For many years, I’ve been interested in fasting as an asylum from excess and custom, but have only fasted once, after mulling it over for nearly a decade. I like to ease into things – adulthood, my pants, a grim acceptance that 2016 is an election year – and during my dog’s age of rumination, fortune brought me face to face with more action-oriented housemates, friends, and family who decided to voluntarily abstain from food. Witnessing someone fast (and trying not to disrupt their fast by eating French fries in front of them) is fascinating.
When I lived in Iowa, I had friends who occupied a farmhouse surrounded by corn and soy fields. Two of those friends, along with, I think, one other guy, decided to fast for a couple of days. The decision seemed to have been made while drinking heavily, and it was broadcast and marketed as a terrifying sortie into self-deprivation that they would face like true vaqueros who could lunge into battle with demonic temptations and the fleshly impulses that would cause other dudes to give up and eat peanut-butter crackers but not them! They said they were ready to be mentally perturbed and physically wracked, that their abstention would help them – they who were already finely tuned of intellect and beautifully composed with the creative drive and imagination to overcome base considerations – to reach a near-perfect state of awareness and probably a communion with the universe justly unavailable to the rank and file guys who just walked down the street like they were doing something. This is not verbatim, or even paraphrased because I am making it up ages after the fact, but the spirit, amigos, was thus.
So on the first day, they woke up and had, I believe, black coffee and water but no breakfast. Then they hung around the house and continued to talk about The Fast and how hard it was. It was really hard on them! It had been, like, 90 minutes. They were so hungry. They had heard one should get outside, so they went for a walk, but that was exhausting because the ground was uneven and what the hell, they were fasting! That means no food! There was nothing in their systems but last night’s dinner, no new fuel at all!
By 11:30, they felt grim and pissy but were producing more grandiose descriptions of their dispossession by the fruitful world of ham omelets and jam-on-toast. And the cowardly women who lived in the house, who were eating sandwiches and drinking coffee with dairy and sugar just had no idea of the wonders being revealed to those partaking of The Fast. But it felt really bad. One of them seemed to have strained his Achilles tendon. The other one was dangerously lightheaded, and if the third one was actually doing it and not just there for moral support then you know going without food was really dredging up some old issues and frankly, this all just seemed like the kind of dicey nonsense charlatans and oppressive religious institutions required of the non-thinking masses. They huddled up and decided. The Fast had to end. So they headed out to get cheeseburgers by about 1 p.m.
And thus The Fast, all four hours of it, was over. And in the end they just had a light breakfast, no elevensies, and a late lunch. But they continued to talk about The Fast and its horrors for many moons after that late (and not even that late) lunch.
By contrast, when I lived in Vermont, my housemate was a multi-talented (that’s not the contrast; the dudes were also and continue to be talented) in-some-ways hardass (like she could breezily run up a mountain after not having run for months and months) who undertook a fast that I found kind of terrifying. Hers was a juice fast, and she only drank vegetable juices for a number of days. Our life in Vermont was a weird life, because we were both staff members at an artists’ and writers’ colony and so we lived pretty communally with an ever-changing roster of residents who were fully-fledged adults but who tended, upon recognizing that their only responsibility as a colony resident for a month was to focus on writing or making art, to try to return to an infantile state of dependency on others, except with adult appetites. Imagine living the first month of college over and over again, like it’s Groundhog Day but Bill Murray is not there and everyone really wants to talk about polyamory.
This fast, unlike The Iowa Fast, really did seem like a vision quest. She didn’t stray from the juice mandate or really talk about how hard it was, but she quietly gained a level of self-awareness, other-awareness, and clarity of thought that if pervasive would render every sitcom plot irrelevant and un-makeable and every unhealthy intimate relationship untenable and over within three days.
It was that fast that made me want to do one. Around the same time, however, another friend in Vermont, who had previously lived in Colorado and would regale one casually (if that is not an oxymoron) with tales of people giving themselves red wine enemas in the Rockies and, more to the point, detailed descriptions of an ex-girlfriend’s cleanses which chilled my blood.
Apparently, she had struggled with eating disorders and had found a New Age mantle with which to cloak them, avoiding the whole “the only way out is through” thing with a more Americanized “let’s spin this shit!” In what I understood as a grab bag of spiritual impulses mixed with some very serious control issues, this person would go on long fasts followed by a clay detox, in which she swallowed edible clay that would then make its way through her system, yanking any toxins it passed into it and finally exiting into an empty clawfoot bath tub in the back yard in a very long tube of black gunk and clay-colored terror. Which she then inspected with satisfaction. I can’t see myself eating clay, but I hate to say that I would probably be fascinated by the colorways of the byproduct.
With all of these examples in the back of my mind, I embarked on a step-down process one December after handing in my students’ grades. I had been teaching as an adjunct and working at a non-profit, and reaping the enormous benefits of being part-time at two places and remunerated at the rate of about .06% of an MIT Sloan School graduate’s signing bonus for the whole 4-month period.
I gave up everything but rice, vegetables, and caffeine, because I would have had a stroke without it, and got down to one cup of black tea a day, no dairy or meat, but probably sugar because sugar is in everything. And then, in my open-plan urban loft in chilly Rhode Island after working 80- to 90-hour weeks and always being broke, I started the Master Cleanse.
The Master Cleanse involves drinking six to 12 glasses of lemon juice with distilled water, maple syrup and cayenne pepper, and nothing else. There’s a good reason for this. The reason is that you want your tongue to be as astringently abraded as if you dangled it in a dog dish full of vinegar a dozen times a day. A dog dish that had not been washed after someone threw the dog a scrap of pancake with syrup. And the cayenne pepper is there just to make sure it hurts.
I was not alone on this cleansing journey. The dude of the house, the open-plan loft with no corner to hide in, was also along for the ride. My sister, who is a feng shui practitioner and has done lots of cleanses and knows a lot about the properties of crystals (in addition to owning a business) had told me that to prepare, we should take psyllium husk supplements for fiber. Because if you’re just drinking spicy lemonade all day, you might need help pooping.
So we both followed these instructions, and while my companion became pretty animated and garrulous during the cleanse, pretty pretty damn talkative indeed, but who had to occasionally hold up a finger and then retreat to the commode to go crap like a bear gorged on hillside blueberries, I was, shall we say, bound up. Like an Englishman who only eats roast beef. I also had nothing to say for myself and an extreme headache. And I like savory and salty things and so the lemon drink, which we were supposed to look forward to as a ritualistic elixir, was to my palate cloyingly sweet and hard to choke down. To add to the mix, I found that the noise our juicer made six-to-12 times a day was causing me to flinch and say things like, “Why does a juicer need to have a jet engine?” and then I would try to pry it open with a butter knife as if taking off the outer case would somehow make it quieter.
Part of the appeal of a detoxifying fast is that it repeals the usual opportunities, so that other opportunities may arise. The things you usually do automatically, out of habit, you stop doing. Your mind isn’t occupied by finding and assembling ingredients, preparing, eating, and then cleaning up after meals three times a day, and socializing (if you can manage it) isn’t organized around food or drink. You just have a lot more time on your hands, and it’s great, except that you may not be able to focus, and you might, like me, deeply want to transcend your grumpiness but not be able to. If you’re not fasting to lose weight, heal some kind of illness, or for religious purpose, and your body does not get on board with the process but mimics a lemon-scented waterbed, a fast can be flummoxing.
David Mathis, a pastor and author of Habits of Grace, writes about abstaining from food as a part of his Christian faith, and maintains that “Fasting is no license to be unloving.” For me, fasting was just a kiddie pool of cranky feelings, and not cranky feelings that revealed some deep meaning. I had a headache and little patience for any stimuli. The purported therapeutic benefits of fasting include allowing the physiological system to “rest” and be “purified.” A 19th-century advocate of therapeutic fasting (who was tried for starving a patient to death), Linda Burfield Hazzard, had been given “blue mass pills, a strong mercurial preparation” as a child by a doctor who believed all children had intestinal parasites that needed to be treated with “vermifuge.” In other words, she was poisoned. She turned to fasting to reset her system.
Fasts are also under study for their possible role in strengthening the immune system or contributing to longevity. A study by a team including Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology and the Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California, Davis, suggested that fasting could help an immune system damaged by chemotherapy or aging “generate, literally, a new immune system,” a statement upon which British scientists immediately cast doubt.
In the end, my Master Cleanse felt mostly like a sweet grumpy bloat-fest, until the last day, Day 3, which we wisely spent at the beach. It was freezing and windy, but also bracing and delightful. Usually, we would have lasted about an hour and then gone to find lunch, but without that option, we stayed outside for most of the day. Turned out that divesting oneself of not only turkey sandwiches but all the other usual stuff you are surrounded by wherever you live is the way to go. We eventually broke the fast with vegetable yakisoba, and then Mr. Transcendent Fasting Experience had pizza and a brownie and beers when we met friends later.
I have no idea how I would fast if I had to take care of my children (and feed them) during it, but I still want to do it again. I think it’s the hysteria of perpetual holidays. This round started with Halloween, in which it seemed the general advice was to warm up enough candy corns in your armpits to mold a unicorn horn of said corns and wear it around, until it was time to discuss the flesh tones of Thanksgiving birds and what else to place on their funeral bier, and then the cookies roasts curds candies of the Christmas season and a bunch of birthday cakes and cupcakes. It would be nice to step away from all the trimmings and just do what is essential; also – have I made this clear? – I am a shitty cook and it’s tortuous anyway. So here, there, there is the gluttony of words about not eating.