#TIFF19: “It’s Nothing” Excavates My Experience With An Eating Disorder

In It’s Nothing, my insides will be on a big screen.

Not literally (I hate gore, which really limits the television shows and films I’ll watch).
I mean my emotional insides. Essentially, the feelings I’ve had that I’ve tried to bury the most will premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in the form of a six-foot deep hole and the story surrounding it.

It’s an interesting twist to have what is arguably the most exciting, large-scale thing that’s happened in my career to date be about a subject I hate to acknowledge. I feel like a hypocrite writing a script to make a film to begin a conversation I’m not sure I want to be in. Like, “Anorexia—discuss!” and then I throw confetti as a distraction and disappear into thin air or (more likely, as I never did learn to disappear) duck behind the largest potted plant, or crouch with my hands over my head as discreetly as possible.

And yet, it’s a discussion I want to contribute to because I know how important it is. When talking about my own experience with an eating disorder, which is rare, I always preface it as LONG past (which is true, I did inpatient treatment in 2005). I’ve been a “healthy person” on a consistent basis for about nine honest years.

Long enough to do high school twice and then a victory lap.

Knowing that you know that I have significant distance from this thing that I retain so many conflicting and violent and negative emotions in relation to, despite its lack of active presence in my life, is a huge relief for me.

SO, WE CAN ALL JUST RELAX. EVERYTHING IS FINE. Great.

I’m not sure of the balance between acknowledging an experience that has affected you and letting it define you, or some percentage of you. If I was a pie graph, “eating issues” would be a section. One that decreases year by year but will always hold a tiny stake in my perspective and existence. I understand that way of thinking; I know it intimately. And yet, like a friendship that grows toxic, through time and a lot of practice, I know how to co-exist in the same world as it but not let it dictate my behaviours. Still, like a friendship, sometimes I miss it. I also mis-remember it.

I’ve talked about my eating disorder before (I hate writing “my eating disorder”—it makes me uneasy to put it in the present tense and as something that belongs to me). I’ve written about how it felt. I wrote a play about it, developed it in a playwrights’ unit, answered questions about it, and delved into how irritated I am about how eating disorders are often portrayed: from the outside.

It makes me painfully uneasy, though I know it usually gets better once I start. It’s a little like jumping into an ice-cold lake: I don’t want to, and would rather just dip a toe at most, but then I usually feel better having done it, despite the initial chill.

At this point, it’s very easy to hide the whole experience, like vastly expired milk in the back of a fridge I won’t admit to buying and don’t want to deal with. But I made the choice to put it on a massive screen. People say that all good films need conflict. I have taken this to the next level: I’m in conflict with my own film.

When someone asks me what It’s Nothing is about, it is as though I have swallowed my own tongue. I don’t know how to casually drop “It’s about a woman digging a hole as a metaphor for an eating disorder” without suddenly feeling like I’ve revealed something uncomfortable. Like I’ve put a surprise corpse on a table and then asked someone to pass the salt. Usually I stammer a sentence about the hole being a metaphor for internal struggles and then change the subject. I wonder if in time this will change. I would like it to change before TIFF. Perhaps, in the same way that eating “normally” became easier and easier the more I did it, this will become more normal and easier with repetition too.

I’ve written about people in boxes or caves or holes, and the simultaneous safety and loneliness of those places. I like using external landscapes to show something internal. My most widely successful piece, a play called With Love and a Major Organ that I am currently adapting into a film, is a somewhat happier version of this. It involves a woman pulling her own heart out as a courageous and romantic act. It is messy, it is painful, it is beautiful and gross at once. It is a little bit magical and unexplained. Like love.

I am continuously fascinated by the power of language and metaphor. There is a quote from Marie Howe: “Bedeviled, human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.”

I love that idea, that the right combination of words has the potential to change everything in some way for someone, just lying there waiting to be spoken, written down, read. As a reader it is an experience I’ve had, and as a writer it’s one I hope to rise to. It’s Nothing has helped me realize that the same power I find in language can come from film if you are fortunate enough to find the help of a wonderfully committed and talented team to make it.

To me, an eating disorder feels like digging a hole. It starts quietly, and then just keeps going further and further down, it becomes completely habitual: an activity that quickly becomes a trap. It is private, painful, vital, and comforting in its increasing distance from everything else in the world. And eventually that distance can grow so far that you have to ask for help if a part of you wants to get out of this thing, this place that has become a safe house and prison cell at once. And then you have the humiliating and difficult task of climbing and slipping and climbing again, just to get back to the even ground where everyone else already seems to live.

It was a bizarre experience to see a metaphor go from an internal feeling I held to having a literal physical existence I could touch (specifically, a full-on six-foot-deep hole in a Brampton park). It made me want to crawl into a hole, which would have been convenient, and yet it was also empowering. Imagination can become reality: this is proof.

At an early test screening of It’s Nothing a friend said to me, “I think it’s the best thing you’ve written.” In the end, I don’t feel like I wrote much; there are very few words.

With a visual metaphor there is nothing clever or poetic to hide behind. It reveals truth directly by being. The sentences in this script are now wide awake, spoken, active and captured. Some contain no words at all. I’m not presumptuous or optimistic enough to think they will change lives, but I hope they change something. Understanding an eating disorder is almost impossible. Understanding what it’s like to dig a hole is a lot more accessible. It’s not the same, but it’s a start. Feelings are more universal than the specific actions that they come out through. So maybe this film can be a kind of bridge.

I hope It’s Nothing is useful in helping someone feel understood, and in helping others understand something that is so difficult to explain. An eating disorder is easily judged by the more rationally working minds who get to live just outside its bounds. When you are inside it, your reason becomes twisted up. Your brain is tied into knots that feel stronger when pulled tighter, as opposed to the real painstaking work of untangling them, possibly only to realize you liked them better all along, felt stronger that way.

When I was in the hospital, they kept saying to think of recovery as an experiment, because we could always go back to the disorder. There was a gross comfort in that, like a wet blanket. It feels awful but it’s something you can hide in. Making the film, and the creative discussions that have come from it, has been uncomfortable, liberating, and meaningful. A lot of jumping into cold lakes, only to see that I was quickly followed and could find assurance and warmth in thoughtful, generous company. Yet, even after the massive collaborative and conversational process of making It’s Nothing, I am still afraid to share it. I’m proud of what we have made, but that doesn’t counteract the sheer irrational terror of showing it publicly.

Fortunately, that decision isn’t mine to make: the film doesn’t belong only to me. These emotions I once held and translated into a script have since been collectively excavated through powerful direction, performances, design, sound, cinematography, and a hundred other things. And now that what we’ve made is ready to share, it turns out that a metaphor representing my own experience isn’t about me at all.

It’s about what it can do; what this film can do. And I hope it’s a lot. I hope it’s not nothing at all.

It’s Nothing, written by Julia Lederer, comes to TIFF’s Short Cuts Program 6, with screenings on September 8 and 14 at 9:30 pm. Single tickets go on sale on September 2. Find out more here.

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