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I'm Having Second Thoughts About Wellness

Buffeted by hormonal disarray, I’ve spent the last decade trying to figure out how to keep my life on track as sleep, appetite, sex drive, mood, careen all over the place. You name it, I’ve tried it. I’ve taken truckloads of herbs and supplements, followed protocols for sleep, rewired my brain, repeated affirmations, meditated in all different ways, tapped various parts of my body, attended yoga retreats, and, in a moment of real desperation, spent way too much in a crystal store. I’ve detoxed my home, my makeup kit, my kitchen. I’ve gorged on CBD oil, subscribed to on-line programs guaranteed to work in 4–6 weeks if I only stop eating (fill in the blank).

In short, I’ve become a wellness junkie. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for healthy living. Organic food. Exercise. Enough sleep. Meaningful work. Being outdoors. But I’m getting tired of following instructions. So, after making myself miserable this past summer with the cleanest diet ever, I decided to go it alone.

I got a push when I read this article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire, Goop. The writer describes in hilarious detail her experience at an In Goop Health wellness summit. It made me cringe, not because of its over-the-top promises and way-too-expensive and elitist assumptions (although those are certainly cringe-worthy), but because of the many practices, claims, and experts that I myself had desperately hoped would work for me. I was all too familiar with the fear, desperation, and thwarted desire that drew me and so many others to this world of self-help and easy fixes.

The Goop website, she notes, offers solutions to the “questions that the modern woman can’t seem to find answers to: Why am I so unhappy? Why am I so tired? Why am I so fat? Why don’t I want to have sex anymore?” The expert responses, as she so perceptively observes, are all rooted in the age-old assumption that we (meaning a particular group of privileged, educated, women) are sick and in need of a cure. “An autoimmune disease at every corner, be it thyroid disease, arthritis or celiac disease; trust them, you have one,” she tosses off, daring the Twittersphere to jump on her blithe dismissal of unquestionably real health problems. At first, I was pretty defensive myself. But as I continued to read, I began to laugh.

It would be easy to dismiss “wellness” as yet another chapter in the American love affair with celebrity, quackery, and miracle cures. And in many ways, it is. But I think, something more troubling lies at the heart of this story.

At the end of the article, the author describes her experience in a reiki workshop:

We lay, eyes closed, and put our hands on our hearts, and I opened my eyes before everyone else and saw all these women . . . lined up like desperate, exquisite corpses, their hands over their hearts, totally inert.

That could be me, I thought.

That is me, I ruefully acknowledged.

Lying there, assuming the posture of the almost-dead and nursing a desperate hope of being saved. An avowed feminist, I had somehow unwittingly bought into yet another chapter in the centuries-old transformation of women’s power and desire into fragility and illness. What are we chasing? I wondered. What am I chasing? What is it that is making me sick? What will make me well?

“Wellness” was starting to seem like a monumental distraction from what really ails my generation of women, the exhausted daughters of Second Wave feminism. What if all of those calls to “indulge” in ourselves (by spending lots of time and money on products, retreats and workshops), no matter how well-intentioned, were preventing us from seeing the real source of our problems? What if our problems were rooted not only in ourselves, but also in our culture, and the damage it has wreaked on the earth and on our bodies?

So about a month ago, I went on a wellness detox. I cancelled appointments, purged my email inbox, bought a loaf of delicious gluten-full sourdough bread. Ate it. Followed by dessert.

It’s been a challenge. I have spent so much energy following instructions, being an A student in the school of life, that I seem to have lost sight of who I am and what I want (to eat, to do, to say). And why I was put on this earth.

But as the unprescribed days come and go, unruly, inconvenient, surprising feelings keep bubbling up from somewhere deep in my gut. Anger, for example. And desire. And impatience. “Time to get up off the floor,” they whisper in my ear. “Time to start making real change in the world,” they urge. Now. There’s no time to waste.

Want to join me?

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