The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one I always enjoyed, yet never dwelt on while growing up. I had seen the movies and begrudgingly read the books for a middle school literature class, but it had never captured my attention the way other stories and franchises had. In recent months, however, I have found myself drawn back into the depths of the world of Middle Earth by my best friend, who was getting into the series and naturally pulled me down with her. Together, we marathoned the films, and I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring to read for the first time in a decade. This time around, I related to the story in a way I never had before. What I had previously seen as a story of good versus evil – a story of hardship, heroism, and morality – I now reinterpreted as a metaphor for struggling with OCD, which I was recently diagnosed with in 2019.
Discovering you have OCD almost immediately before being thrown into a global pandemic over which you have no control is something I would not wish upon anyone. It has been a difficult experience to say the least, and I think this is one of the reasons why I found solace in my watching of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from this perspective.
Frodo did not ask for Bilbo to pass on the One Ring, nor is becoming the Ring-bearer an experience he could have predicted. He is simply told that this is the task he must undertake, and he bravely chooses to do so in spite of the danger he faces. For three films, he must carry this unfathomable burden on a seemingly endless journey, on which he is battered by the elements, pursued, fought, injured, and betrayed. These are, of course, merely the external forces that oppose him – more than that, he must fight against the temptation that the Ring offers him to take his every step. Each waking moment that he wears the Ring around his neck or hides it in his pocket is a moment in which he is plagued by the desire to just put the Ring on, because wouldn’t that be easier? Just putting on the Ring?
This constant internal battle is one that resonates with people who have OCD. For me, the Ring represents the perpetual desire to perform my compulsions. Compulsions are a way to abate the endless cycle of anxiety that we struggle with. They can be things like checking, counting, or tapping, and they serve as a way to stop the intrusive anxiety that threatens to overrun our minds. For a moment, the compulsions help – this is the trap of OCD. By performing compulsions, I feel as though I am in control; I feel I have the power, instead of my anxiety; and, for a moment or two, I feel better and calmer than before. But, like Frodo finds when he puts on the Ring, yielding to the temptation ultimately feeds into the force that works against me. The more I perform the compulsions, the more I feel anxious when I do not perform them, and so it continues.
Frodo, of course, understands the dangers of putting on the One Ring, just like I understand the dangerous cycle I perpetuate when I feel compelled to double-, triple-, quadruple-check the lock on the front door. But the temptations are still there, still heavy and weighing on both me and Frodo, despite our knowing that giving in is not the solution. A quote from the novel The Fellowship of the Ring struck me as particularly apt. Frodo, after putting on the One Ring at Weathertop and the Nazgul attack, reflects: “He bitterly regretted his foolishness, and reproached himself for weakness of will; for he now perceived that in putting on the Ring he obeyed not his own desire but the commanding wish of his enemies” (Tolkien). Like Frodo, I often self-criticise when I “give in” to my compulsions, as if it means that I am weak. Of course, this feeling is a product of the anxiety without grounds in reality. Neither I, nor other people with OCD, are weak in any capacity, but our brains are capable of tricking us into thinking we are. The anxieties and compulsions whisper to us in the dark like the Ring does to Frodo, and every step away from them is a step that is incredibly hard to take.
While Frodo’s struggles are deeply internalised, he does have a physical token of his burden, unlike most people who suffer from mental illness. He, and others around him, can pinpoint the source of his anxieties simply by knowing he must carry the Ring. Real life is not this simple. I wish I could easily explain to people what I am dealing with, but much of my struggle with OCD occurs inside of my own head. Living with an invisible illness like that is incredibly difficult to navigate, especially when it affects what seems like my every action. With no physical token to symbolise these internal struggles, it can often feel as though nobody sees the weight I carry.
That said, carrying the Ring is still an isolating experience for Frodo. While those around him understand to various extents the task he is undertaking, even his closest companions cannot truly grasp what that task is like for him. He has the Fellowship supporting him, and many allies throughout the trilogy who come to his aid, but at the end of his journey he must take the final step of destroying the Ring himself. He cannot have another do it for him, and knowing that the only way to succeed is to do it alone is a great burden. The closest anyone comes to understanding his experience, I believe, is Gollum. Gollum is the ultimate sign of warning to Frodo – this is what he could become if he gives in to the Ring and its temptations. This weighs heavily on Frodo’s conscience, and his pity for Gollum throughout The Two Towers and Return of the King is evident. He even chooses to trust Gollum over Sam when Gollum plants the crumbs of their remaining food onto the unsuspecting Hobbit. The Ring corrupts Frodo’s mind, and isolates him from Sam while making him feel as though Gollum is the only creature who truly understands him. It is only after Sam rescues him from the trap Gollum has set in Shelob’s lair and carries the Ring himself for a short time that Frodo realises he has fallen prey to a lie.
OCD, too, is an isolating experience. It can feel at times like the whole world is set against me, or like nobody will ever understand what I am going through. Living with OCD is a constant battle with anxiety for control over my mind. Watching Frodo turn against Sam in favour of the Ring and Gollum felt much like watching myself let the paranoia of my OCD take over and dictate what I do. While I have friends and family who support me, I know that most of them can never understand the way my mind works. And, like Frodo on his way to Mount Doom, I know that recovery is a journey I often must face alone.
Unfortunately for me, there is no volcano that I can throw my OCD into to rid myself of it forever – but then again, Frodo doesn’t have an easy out either. He ultimately destroys the Ring, but not entirely on purpose, and not before giving in to the temptation of putting it on one last time. Even as the Ring, with Gollum alongside it, sinks into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo knows he will never truly be free from what he experienced. It is something that will always be with him; it is an inescapable part of who he has become. This resonates with me as I practice working against my compulsions and toward recovery. Even on my easiest days, or far in the future, I know this will always be something that I have to deal with. I am my own sort of Ring-bearer, and that struggle will remain with me.
by Ezra Farner
Ezra Farner is a college student studying graphic design and film at Southern Oregon University. He loves writing about films, and some of his favorites include My Neighbor Totoro, Indiana Jones, and anything starring Oscar Isaac. You can follow him on Twitter @poesxwings, and see more of his writing here.
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