Our Struggle To Find Balance

At the start of a new year, everyone wants to be transformed. But can true transformation happen without first finding balance?

Today marks the final day of a three-week cleanse my boyfriend and I undertook as part of our mission to make 2013 a healthier year for both of us. We eschewed the making of resolutions for the joint purchase of an expensive juicer and carefully read the guidelines of the “Clean,” program by Alejandro Junger, a 21-day detox program that promises to address the root causes of ill health by eliminating toxins from the body and restoring natural balance. No gluten, no dairy, no refined sugar, no carbs, no caffeine, no alcohol, no fun.

We carefully planned our two juice meals a day with one solid meal (with particular restrictions) in between. Suddenly the kitchen was overflowing with carrots and kale and beets. We felt virtuous and healthy, refusing dinner and cocktail hour invitations, drinking cups of herbal tea and watching the Rachel Maddow show. Bring it on, 2013, we thought.

Meanwhile, if I’d had any delusions about my addiction to caffeine, this was put to rest as I stumbled through the world a few steps behind my wrap-around Saturn headache. My dreams were funky, vivid, and violent. (Toxins in the brain, Junger postulates, a sign of accumulated stress.) By the second week we had consumed many bags of almonds (a permitted snack, mine first dunked in water and then a bowl of salt), wearily worked out at the gym, and had a few cheat glasses of red wine. During the last week, it was wine every night. “Red wine is like medicine,” my good friend told me, being supportive. “Junger would say not to suffer,” we’d say, popping the cork on a nice Cabernet.

In this last week I am still hungry, still obsessed with my lunch (“Is it time to eat my fish yet?” has become a daily mantra for me), really over the taste of almonds (but still eating them, oddly), and finally accustomed to drinking decaf coffee and green tea instead of three pots of turbo-brew a day. And I feel more balanced, but I don’t feel transformed.

In fact, I feel a bit guilty for restricting my food at all when my son Ronan can no longer eat and takes fluids through a tube in his nose, a form of comfort care as he enters the last stage of his life. But I also feel proud of the fact that perhaps I have been able to sit with a similar hunger Ronan is now experiencing; a slight elation, a weird peace when the body just grins and bears it and begins its inevitable existing; or in his case, unraveling. He is experiencing the hunger of being human, a grasp that is happening in his body, but in my mind.

This “clean” experience has me thinking, though: What is the relationship between balance and transformation? Most programs or exercise systems or activities or “change your life” programs promise the second while bypassing the first, resulting in a shallow shift that is impossible to sustain. Junger promises transformation through a re-balancing process that is quite radical. People talk about cultivating balance, but this is often code for “go on a diet and lose weight and you’ll be happy.” We always believe this lie in January because we’ve been trained to do so and we feel crappy after all the holiday indulgences. It’s why gyms are packed for the first month of the year, people look grumpy and cold, and then we all revert back to our ways.

And maybe that is the balance. We try and fail. We make efforts that don’t always produce the exact results we were expecting. True development, true change, happens over time. Think of it as a story: If the protagonist goes from A to B without any meandering or struggle, then there’s been no change, no shift. There is no story.

All of us work to find balance in our lives. I am no expert at this, which I think requires the kind of vigorous but nonjudgmental attention to the body that the Clean program requires. I like food (or I like to deny myself food, which is a kind of hedonism disguised within abstemious behavior); I’ll rarely turn down a second glass of wine, I love nice clothes, and I like to buy them in bulk and to excess when I’m in the mood, as in, a bad mood. We all use escape methods in our lives, they simply vary from person to person.

I’ve always worried that my compulsive side occasionally flirts with the fine edges of addictive behavior, that proverbial one step away from full-blown addiction. The only time I don’t worry about this is when I’m in Las Vegas, where I feel so healthy it hurts.

When I was there in November with a girlfriend for the Vegas Valley Book Festival, we tried to find books in the 24-hour resort store after stumbling around a swanky mall trying on Chanel dresses and fawning over thousand dollar shoes while sipping from to-go margaritas we’d bought at an outdoor bar somewhere in the labyrinth of Caesar’s Palace. We ate an enormous chicken and pommes frites dinner, and then we wanted to read.

We were desperate to fill our brains with information that was not music piped into an elevator, or a feathered showgirl standing in the street sending text messages, or the constant barrage and crackle of messages and lights and people and movement that is Las Vegas, everyone in hot pursuit of happiness, whatever that oft-quoted line in our country’s constitution might mean to them. A few dusty books were arranged on a bottom shelf underneath the trail mix: John Grisham, Norah Roberts, and another glossy paperback by a writer neither one of us recognized. We settled on a Vanity Fair magazine and were asleep by 10pm.

Trying to break old habits while caring for a terminally ill child sometimes seems (and might be, in fact) preposterous. But it has helped me. I no longer get the caffeine jitters, which is nice, but my thinking around the link between balance and transformation has deepened. Grief is a crucible; so is any program that involves two liquid meals a day—it’s just a different and less emotionally taxing one. Although qualitatively different journeys, there is no way to do either one of them perfectly. This realization, in itself, is sobering and strangely hopeful.

As my son balances between this life and whatever comes after it, he is transforming, slowing down. I eat a handful of almonds and push a syringe of liquid into his nose tube. We are, both of us, mortal, sharing this weird world and this surreal moment together, dangling between now and what happens next. Perhaps without this cleanse, I would not have been as conscious or aware of what our bodies do, how they help us live until they help us die.

Last night, my boyfriend and I went to an engagement party. Kids were running around, playing games and giggling. The group toasted the new couple about to begin their lives together. A few people in folding chairs played bluegrass music in the living room. There wasn’t a single glass of beet juice in sight. We split a piece of chocolate cake and piled a single paper plate with sausages and peppers. We were cheating, yes, but we felt so sated we nearly cried.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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