It was 3 a.m. in a tiny hut in Thailand. The whir of the ceiling fan sounded like a helicopter taking off. I hadn't eaten in three days. My stomach churned incessantly, keeping me from sleep. All I had to look forward to in the morning was a pot of lemongrass tea and a coffee enema.
I had signed up for a seven-day fast at the Dharma Healing Center on the island of Koh Samui, about 12 hours from Bangkok. Hillary, the American woman who ran the place, told me I was sick because the herbs I'd been ingesting daily were killing off the parasites that had been nesting in my colon. This possibility didn't give me much comfort as I lay on a towel on the hut's bathroom floor waiting for my next bout of vomiting.
What terrified me more than my physical pain, however, was the way my hands kept reaching for my flat abdomen, tracing the outline of my ribs against my skin, sharper and sharper each day. Far from being healing, I knew that the fast was feeding my most insidious compulsions, the voices in my head that have told me since childhood that it's not OK to eat.
Another fast, a year earlier at a Massachusetts retreat center, had had the opposite effect. Instead of obsessing about my weight, I felt liberated. There was no counting calories, no fears of overeating. I felt more in control than I ever had in my life. The program encouraged me to rethink my relationship with food and to face the reasons behind my body image issues.
I was craving that kind of freedom again when I heard through the fasting grapevine that Dharma Healing Center offered the most supportive and introspective fasting program on Koh Samui, a fasting mecca with several centers offering low-cost, seven-day detoxification programs. On its Web site, the Dharma Center encourages a Buddhist approach to fasting, with an emphasis on meditation and yoga. It sounded perfect.
Before I left for Koh Samui in June, my sister, who thinks that I'm always searching for a socially acceptable form of starvation, wanted to know why I was traveling thousands of miles to fast.
"Don't tell me this isn't about losing weight," she said.
"Of course it's not," I lied. "It's about cleansing. And it helps me to clear my mind."
Several days later, I was lounging on silk cushions on a shaded deck beside a bay, waiting nervously for my would-be guru, Hillary, to appear.
My fellow fasters included a pale, good-humored British couple who said they'd signed up after watching a BBC reality television special that followed a group of demi-celebrities through a week of colonics at another Koh Samui health center; a cheeky British redhead who'd lied to her boyfriend, telling him she was going to a regular resort; a beautiful 27-year-old Irish woman with a round-the-world plane ticket and a love for all things "new age"; and a French cabaret dancer who lived in Tokyo and was obsessed with fasting.
Hillary, spindly and girlish, arrived fresh from her morning swim wearing a sarong and a one-piece bathing suit. "This is going to be the best week of your life," she announced, her long, thick gray-blond hair still dripping wet.
She recited our daily schedule: early-morning coffee enemas. Morning tea. Morning herbs. Green coconut juice. Morning lectures. Midday herbs. More coconut juice. More herbs. Evening broth at 6:30. Another lecture. Bedtime enema.
"Fasting can cure cancer, AIDS and anorexia," Hillary said within the first 10 minutes of our orientation, just after she'd collected our $400 in cash.
"AIDS?" I asked incredulously.
Hillary nodded, her eyes glowing.
"All of you will leave here transformed," she said. "All of you."
Hillary claimed fasting had saved her life. She'd been raised on the SAD diet -- the Standard American Diet -- and said she'd never been healthy as a child. In somber tones, she recounted being fed meals dominated by white flour and beef. More than a decade ago, she'd been diagnosed with lymphoma. Fasting was the only thing that made her feel better.
Then Hillary pulled out a photo album filled with pictures of previous Dharma Center guests. In the first picture, a stocky brunette cradled a colander filled with her own feces.
"When this woman came here she was so puffy, so tired and sick," Hillary said. "Her whole lymph system was a mess. But when she started fasting, her skin began to glow, and she lost all that puffiness. She looked amazing."
There were pictures of investment bankers, barflies, dancers and cancer patients all posing next to their excrement, which Hillary had analyzed based on color, consistency and content. Then there was photo after photo of Hillary's own poop.
"This is all stuff that came out of me over the years," she said. "Lots of parasites. I had a lot of cleansing to do."
"Do we have to take pictures?" I asked.
"No, no," Hillary laughed. "But lots of people like to. They learn so much from it. It tells a lot about who you are and where you've been."
She handed us each a bucket with a clear plastic hose attached to it. Hillary showed us how we'd fill the bucket with specially prepared, diluted coffee in the morning and weak green tea at night. She reclined on her side and mimed how we should insert the tubes in our rectums, allow the water to flow in, and then hold it for as long as possible.
"There's nothing like a good enema!" she said cheerfully. Then she sent us off to our bungalows to experience the bliss for ourselves.
There was no nirvana for me -- just the uncomfortable gush of water traveling up my colon as I curled into a fetal position on the floor. I held the water until I felt I would burst, massaging my belly to release the plaque and mucus Hillary said we all needed to release. Outside I could hear the wind tickling the palm trees and the waves lapping at the bay shore. I was in paradise -- and yet there I was, indoors, lying on a bathmat, sphincter muscles tightly clenched.
When I wasn't giving myself hour-long enemas, I was attending endless lectures on the digestive system, food combining, raw foods and cleansing. My fellow students peppered Hillary with questions that showed they survived mostly on beer, bread and butter.
"What's kale?" the Irish girl asked. Hillary was the savior who would deliver them from carb and alcohol addictions. They took vigorous notes, as if there might be an exam before their next meal.
Hardcore fasters say their practice is based on meditation, relaxation and self-acceptance. And given what I had read on the Dharma Center's Web site -- that it was a place to "cleanse and purify body, mind and spirit" -- I thought that healing would be the focus of the fast. But at Dharma, introspection was an afterthought. Instead, we spent hours listening to Hillary lecture about the one way we could all avoid aging, illness, irritability and depression: cleaning our colons. She tried to indoctrinate us into her cult of starvation, where deprivation is the norm and the goal is to create a little world where it's easy to avoid temptations. When we got home, she told us, we should avoid frequent dinners out with friends, birthday cakes and long Sunday morning brunches. She mined her own life for constant examples of extreme self-control, telling us, for example, about the "grounding" year she spent on a "mono-diet," eating nothing but brown rice.
Then there were her beauty secrets.
"Look at me," Hillary said. "I'm 53 years old. I look better than I did when I was in my 20s. My skin is better. I'm stronger, less tired. I have great sex."
But to me, Hillary didn't look great. She looked wasted. How could she not? She said she fasted at least 11 days out of every month. She had moved to an isolated island in Thailand and built her entire life around starving. After a few days of listening to her, and her fanatical views on fasting, I began to feel unsafe. With each lecture's lists of no-no's I risked becoming more and more obsessive about eating. And while the Dharma Web site says that Hillary is trained as a "nutritional counselor," and holds a master's degree in education from Harvard, she didn't ask us any questions about our health, nor did we have to fill out a medical history form before we began the program.
After her lectures, Hillary held question-and-answer sessions. My fellow fasters asked about the molecular composition of proteins and ideal number of bowel movements one should have a day.
"What do you use for sunscreen?" I asked. I had been slathering on SPF 30 all week, even though Hillary had told us it was full of chemicals.
"I'll tell you my secret," she said. "Urine and coconut oil. Together, they make the best sunscreen on earth."
"Your own urine? As sunscreen?"
"I drink it too," she said proudly.
The British couple decided to stay on for an 11-day fast, after Hillary told the young woman she needed to shed the spare tire around her middle. I suggested there might be better ways for her to lose weight -- like exercise.
"I know," she said. "But I may as well get it off now."
The French cabaret dancer, on a two-week fast to quit smoking and chocolate, rarely spoke and her eyes bulged out of their sockets. She was in her late 30s, with a lithe body and perfect breasts. It was her fifth fast at the Dharma Center in the past year.
"Aren't you sick of hearing these lectures over and over again?" I asked her after another particularly boring talk about the nutritional value of various vegetables.
"No," she said with a beatific shrug, "I can always use a review."
Most people are tired when they fast, but I became manic. I recognized the feeling from junior high, when I first found some temporary relief from years of bingeing in the form of my own sort of fast -- months of eating nothing but a small can of tuna fish, a bag of popcorn and a tiny salad. I was never diagnosed as an anorexic or bulimic. But all my life, I've gone through intense phases of indulgence, purging and deprivation, never knowing if I would ever live anywhere in between.
I spent each night staring at the ceiling in my cabin, my mind spinning. I had come to Dharma to free myself from my food obsessions, and yet I was overwhelmed by anxiety. Other people were here to transform themselves, to kick their addictions. I was a thin, healthy 30-year-old woman who had traveled halfway around the world to lose 10 pounds, all the time deluding myself that I had come here for spiritual reasons. It was pathetic. And yet I couldn't lie to myself -- I also was getting off on the fact that the pounds were melting off.
During the day I practiced yoga and took long walks between lectures in an effort to tire myself out. Beyond the sandbar where Hillary swam every morning, I caught glimpses of a world where people ate. German tourists sipped beer and tucked into plates of shrimp at a beachside restaurant. A transsexual hooker invited me to sing karaoke at thatched-roof tavern. Farther on, fishermen tied their boats up on the beach, bringing home the day's catch.
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The stomach cramps started on the third night, followed by vomiting and dysentery. I couldn't get enough air in the hot and stuffy bungalow, even with the fan on high. I lay my towel on the porch and tried to sleep there, hoping for a cool breeze from the bay. By Day 4, I was seriously considering going AWOL. Paralyzed by nausea, I could barely walk or sit up. I wanted my mother, but I'd be embarrassed to tell her, or anyone who loved me, that I was inflicting this torture upon myself.
"It's a good sign," Hillary said of my illness, without registering any concern. "You're getting rid of a lot of toxic waste."
That afternoon, Hillary gave me the liver flush, a mixture of fresh orange juice, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.
"Drink this, you'll feel better," she said. I drank the strange-tasting liquid slowly. And later that day, I did feel better. My stomach settled, my eyes brightened. But I attributed my emotional recovery to my boycott of Hillary's nutrition classes. I felt peaceful when I wasn't obsessively discussing food with the other fasters, or listening to Hillary tell me that I needed to continue cleansing my colon. Instead I sat with the Thai women who managed the bungalows and watched the sun go down. During a long Thai massage, Pon, a huge woman with arms like a linebacker, cradled me and cracked my back.
The Thai women told me they didn't understand the fast. They ate curry and noodles for lunch and munched on mangosteens in the afternoon.
"After the fast, you have to step back and feel where you are," Hillary said on my last night. "You are a new person." I'd softened to her a little bit since I'd started feeling better. She meant well. But I didn't want to be a new person. I wanted to accept myself as I was, with or without the 10 pounds I'm constantly shedding and gaining. This fast had helped me admit to myself that I wasn't on a spiritual quest. I was afraid of fat, and I was letting this fear dominate my life. On my next trip to Thailand, I hoped I would sip curry in a hammock, or enjoy a meal of shrimp pad Thai.
In a photograph taken on my last day on Koh Samui, I am sitting with Rutsamee, the woman who managed the bungalows, and Pon's 11-year-old daughter. I was about to eat my first meal -- a whole pineapple that I bought at the market in town. Rutsamee cut it for me, slicing carefully around the knots of brown pith until it resembled a yellow pinecone.
Rutsamee and the little girl sat down with me on teak chairs under an open, thatched-roof hut. We each took a thick, juicy slice of pineapple and bit in. Fruit never tasted so sweet.