The sunlight dapples the autumn leaves outside the window and whale song gently drifts around me. I am lying on a massage table, and a track-suit clad man is kneading the soles of my feet, part of my five day “Pamper Package” at a health retreat. Unfortunately as I should be lapsing into a calm and meditative state I can feel my muscles tensing as I grow increasingly irritated.
As a type 1 diabetic for over forty years, I figure I know the limitations and failings of western medicine better than most. I cannot remember a day in my life in which I have not had at least one injection, I draw blood from my fingers up to six times a day and in between I keep a lot of medical appointments during which an assortment of professionals try to help maintain my senses and bodily functions. This is life as I know it and it IS a good and fortunate life. I would like a real cure for diabetes rather than the unsatisfactory treatments available at present, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon so like many other similarly afflicted children and adults I just get on with life.
The therapist, however, is having trouble masking his disapproval of my enthusiastic embrace of what he calls chemicals. The gist of his patronising banter is that western medicine is good at producing chemicals (the tone in which he says this implies that said chemicals are something akin to dog excrement) but alternative medicine intervenes to prevent the development of the illness in the first place or to produce true healing. Trying to be open to new ideas I ask what reflexology and traditional Chinese medicine (the two are not connected but just what we were discussing) might be able to do to assist in managing my diabetes. He says that it would probably not be responsible to suggest he could “get me off insulin completely” given that I had been dependent on it for so long. Oh how tantalising-the hint that maybe, just maybe there was hope, combined with the disappointment and frustration that it was probably too late. Not only would it be irresponsible to suggest he could get me off insulin, it is in fact illegal.
This is so not what I had in mind last July when over the second bottle of Shiraz accompanied by a delightfully aged blue vein cheese, lavosh and the appropriate bolus of Humalog of course, my friends and I decided we needed a detox. Plans were discussed, bookings made and new physiques and unstressed psyches envisaged. Two of the foursome bailed when details became clear, you could take things too far you know-“not going if I can’t have wine” and “no way if there’s no coffee” so that left Sarah and me headed towards the foothills of the blue mountains for 5 days of fresh mountain air, exercise, and healthy food combined with various pampering spa treatments.
I began to wonder about the wisdom of our decision only when we were approaching our destination. The retreat is marketed as being “at the foothills of the Blue Mountains” sounds lovely, but as we approached our turnoff I had no sense that we had ever left the western suburbs of Sydney. At the end of a street lined with brick veneer houses and federation-style fences we saw the sign announcing “Australia’s Premier Health Retreat”. The single-storey white building with a gentle ramp leading to the entrance reminded me of something, then I realised what it was-Leyton Lodge, the nursing home where my Grandmother had lived. “Maybe it’s nicer inside” I tried to reassure myself as much as Sarah. Inside, the hushed tones, the slight hint of pine-o-clean in the air and the overheating only served to confirm my worst fears.
We had splashed out for a deluxe, twin share balcony room and were pleased to hear that the balcony rooms were in a newer building, yes these rooms were classic early 70s budget motel, the ensuite was windowless and boasted a bath/shower and the toilet worked on a septic system, a fact which we couldn’t forget as from time to time the pine-o-clean couldn’t quite overcome the odours of the septic tank and this had nothing to do with the high-fibre diet.
As we investigate our surroundings, the dining room, the gardens, pool, tennis court, gym and lounge we wonder where all the other guests are, it is eerily quiet and nobody seems to be partaking in the activities on offer. Over our low-fat vegetarian lunch, I learn the reason for this. Many guests are fasting, a regime lasting up to seven days in which people consume only small amounts of vegetable juice five times a day, some people drink only water for a time. A couple of the people at lunch have fasted during previous visits; they say that they spent most of the time sleeping and that it is very exhausting. Those fasting are sensibly forbidden to exercise during their fast and are not even allowed to float in the swimming pool lest they faint and drown. Naturopaths provide counseling and monitor your health and progress carefully throughout the ordeal. This explains the wan figures that I see shuffling about occasionally, not to mention the clinical looking staff walking about purposefully carrying urine samples.
Later in my stay I talk to Dorothy as she is coming off her fast. She is sitting in front of a bowl of delicious looking chopped fruit, it will be her only meal that day as food is reintroduced slowly. She looks fragile and pasty, but believes that her neck pain which was so severe she couldn’t turn her head has been significantly improved by the detoxifying process and says her range of movement is better. Maybe it is this sort of result which makes people so devoted to the retreat. Nearly everyone we meet has stayed at least once before; some have been visiting regularly for more than twenty years. I expected my fellow guests would mainly be women in their 30s to 50s but am surprised to see all ages represented and a number of men. The oldest person I spoke to was ninety and the youngest a sixteen-year old schoolgirl who had come with her mother. Some have come to seek help with particular issues such as giving up smoking or losing weight, mostly though when I talk to people about why they are here though they simply want to feel better.
I ponder this common pursuit of well being as Nik delivers the “Empowering Health” lecture. We are encouraged to “Check in, that is to develop the habit of frequently stopping for just a few minutes to ask yourself, how am I feeling now, what’s happening inside of me? Am I totally at peace?…”. I start to worry about whether I am at peace and what exactly is happening inside of me doesn’t bear thinking about-has my liver finished processing last weeks Chardonnay binge and surely the cholesterol deposits in my arteries couldn’t be too thick yet could they? This checking in sounds like a road to self-absorbed hypochondria to me! Just as those who are rich are never rich enough, how can we ever feel well enough and totally at peace?
According to seventeenth century author and moralist Francois de La Rochefoucauld “Preserving health by too severe a rule is a worrisome malady.” and this sums up much of the health farm to me. Starving yourself seems to be willingly making yourself, if not ill, at least too weak to enjoy life and the therapeutic emphasis reminded me of a hospital rather than a spa. I don’t particularly need to recount my medical history in a clinical setting and discuss what it is that I need healed and be advised on how, or worse why it is too late to be properly healed when all I want is a massage and a pedicure. There will be plenty of time for enjoying the nursing home ambiance in one’s dotage.
For me each day well lived is a victory over disease and each time I inject the synthetic hormone that sustains my life I am grateful for the time it buys me. My sojourn at the retreat made me realise I don’t need healing and I certainly don’t want to be made to feel as though I am ill when I’m not. I want to live life to the full in all its chaotic fury and toxicity, bring me a steak and a good bottle of red!Tweet