Spoiler Alert! This post contains plot information from A Beautiful Mind. It is an amazing movie! If you have not seen it, go watch it and then come back to read this post.
A Beautiful Mind, an Under-Toad, and Constant Vigilance.
In the movie A Beautiful Mind the main character, John Nash, sees characters that are his schizophrenia manifested in “human” form as hallucinations that only he can experience. It takes John (and his audience) awhile to realize that these seemingly real figures are actually figments of his imagination. These people he sees and has complex relationships with have been created by his mind to cope with his reality. Towards the end of the film Nash says, “I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them.” With these words Nash is showing not only that he has developed an awareness of the hallucinatory figures but also that he now understand that he has the power of choice. John knows that although he may be unable to eliminate these characters from the landscape of his mind, he can choose whether or not to engage with them. He has realized that he can ignore the hallucinations; he can deny his demon’s power.
I have a character in my life similar to John Nash’s hallucinatory friends. His name is Ed. He is like a shadow I never asked for, who burgeoned in my late teens and attached himself to me for life. Mostly, Ed is a voice of abstract thoughts and beliefs. However, when I imagine him in a physical form he pendulums between two shapes. One is a slight and non-descript man in dark pants and a gray hoodie who creepily lurks in smoky or misty corners. He twiddles his thumbs in a charming and unassuming way as he contemplates how to undermine my life. The other is a tentacle sea creature that also goes by the name Under-Toad. He lives in the undertow of beach waves, waiting to snatch unaware passersby at the ankles and drag them into the depth of the water. He squirts dark ink and is covered in un-removable slime. Ed and the Under-Toad are one and the same; their ink and smoke mix. They overlap like sheer photos laid one upon the other. Simultaneously, the mysteriousness draws one in and the darkness repels. Similar to Nash’s hallucinations, the choice does not lie in this dark figure’s presence in my life; Ed, the Under-Toad, is a non-negotiable factor in my life.
Ed is short for Eating Disorder. He is the voice of my struggle with anorexia nervosa. He is like John Nash’s hallucinations because he is not real. However, Ed is a tricky bastard and sometimes I forget that he has only been created by my mind to deal with my reality. His genuine smile and farce of knowing what is best for me can lull me into believing his lies. At the worst Ed took over my life completely; I no longer knew where Ed ended and I began. Ed, the Under-Toad, and I had become one conglomerate. The tentacles and darkness wrapped us together into a tangled blob and I could not navigate my way out of the knots alone. Now, with chosen and embraced therapy and dedication to personal growth I have both separated Ed from myself and developed skills to stay aware of his presence. His presence is still strong when I am stressed or tired or both. He has not left and I do not believe he ever will. However, he has just taught me a new meaning to the term constant vigilance.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowlings’s character Madeye Moody tells a class of young students that when they confront evil they must have, “CONSTANT VIGILANCE.” Moody is telling them that they must never let down their guard so as to avoid facing the worst. I have already faced the worst in my life; Ed’s dark slime has already infiltrated my world. However, CONSTANT VIGILANCE has become my motto in order to keep John Nash’s choice a possibility in my life. My constant vigilance is continuously monitoring Ed’s whereabouts and the pull of the Under-Toad at my heels. It is also a keen awareness of my triggers, Ed’s patterns, my stress levels, and what my emotions are doing. Initially, this awareness was exhausting. In the beginning stages of recovery Ed was everywhere and what little energy I had went towards battling his voice twenty-four hours a day. Over the years (and with lots of work) Ed’s presence has been banished to the sidelines of my mind where he lurks sulkily. Nonetheless, Ed can still pop up when I am least expecting it. He never ceases to wiggle his way into the smallest cracks of opportunity and thus I must still maintain a mindset of CONSTANT VIGILANCE!
Just like Nash, I have learned to ignore the presence of my demons by being constantly aware of their whereabouts in my life and by not giving them any energy.
Another name for constant vigilance is mindfulness. The psychologist Scott Bishop describes mindfulness as a “nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, sensation that arises…is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” Mindfulness practices have been extremely useful in my recovery and my development of an awareness of Ed. Meditation, time in nature, partner dancing, rock climbing, and breathing exercises have all helped me to center in my experience and grow in my ability to “acknowledge and accept” what is. My goal in recovery is to continue to develop mindfulness around the presence of the Under-Toad as well as to maintain awareness of my raw experience of life.
A quick sketch of my current visualization of Ed-The UnderToad. By Zoe Vlastos.