Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cults and Ex-Boyfriends

I asked my friend Holly, who is also my Rolfer, to give me an objective, big-picture assessment of some joint pain I've been having. She's a smart healer, and she's known me a long time, and I was hoping to get from her the kind of macro-information that is almost impossible to get from specialists. For instance, how many times do you have to go to a chiropractor before you can confirm she is a charlatan? If the joints in your left leg have hurt mysteriously for two years, is it reasonable to expect anything to help, at all, ever? If both moving and not moving my leg hurts, what should I do?

I wasn't asking about chronic fatigue syndrome, which is just a given at this point. I was asking about pain specific enough to have a cause, although like everything else I've ever experienced in my body, the cause is mysterious. Instead of answering, she started talking about something that I never want to hear about in the context of healing again: a special diet. She thought that digestive system health was the big picture, and kept going on about intestinal flora, body ecology, the breakdown of carbohydrates, fermentation, leaky guts, etc.

So, she’s one of those people. I tried to conceal my disappointment, though I didn't do a very good job. I asked her if she knew that nutrition was a cult. She politely disagreed. I asked her if she knew that the vast majority of reasonably healthy people eat reasonably normal food, and she said that healthy people can do a lot of things that sick people can't. Okay, I'll give her that, but did she know that people on special diets are just hippie prima donnas who love having the most inconvenient diets possible, are intellectual cowards who can't accept that their bodies can't be absolutely controlled by food, are adults playing pretend and taking meaningless action just to be doing something, are neurotic obsessive-compulsives grateful for something to focus on besides their real problems, are crazy fucking food-perverts who get off in an almost sexual way on depriving themselves, like some sick fucking medieval self-flagellating purity-obsessed barefoot ascetic nun? Did she know this? Huh? Because it's true. Then I started crying.

The truth is, I hate special diets, and I hate the people who are on special diets, for the only reason that I can ever seriously hate anything: I used to believe in it. In the first six years of being ill, I think I tried every hippie diet in every hippie diet book I could find. I guess the several-years-of-panicked-fruitless-health-regimens is just a stage every chronically ill person goes through. I have some very bad memories of the allergen-free diet in Portland, the anti-Candida diet in Massachusetts, and the paleo diet in Philadelphia, before I finally gave up. I started eating normal-person food, and I started to feel like a normal person.

The only thing I ever got out of this healing was stress, dangerous weight loss, and the feelings mentioned above. At different points, I fell in with people who had similar “healing diets”/fake allergies/eating disorders/food fetishes, and we encouraged each other. I think I spent more time thinking about, talking about, fermenting, soaking, growing, buying, cooking, and planning food than any person in a non-hunter gatherer society should ever have to do. The enjoyment of food, of course, had an inverse relationship to how much time I spent obsessing. I sort of hated the actual eating of the food. It made me nervous and resentful. There were so many ways to get it wrong.

I've done this a lot in my life. I don't just believe in things, I become a true believer.  There is a streak of religious fanaticism in me that can attach itself to almost anything. I'm not looking for something that might be a positive force in my life, something to try it out and see. I'm looking for ultimate salvation.  When I come across concepts or practices or regimens that seem to offer it, I swallow them without chewing and take them to their furthest extreme. And then, when they inevitably fail, I repudiate them completely.

A concise list of things that I currently hate: healing diets, alternative medicine, acupuncture, veganism, radical politics and the young white people yelling about them, Portland, Oregon, anarchist punks, Buddhism, spiritual communities, Vipassana meditation. There's a lot more than this, of course, but these are the things that fill me with a seething, city-destroying rage, or at least a smug sense of superiority. It's an overcompensation for the betrayal and embarassment I feel, since I believed in these things so wholeheartedly, and they failed to save me. I'm ashamed that I was ever so credulous and naïve, and so willing to abdicate responsibility and install a program to run my life. It also reminds me of the pain I was in that made me desperately seek salvation in the first place.

When I told Holly about my List of Hates, she said it reminded her of a list of ex-boyfriends who I think damaged me in some way, and whom I'm still mad at. I think it's an apt analogy. These were some very unhealthy relationships. The romances between me and my ideologies burned brightly and died fast. Now we can't be in the same room together without causing a scene. It's embarrassing for everyone.

I want to stop hating these things. They don't deserve it. Everything I hate is mostly good. Some of the things that I hate are laughably wonderful, like acoustic guitar. I miss that! Think about everything I'm shutting myself off from by hating so much. What's more, it's not just the –isms that I hate, in practical application it's also the –ists, who definitely don't deserve it. They are usually good people whose only crime is reminding me of myself. I don't want to hate my past self. I don’t want imagine myself in the future, hating my present self. Maybe all this hate is unnecessary.

So, I might change my diet. It's not unreasonable to suppose that what you eat has an impact on your life in some way. Maybe I'll do it and see how I feel, and treat it as a thing that I'm trying, not the ultimate transcendental truth of what it means to be a human being that will save me forever. Knowing that I can make a cult out of anything, I really value my skepticism these days, especially about the things that seem to be working. I have a strong distrust of almost everything that is making me happy lately, and that's just fine. Let present happiness be tentative and ever-shifting, not solid unbreakable ideals that don't actually exist. If nothing else, it will mean less to hate later.


  1. I love this post as much as you hate everything. And I am so fucking proud of you AND I swear I'm going to send you mail soon and I will try to make it really good mail, since I've been promising it so long...

    1. Thanks, Zem! I'll just be holding my breath out by the mailbox.

  2. I really enjoyed this post....if I had a dollar for amount of times I have been told to try this or that diet over my 20 years with M.E, I'd have my own little slush fund! I figure life is limited enough without adding food to the mix. The time when I tried to cut out sugar along with a list of so called 'baddies', I went downhill so fast that my doctor told me to stop it at once! If it helps others that's fine, but don't go pushing your agenda down my throat! Thanks for making me smile. Xx

  3. Thanks! I just checked out your blog, and it's lovely. I'd never seen a vintage measuring-spoon holder before, or heard the word "op-shop." We don't have that word in Kansas, so I had to Google it.

  4. Lee, I love this post. Girl, you are such a talented, insightful writer... and hilarious!

  5. Hi Lee, I'm really enjoying your blog, you write really well. I've had CFS for 15 years now, and in the early days I tried every fad food diet going, food combining, the paleo diet, eating for your blood type...yadda yadda. Of course nothing helped. So I can identify.

    And keep up your skepticism, it's a valuable defense against all the nonsense out there.
    I have a new blog I just started, check it out if you get a chance...

  6. Oh bloody hell. Just as I'm in the middle of trying to switch to the Mediterranean Diet. And by trying to, I mean, buying all the food to make the recipes, then letting it rot in the fridge while I fill up on cookies from the dollar store. Anyway: brilliant post.

  7. I know this is an older post, but wanted you to know that it still made my day today, three years later. Thanks so much for this.

  8. I know this is an older post, but wanted you to know that it still made my day today, three years later. Thanks so much for this.