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Welcome to the woo-woo circle
Helen Kirwan-taylor on the dangers of the wellness industry
I was taken aside and told I was resistant to healing and that this was the core of all my problems
Just watching the trailer for the television adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestseller Nine Perfect Strangers was enough to trigger symptoms. Starring Nicole Kidman as a wellness guru, the series (available this week on Prime Video) leads viewers deep into a murky world. What is billed to the nine stressed-out city dwellers (including Melissa Mccarthy) as a 10-day healing and transformation retreat, rapidly turns into a living nightmare. It makes for gripping TV because many of the things that Moriarty describes – such as burying yourself alive – are scarily close to the truth.
A few years ago, I found myself somewhere in rural England, lying on a mound of damp earth covered in wet leaves, observing my own funeral. As part of an exercise in ‘healing’, I was meant to listen to my eulogy and observe how the attendants grieved (or didn’t). My two sons were quite young at the time and all I could think about was a very close friend who had just died of cancer and left her sons behind. I was meant to ‘gain perspective’ but instead I bolted up to my cobweb-ridden attic room (the retreat costs thousands of pounds) and reached under the bed for the phone I had hidden from the Stasi patrol. The thought that I might never see my children again had triggered PTSD, the very thing it was meant to be relieving.
This morbid exercise was just one of the many things we did over the course of a week in what is one of the world’s most famous healing/emotional-detox retreats. I also got to (mentally) bash a few people I disliked with a plastic baseball bat. (This exercise provoked such rage in some of my fellow guests that I was terrified they might go out and kill for real.) Oh, and I sat on Santa’s knee. I was meant to be accessing my inner child but fell about laughing instead.
One day we performed an exercise in which one member of the 30-strong group was asked to choose another and tell him or her what they didn’t like about them. The idea was to follow the criticism with ‘but now that I really see you, I think you’re wonderful/warm/kind etc’. We all sat in a circle watching the two-person exchange in the middle. It struck me (and a fellow guest who was a psychotherapist) that we were skating on very thin ice. There wasn’t a medical degree in sight (you can set yourself up as a ‘therapist’ in the UK practically as fast as you can as a window cleaner). One of the women accused the other of being manipulative and selfish (the ‘positive’ part somehow got drowned out). Within minutes we saw the beginning of a mental breakdown. The criticised woman was shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. The psychotherapist and I jumped up at the same time and demanded the exercise stop.
Shortly afterwards I was taken aside and told that I was resistant to healing and that this was the core of all my problems. Meanwhile, the lady in question was shepherded away and never mentioned again. This retreat, with sites on several continents, is so cultish that bad reviews vanish from the internet and secrecy is demanded almost with blood. They don’t ply you with psychedelic psilocybin as they do in Moriarty’s book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is where she came for inspiration.
Like many others, my journey into the wellness world originated with a genuine problem. I have suffered two bouts of ME and now have long Covid. I also have a history of childhood trauma resulting from the brutal murder of my older sister, Tasha, in 1973. I’m absolutely sure the two are related. Most of us start the journey at the hands of conventional doctors or psychiatrists but rapidly find ourselves drifting further into the world of ‘woo’ when the former offers no solutions.
I have met many genuine healers in my 30-year journey, but I have also talked to reiki practitioners who claim they can cure cancer. Trauma is extremely dangerous territory. A close relative had two nervous breakdowns after working with an inexperienced ‘new age’ PTSD therapist. I’ve been told over dinner in Notting Hill that a venture into the jungles of Chile with a ‘teacher’ who used to be a journalist (along with half a dozen magic mushrooms) would fix me. If you hear the words, ‘You have come to the right place’ or ‘You are safe now’, run for your life.
I once found myself sitting in a room in Harley Street with a man who made me pay £350 in advance to cure what he said was my ‘raging’ trauma-related alcohol addiction (FYI, I have not had a drink since October last year, so his certainty about my condition now seems absurd). This earth-shattering treatment, far more effective he claimed than either rehab or AA was… tapping. I rapidly worked out that the reason he had rambled on for 45 long minutes before starting was because it took literally three minutes to demonstrate how to beat four fingers against my forehead and chest (which, by the way, is available for free on the internet). When I bared my teeth, so to speak, in came the familiar echo of being ‘resistant’ to change.
If you don’t trust the method, it doesn’t work or there’s no medical justification for it, you’re labelled as having trust issues. This is how my highly intelligent friend found herself strapped up to an IV in a Spanish hospital after going on a detox retreat where guests were administered frequent colonic irrigations. The promise was boundless energy, happiness and weight loss. Instead, she fainted (they’d perforated something) and spent several months recuperating. I have yet to meet any conventional doctor who thinks colonics are a good idea. ‘Show me the data,’ they say.
Retreats used to be where early Birkenstock adopters went. They had hippie connotations and often involved sharing bed bugs and going for days without showers. Wellness activities are now built into our self-care budget, which is how the industry came to be worth £2.8 trillion worldwide. You can’t check into a hotel now without being presented with a ‘wellness menu’ and there are even wellness concierges in upmarket American developments.
Every retreat has its acolytes. The meditators extol the power of breath, the chanters of chanting. The Wim Hofers promise an ice bath can fix anything, while crystal healing must work now that Adele does it.
TRE (Tension and Trauma Release Exercises) classes, which involve making your body shake, have recently been rolled out across London. Anyone will start jerking if
put into a certain position: still people are now convinced they harbour some inner trauma and therefore require more ‘healing’.
Spas and retreats also provide a refuge from loneliness. When I visited the famous Lanserhof Clinic in Tegernsee last autumn, I met many single men and women, all purporting to be looking after themselves (the mixed nude swimming pool and sauna were of particular interest to this group). I have a few male friends who trawl yoga retreats because they can ‘check out the bodies’. Some of my single friends visit up to three different wellness clinics a year (at £5,000 a shot): where else can you be alone over Christmas or New Year?
Woo-woo wellness has so many built-in rules, activities, members and apps that it can rapidly form the bedrock of one’s social life. The trouble comes when you can’t survive a weekend without a breathwork class or start crying when presented with a slice of bread.
In 1997, the American physician Steven Bratman coined the term ‘orthorexia nervosa’, meaning an addiction to eating healthy foods, observing that his patients were assigning excessive meaning and power to what they put into their mouths.
The term ‘holistorexia’ has recently been added to the lexicon. This is when one becomes addicted not just to healthy eating but to wellness in all its forms. Every activity – from eating to sleeping – must be done in a certain way to achieve what they believe to be peak health.
Diet is the gateway drug to this condition. As the food writer Ruby Tandoh says in her book, Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, wellness has captured the world partly because it mimics religious rituals. ‘Even the vocabulary of the church of wellness borrows from sermons. Look into diet plans, wellness cookbooks and cleanliving tutorials, and you find good and evil, miracles, cures, healing, hope, bright new futures and promised salvation. Between every line, seasoning every recipe, is the implied promise of eternal life,’ she writes.
It comes as no surprise that holistorexia is most prevalent among young women, many of them active on social media. At the extreme end, it leads to shunning medical expertise (including vaccines) in favour of what one’s ‘shaman’ says.
Professor Christopher French, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is fascinated by the underlying message and beliefs of the wellness community. ‘Obviously there is an enormous appeal initially. It is healthy to exercise, meditate and eat more fruit. The problem is when people get obsessed,’ he says. ‘Many use it as a way to mask anorexia. We know that at the core of anorexia, and also holistorexia, is control.’
When Australian influencer Belle Gibson, who claimed to have cured her inoperable brain tumour through healthy eating, was found to have been a fraud, it raised red flags across social media. ‘This is what is so scary,’ says Professor French. ‘These people are totally confident that you must do exactly as they say and if it goes wrong it’s because you didn’t do it right. Holistorexia is easy enough to fall into because almost any diet initially makes you feel good (even eating just ice cream). When the effects wear off the tendency is to do more of it. That’s when people dip into the danger zone,’ he says.
Wellness can be an all-or-nothing proposition. ‘There is a lot of extremism in the health world,’ says nutritional therapist Jeannette Hyde, author of 10 Hour Diet: Lose Weight and Turn Back the Clock Using Time Restricted Eating. People go on diets without knowing if it’s right for their physiology.
Certain foods become demonised. The more restricted the diet, the less social the person becomes. ‘Eventually, it leads to self-isolation,’ Hyde says.
I recently visited a Harley Street doctor whose job it is to pick up the pieces after the wellness coaches have done their work. ‘I can’t tell you how many nutritionists used to be real-estate brokers or gardeners before they converted,’ he said. ‘I see all sorts of really sick people who have developed kidney and thyroid problems, who have been treated by someone who took an online course.’
Retreats offer the perfect breeding ground for holistorexia. The more extreme the programme, the more popular. Locking away your phones (as they do in Nine Perfect Strangers) is just the beginning. One course favoured by billionaires takes you into the wilderness of South America with just a compass and a bottle of water and leaves you there to work out how to get back. I call it hedonic hardship: the idea is you pay a great deal to enjoy suffering. Celebrities flock to a well-known place in California where they are made to share uncomfortable bedrooms. On the first day they’re given a glass of orange juice and taken on a six-hour hike in the burning sun. Some faint. If they manage to complete the week, they’ve achieved ‘resilience’, the buzzword of the industry.
Wellness is a full-time job. Between crystals, hot yoga, saunas, chanting, tongue cleansing and cupping, it’s amazing anyone can hold down a job. ‘The wellness community is full of narcissists,’ says Professor French. ‘It’s really about making yourself as perfect as you can be. Those who don’t try don’t deserve your respect.’
I recently met a crystal healer who admitted she had qualified after reading a book. She charged £150 an hour. If wellness had a warning label it would be: Caution, can hurt your bank balance.
‘It’s about making yourself perfect. Those who don’t try don’t deserve your respect’