Tuesday, May 3, 2022

All That Fills Us

Autumn Lytle

The idea for All That Fills Us came to me around 4am one morning when I was making my way to the bathroom. 

I still have the note I jotted down on my phone after than fateful bathroom trip. It starts out, “An anorexic girl whose family has left her (died? Moved aboard?) is hospitalized for her condition. While she’s there, she sees a vision of the West Coast and an important person telling her to come…”

I didn’t go back to sleep after that, I just kept typing. As the glow from my phone mixed with the early morning light, I threw on a sports bra, tied my running shoes, and headed out for a long and thoughtful run. When I came back, full of endorphins and my brain flooded with ideas, I felt like I was really onto something.

All I needed now was a destination, inspiration, and plenty of help for my character along the way.

It wasn’t hard for me to pick a destination for Mel’s (The protagonist in All That Fills Us) thru-hike. My husband and I had taken our own cross-country trek (albeit, by car) to Mt. Rainier National Park the year before. I know it sounds a little lame to say the experience was transformative, but it totally was. I had never seen mountains like that, never seen water that shade of emerald, never felt so okay with feeling so small beneath towering trees. My character Mel is a lot like me a few years back when I was battling my own disorders, so I knew exactly what she needed. She needed to find restoration. She needed somewhere she could follow like a beacon, somewhere where she could feel overwhelmed by God’s beauty and somewhere that would make it nearly impossible not to recognize that same beauty in herself. So, off to Mt. Rainier she went.

Now, most people would say that setting out for a 2,000-mile journey on foot isn’t the safest thing for a young woman to do alone. Add in the fact that she’s anorexic and you may have some questions regarding her sanity, or perhaps the sanity of the author. But I knew the world of literature was severely lacking when it came to giving an honest portrayal of what living with an eating disorder looked like. Based on my personal experience with eating disorders and exercise obsessions, I felt like it wasn’t unreasonable for me to accept the challenge of filling that literary gap.

I think one of the biggest problems with portraying mental health disorders in literature is that most characters struggling with these issues lack the energy and the stamina for any sort of plot to develop. They are so wrapped up in their own darkness that they can’t always engage in the ongoing drama and character development happening around them. I didn’t want that for my character. I wanted my readers to have some physical representation of her journey towards healing. By having Mel set out on this enormous task, readers can see that even with her missteps and wrong turns, she’s still moving towards a greater goal. The journey towards healing is long and winding, so I hope readers get a sense of that while walking alongside Mel.

When I was cycling through all the different obstacles Mel could run into on her journey, I was careful to keep in mind the fact that in this story, Mel is her own worst enemy. Her dark thoughts, her eroded self-confidence, her obsessions that drain her life away… Those are the things she needs to fear most and those are what she needs to overcome. For that reason, I decided to gift her helpers along the way instead of adversaries. I wanted to remind her and the reader that this journey can’t be completed alone. I couldn’t hope to tell an honest story about healing without paying tribute to all those who helped me find my own way back to health. The number of times a loved one reached down to pull me out of the darkness of my own making is one I’ll never know.

I think people often want healing to look heroic. They want it to have a tidy start and finish line. They want big moments of realization and fireworks and motivational music playing in the background. They want to show the world they can get themselves out of this mess and stand victorious on the other side, ready to share all the life lessons they learned along the way. But at least in my experience, healing doesn’t work like that. It’s incredibly messy (no matter how often I’ve examined my life I can’t find anything close to a clear-cut reason that I stopped eating and started doing thousands of jumping jacks in secret). There are plenty of moments of startling realization, but that’s only because I always seemed to forget the epiphany entirely within the next few minutes and would have to relearn the lesson a dozen more times that week. I would try time and time again to crawl to that vague finish line of healing all by myself, always to fail unless someone swooped in right before my collapse and let me lean against their shoulder.

So, after a summer of frantically scribbling down notes of inspiration, a year of writing, and a year and a half or waiting and refining and rewriting, All That Fills Us looks a little different than what I first pieced together that morning so long ago, but the heart of it beats strong and beautifully. Life’s struggles don’t always produce tangible good, but sometimes we are blessed with seeing meaning of these events in this lifetime. And I hope it doesn’t sound too audacious to say my hope is that All That Fills Us can turn the darkest period of my life into light for even just a few others.

And that’s my greatest hope for All That Fills Us- That it makes those of us on the road to recovery and the ones walking alongside us feel seen and a little less alone.

Autumn Lytle identifies with a strange group of humans who enjoy running long distances and writing even longer books. Along with being a forever-recovering anorexic and exercise addict, she is a weirdly good checkers player and finder of four-leaf clovers. 

She spends her days thinking up stories and trying to figure out this whole parenting thing with her son. She can often be found out exploring her hometown of Seattle, Washington, with her family in tow. 

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