally – have more pressing issues on my plate, bigger fish to fry and the weight of the world on my shoulders. Those films that I did manage to catch, however, had a profound impact on my recovery in ways I could never have predicted. 

Anorexia is a mental health illness that repeatedly informs its sufferers that they are alone, they are unlikeable, they are overweight (an imagination that it tells them causes the first two to be true) and that they are out of control. Though there is no single set iteration of the condition – all suffer from very different breakdowns in self esteem – for all, the ceaseless mental battering of challenging such negative thought processes can prove both unrelenting and exhausting. In my case, the only times in which I was ever able to truly switch off from the warfare in my own head was (and very often now is) through watching films. When Mowgli races his canine pack through the Jungle, I am there. Realised by Bill Pope’s sumptuous cinematography, gorgeous, emerald canopies embrace me and I can feel the exothermic fiery ripples of the film’s climax. Likewise, with every glass of bubbly poured in Absolutely Fabulous I taste the effervescence on my tongue, whilst an experience of I, Daniel Blake is harrowing because I feel the cold as it crawls beneath my skin. 

The fabled story of how the first audiences of the Lumière brothers jumped in fright at L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat is so often debunked as false that it is easy to remember what such hyperbole represents. No, in 1895, people did not seriously expect a train to erupt from the screen before them, but they did experience something that we still do today. They felt alive. Films have not yet seen me recovery from my illness and the NHS have, quite fairly, yet to list it as an effective cure. However, what they have done, when things seem bleak, is remind me what it is to feel truly alive. For an hour and a half – six hours if it’s a Peter Jackson film – I am able to escape. You don’t have to have a mental health condition to understand the feeling. All can benefit from the magic of cinema.

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