Cold-pressed juices, quitting sugar, Paleo, hot yoga, mindfulness … if you embrace these things you will be happy, you will be well – just ask Instagram. Wellness has become a global mega-industry. But does any of this stuff actually work?
Feeling exhausted, anxious and out of shape, journalist Brigid Delaney decides to find out – using herself as the guinea pig. Starting with a brutal 101-day fast, Brigid tests things that are meant to make us clean, lean and serene. Travelling the world, she tries colonics, meditation, silent retreats, group psychotherapy and oodles of yoga, working out what is helpful and what is just expensive hype.
In monasteries and health farms, on hiking trails and massage tables, she asks, why do so many of us swing from indulgence to detox and back again? Is it possible to integrate good habits into your daily life? What does our obsession with wellness say about us? And why do you smell so bad when you haven’t eaten in seven days?
** This extract is from the beginning of Wellmania, published in Australia by Nero. To purchase the book, move your curser to the bottom of the page and click on the 'Buy' link.
In the last days of my thirties, I was living in a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It had never really felt like a home. Strange and beautiful murals by the Iranian artists Icy and Sot ran five metres up the building, a former storage facility. The walls were flimsy, and painted X’s in the stairwell marked demolition or some future work to be undertaken. We had a loft bedroom in which guests slept centimetres from exposed pipes leaking something that wasn’t poisonous, but wasn’t pleasant. We always kept the windows open, even when it was cold.
I was sub-sub-subletting it from an Australian photographer who had moved to Kabul, but no one seemed to know who was on the lease. Mail came for at least a dozen different people with exotic names; Germans, Russians, Koreans and Welsh people had all lived here. We knew them by their uncollected bills.
Winter was coming. I was finishing edits on a novel and had settled into a nice routine. Breakfast was a toasted poppyseed bagel with hummus and a large, strong latte over the paper edition of the New York Times at a cafe that played old Smiths songs. There were happy-hour margaritas with friends in Manhattan, dinners at bistros around Brooklyn – farm-to-fork stuff, with an emphasis on the produce of Vermont (in particular, bacon).
My yoga studio was near home, at the back of a dive bar. You did a class for twelve dollars and got a free pint of beer. When the deadline for my novel drew near, I took prescription-only diet pills and worked with a furious focus for eighteen hours a day.
On my birthday, I pretended to be an Asian friend to get access to her private members club in the East Village. My friends and I were meant to go on to a Daft Punk tribute band, then have sup- per at a place up in Harlem, but instead sat around until after midnight drinking Negronis and Old Fashioneds from heavy- bottomed crystal glassware – the sort that in Agatha Christie novels were used as murder weapons. Later – a speakeasy filled with really young people, the season’s first snow, cold legs, the frightening sight of my face in the bathroom mirror (the assistant at Sephora had gone all goth with my eye make-up), my friends going to another bar to buy some molly – and me drunk, disorien- tated, walking somewhere in Chelsea, then in a cab, arguing with the driver about the best way to get home. Him getting upset, telling me over and over to ‘stop cussing’.
The next night I went to my real birthday party, with friends who made me cake. I sat very still, sipping tea, feeling disconnected, unwell. I was terribly hungover.
My twenties and teens had been years of living wildly. I’d had a debauched thirtieth in Barcelona that was meant to be goodbye to all that. Yet my thirties had been reckless and exhilarating in a way I hadn’t expected. It felt like I was a ball and someone was playing pinball really hard with me. I was shooting all over the place, the board lighting up and the music playing.
What did I want my forties to look like? Not this. The carnival was over. Yet, yet, the fun I had . . . My friends were the same.
Children had slowed some of them down, but the things that were meant to happen – the brakes applied, the early bedtimes, the slippers and the hot chocolate – had never eventuated.
After my birthday we got evicted from the warehouse. It was the first time I had just walked out of an apartment with all the stuff still in it. When I slid the keys under the door, there were still jumbo tubs of mayonnaise in the fridge.
I headed south. In Jakarta a couple of years before, I had met a Texan guy. He ran a boutique hotel near the diplomatic district and the first time we met we’d stayed up all night on the roof of the hotel, the pool shimmering and the call to prayer sounding at 4am from the mosque below. That first conversation, mostly about books and writing, lasted until the sun came up. I wondered if this could be love. He was the biggest hedonist I’d met. He was now back in Texas and the prospect of seeing him again filled me with excitement, and a smattering of fear. He’d be picking me up from the airport in a red Cadillac.
But first, Atlanta. I went in face-first, eating Americana – baked sweet potato covered in marshmallows and coated in Splenda, with hunks of cola-basted baked turkey for Thanksgiving. Then the bus to Savannah: drinking in the streets, Spanish moss, pretty graveyards and this place called Angel’s Barbecue, where I first tasted, and adored, proper southern cooking.
Then a week in New Orleans for a travel story: a sign at the airport saying this was the number-one city for liver transplants, a band that looked and sounded like The Cat Empire playing for hours in a backstreet of the French Quarter under shifting shafts of sunlight, mint juleps, martinis, shots of bourbon – appropriately – on Bourbon Street, jazz bars, gumbo. Reviewing a restaurant called Mother whose side portions of mac and cheese spread across enormous dinner plates.
Then, finally, Austin with my Texan friend, who had grown a beard and put on 12 kilos since Jakarta. Restaurants, brunches, Tex-Mex, red wine, chess in front of an open fire at the W, live music, beer, house parties, cocaine, melted cheese dip and corn chips, football games, women in cowboy boots cracking on to my Texan, me feeling sick with jealousy, no sleep, meeting a woman who had ‘blown every rocker in Austin’ and was obsessed with the novels of Tim Winton. Nachos, enchiladas on hot plates, hot dogs on paper plates, tequila at brunch, rib joints, burger bars, piano bars, martini bars, dive bars. Starting to feel unwell all the time, my body protesting, actually aching at the excesses.
On my flight back to New York an elderly woman collapsed. They laid her out in the aisle and the plane dipped into LaGuardia and slid down the runway as fast as I’ve seen a plane land. She was fitted with an oxygen mask and taken out of the plane on a gurney. Her friends filed out behind her, alarmingly unconcerned. They were Texans coming to New York for Christmas shopping. The sick woman was a portent. I felt it. I also returned from the South feeling about 100 years old. Every part of me was tired.
Back in New York, it was freezing. There was snow on the footpath, and the pine scent of freshly cut Christmas trees was in the air. I was not quite homeless. I had agreed to cat-sit in a building on the Upper East Side, for a friend of a friend. This woman lived in a room without any windows with a cat she had found in a dumpster. The cat’s name was George Costanza.
The room used to be a storage cupboard. That’s why it had no windows. I was shocked that a cat could live in such a small space, let alone a human being. I quickly felt depressed in the airless bedsit with the scared, unhappy cat. Without a proper kitchen, I ate all my meals at a nearby diner: eggs always coming with something called hash, bad coffee in bottomless cups.
Sometimes I’d have dinner at my friend Brendan’s house. He was trying to quit sugar. We ate pasta, drank vodka tonics and smoked outside. He talked of the withdrawals – irritability and headaches, cravings and crankiness – like sugar was a drug. His street ended with a sudden drop to an embankment leading to the long, thin Riverside Park that ran all the way down to West 72nd Street and, beyond the park, to the Hudson River. We stood out in the dark, facing the water. But I was thinking of a different body of water – one I always returned to.
Bondi. December. The way the sun made the cliffs golden in the late afternoon. The daily swims, the briny air and the strong coffees. I missed it so much. It was a place that exuded a vital sort of health, a honey-baked splendour. I didn’t know if beautiful people moved there, or if you became beautiful by living there, submitting to the rhythm of the place: running on the beach, surfing, laps of Icebergs, all that yoga, all that meditation, all that warming sun.
I yearned to feel healthy again. I didn’t feel sick, but I did feel sub-optimum, lethargic. Aching joints on the inside, a coat of grease on the outside, spotty and paunchy with bloodshot eyes. My clothes were tight. My mood was low. ‘Don’t put me on Facebook!’ I had to say more than once, as friends took my photo. I needed to lose about 20 kilograms to get back into a healthy weight range. I needed, basically, to reset my body and my life. I yearned for a different way – a more virtuous way. I wanted to be clean.
Just at this time, a curious opportunity landed in my inbox. It was a magazine assignment. Would I be interested in writing a first-person account of a controversial fast that lasts for 101 days? Malcolm Turnbull, the man who would in 2015 become Australia’s prime minister, had done it. His weight loss was so dramatic, people initially speculated he had cancer.
Fasting – according to Google – means not eating.
The assignment would entail returning to Australia and, for the first month, attending a clinic every day for massage and acupuncture, followed by a daily weigh-in. For the first fourteen days I would be allowed no food, instead subsisting on foul-smelling herbs taken three times a day.
It was almost too difficult to contemplate, and yet too enticing to ignore. It didn’t just promise weight loss. It also promised to detox me, to cleanse my organs and restore them to their optimal functioning. I would look younger, metabolise food faster (when I was back to eating), think clearer, even smell nicer. Sure, it would be like signing up for the New York Marathon without ever having run for the bus, but I thought the fast might ‘shock’ me into good health. Wellness entrepreneurs such as Gwyneth Paltrow endorsed fasting, and if it’s good enough for Gwyneth . . .
I contacted my old housemate in Bondi. Yes – my room was available. It was close to the fasting clinic.
I booked a ticket back to Australia and prepared to return home to detoxify myself.
It wasn’t just a detox I was after. A quick fix wouldn’t suffice. I needed to give my system a hard reset. I was not only flabby but also plagued by mood swings and low-level discontent. I was sick of this pattern of swinging from health kick to hangover and back again. A detox would be a great initial purging of my sins, but I also needed to get toned and then work on creating some semblance of equilibrium – an inner life that held me steady, that provided a deep well of wisdom, and was some sort of ballast for when times got tough.
If I had these boxes ticked – if I could be clean, lean and serene – then I would be living my best possible life. Wouldn’t I?
The search for these things led deep into the heart of the vast complex of companies and individuals making money from all those millions of us in search of a better body, a more balanced inner life, and clean and high-functioning organs: the wellness industry.
The wellness industry is a global behemoth, worth around US$3.4 trillion annually, making it nearly three times larger than the $1 trillion pharmaceutical industry. It includes vitamins, beauty and anti-ageing, fitness, mind/body, weight loss and healthy eating, wellness tourism, workplace wellness and spas.
I had been dipping in and out of this mega-industry for around a decade before I started on my hard reset. The road to wellness has been my own personal stations of the cross. My job as a travel journalist meant I was lucky enough to try different, sometimes wacky, wellness products, often in far-flung places. I’ve done meditation, yoga, drinking opium with Brahmin priests, retreats in Benedictine monasteries, volunteer work in Japanese Zen Buddhist temples, being lathered in oil and basted like a barramundi at an Ayurvedic compound in the jungle of Sri Lanka, raw food diets and a program of colonics in the Philippines after my blood work revealed the degraded profile of a lifelong meat eater. I’ve fought against my Irish potato genes in an effort to become leaner, signing up to hot yoga challenges and strenuous multi-day hikes.
There have been lots of stumbles and falls, acts of kindness, revelations, insights and moments of beauty along the way. I’ve learnt what works for me and what is a waste of time and money.
I am not naturally lean, clean or serene. I love feeling good, but I also love a good time. To hit my pleasure zones I will often use the shortcuts of alcohol, unhealthy food and lolling about with a book (Fitbit recording a grand total of forty-eight steps for the day). I’ve tried all these wellness experiences because I am genuinely curious about whether any of this stuff works.
Will they give us a lithe body, a long lifespan, a sense of meaning and purpose? Will they give us calm and certainty and happiness in a world where so few old certainties and beliefs remain? Will we be better people afterwards, stronger and more successful? And will any of this stuff actually make us happier? Or is it just some giant capitalist project designed to take all our money but never properly sate us? From a distance, the wellness industry can seem like a spinning wheel for caged mice: on and on we run, focused on our own individualistic goals, looking straight ahead, running, running, running.
But we rely on the industry because things are so out of whack. Many of us in the West – those privileged enough to have time and a disposable income – are living in times of high decadence. We swing from excess to self-imposed deprivation with dizzying speed and frequency. There’s the Christmas holiday binge followed by the February detox; the weekend of alcohol and cocaine followed by a week of sweating out the toxins in hot yoga; the mindset meditation apps that you can use when you need a quick break from multi-tasking.
What I ask in this book is not just what the wellness industry offers – the deeper question is why? Why do we strive so deeply to be clean, lean and serene at this particular moment in time? What does the pursuit of these goals say about us? What is missing from our lives that leads us to seek spirituality in a yoga class, or community on a retreat, or purification through a diet?
This is the true story of one woman’s adventures in the search for wellness, warts and all. It’s the story of my expensive – and at times somewhat dangerous – voyage into a complicated and sprawling constellation of industries and products, some ancient, some new, all responding to or feeding on the craziness and inse- curities of the modern world. And it’s the story of all the genuinely useful stuff I’ve learnt along the way.
Brigid Delaney is a senior writer for Guardian Australia. She has previously worked as a lawyer and journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, the Telegraph (London), ninemsnand CNN. She is the author of two books: This Restless Life and Wild Things.