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When I took my 7-year-old to Frozen II, I expected some "feels." You know. Those emotions we get from Disney movies, ones that while evocative and powerful and tear-inducing — like Bing Bong's sacrifice in Inside Out or the first minutes of Up — won't leave you gutted for weeks after seeing it. I don't go to Disney movies expecting my own personal trauma to appear onscreen. But Frozen II did just that. This was more than "feels." This was devastation, and memories, and tears, and pain, and then hope. A powerful, powerful hope.
I've seen dark before, but not like this
This is cold, this is empty, this is numb
The life I knew is over, the lights are out
Hello, darkness, I'm ready to succumb
Co-dependence is a weird thing. Your entire life's story belongs to someone else. Your identity is intertwined in theirs. Your connection and bond go beyond love, beyond hate, beyond your very self. But because it's another person, with their own autonomy, you can't control them, you can't save them, you can't fix them, and they can't fix you.
But you believe you can and they can. You have to. Because, without them, what are you?
I follow you around, I always have
But you've gone to a place I cannot find
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down
Frozen II follows Anna and Elsa as they face changes beyond their imaginations, beyond their entire worldview and what they knew their lives to be. Pretty impressive given that Elsa recently froze her entire country and Anna turned into an ice sculpture and died. Frozen II is a far more "adult" film, in that way we think kids won't understand or can't comprehend because we don't want to think kids should have to feel these things. But they can, they do.
With themes like existential dread, loss of identity, of learning everything you knew about your family and their perceived goodness was a lie, of white destruction of indigenous cultures, this is not what people think of when they think "Disney princess fare" because, well, the very concept of Disney princesses are easy to diminish as merchandise-friendly kid stuff. But at their best, that's exactly what these movies give us.
I just didn't know one might also give us a song straight out of the rooms of Al-Anon.
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
"You are lost, hope is gone
But you must go on
And do the next right thing"
"Do the next right thing." That has been a mantra for me since 2011, when I went to my first Al-Anon meeting. So entrenched I was in someone else's pains and struggles that they felt like mine. But I didn't own them. I could not change them. I could not save this person I loved more than I loved myself. Things felt hopeless. Beyond hopeless. What is there to even attempt to do when things are this dark?
The next right thing.
In AA, they say, "One day at a time." And it's true, for addicts, co-dependents, and anyone else impacted by the pain and struggle of illness — your own or someone else's. Like any chronic illness with no cure, there is only continuous work and treatment, no blanket solution. So it makes sense then that Anna's journey and "The Next Right Thing" were a collaborative effort between writer-director Jennifer Lee and Kristen Bell, herself an admitted co-dependent with mental illness who is married to a recovering alcoholic.
For people like Bell, for people like me, for people like all of us, every day is a thing to get through successfully, every thought is a conscious effort, and you must train yourself to go forward. To do the next right thing.
Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don't know anymore what is true
I can't find my direction, I'm all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor
When it's not you I'm rising for?
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
"How to rise from the floor / When it's not you I'm rising for?" That was the moment I felt the tears. I know they started long before, but I was so rapt in this song, in this moment. Anna has lost everything, her life is different now, and what is her life if not Elsa's? Her story is Elsa's story, it always has been. Her entire world has been shaped by her relationship with her sister. Who is she without Elsa? How can she know when she's never had to find out?
In the last couple years, I've had to figure that out myself. It was like having part of my body removed, like my entire chest — lungs, heart, and all — was scooped out of me, and I'm just this dragging, unwhole person running on autopilot, desperately searching for something else to live for because I didn't know how to live only my life. My children are my world, but I learned from birth I can't control them or run them. They are autonomous precious humans who are part of me but are not me. I want them to be themselves.
But I couldn't even consider wanting that for myself.
And with the dawn, what comes then
When it's clear that everything will never be the same again?
Then I'll make the choice
To hear that voice
And do the next right thing
It took work. It took practice. It took and still takes a daily insistence upon paying attention to my own needs and wants, to do the self-care things I need in order to more than simply survive as some kind of work-mom robot. And sometimes the heavy of it all is still so very, very strong, like walking up those stairs in Nightmare on Elm Street, my feet stuck and being pulled down, like I'm not going anywhere and can't. And it would be easier just ... to not.
So you do the next right thing. And the next. And the next. And at some point, you've done a day's worth of next right things. A week. A month. And you start to feel like a person. Maybe again, maybe for the first time ever.
Frozen II may not have gotten its well-deserved Oscar appreciation today. But for the kids who need hope, and for the adults striving to find it, it deserves all the gold in the world.