It was 2014, I was 39 and had been living in New York, eating a fairly standard local diet: bagels, burritos, burgers, beers, martinis and margaritas. I'd put on weight and my clothes didn't fit. My energy levels were low and I'd beg my friends not to put my photo on Facebook. "Don't! I have too many chins!" I'd plead.
This wasn't a New Year's Day feeling — where I woke up with a killer hangover and a phoneful of regretful things I'd done and said. This was different. It was an undeniable realisation that the treadmill I had been on for many years now — hedonism followed by a health kick and back to hedonism — was no longer serving me. Was it really serving anyone? Swinging between decadence and self-imposed deprivation was fast becoming the new normal in the super-abundant West.
Then, when I was contemplating how to take control over my health, a curious opportunity popped into my inbox. The editor of a magazine I sometimes write for wanted to commission a story: would I return home to Sydney and undertake an extreme detox, consuming only Chinese herbs for two weeks, and for more than 80 days after that just minimal calories in the form of half a cucumber, 50g of chicken and an egg?
The then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife had done the detox back when he was a mere minister in 2011, with great success. Turnbull emerged from the summer recess looking significantly thinner.
I returned to Sydney and started the detox — which involved not eating a skerrick of food for 14 days. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. The first week without food I could barely move. My dreams were vivid, awesome and strange, my body began to stink (even my tears smelled bad) and I walked a mile out of my way, following a man carrying a delicious smelling box of pizza, entranced by the scent.
I white-knuckled it and stuck with the fast but food was all I could think about. After the hunger pangs subsided (weirdly, they do after three days without food, as metabolism has slowed to such an extent that the body can survive off less energy than it would have needed before), I would get depressed without the distraction and joy and socialising of meal times. But when I stood on the scales the deprivation seemed almost worth it — the weight was literally falling off me, at the rate of around a kilo a day.
By week two of the detox I turned a corner. Suddenly my brain felt as sharp as a razor blade and had vast amounts of energy (the theory is that I was running on ketone bodies broken down from fats and proteins as my main energy source, so I didn't have the daily slumps and spikes that I did when I was running off glucose).
My skin was clear, my hair was shiny, and weirdly, my wrinkles had disappeared. I looked 10, 15 years younger.
I stuck with the regime for almost 80 days but, as they say, life got in the way. I started a demanding new job that involved shiftwork and made the mistake of gradually returning to my bad old ways — coffee and booze and carbs. The weight, plus more, piled back on.
I was back on the health/hedonism cycle that so many of us know well — and which I've now been treading for the past 12 years.
Investigating various branches of the wellness industry as a feature writer, travel journalist and spa reviewer, I've been on silent retreats, done pre-dawn mediation sessions and temple work at a Zen Buddhist monastery in rural Japan, tried a week-long urban meditation retreat in central London, where we'd front up early — before work — and meditate together. In the Australian bush, I've sat in a plastic chair in a non-airconditioned hall during the height of summer and wept during group psychotherapy sessions with followers of Osho. I've had colonic irrigation at a raw food resort in the Philippines, after being warned that my blood work showed alarming levels of toxicity.
I became adept at comparing mediation courses and health farms — I could reel off the names of the best yoga retreats in the world. I had been to many of them. And I've tried any number of detoxes and clean eating programmes, losing and regaining 14kg in the process, all of which I've written about it in my book, Wellmania.
The clunky word "wellness" started entering the mainstream in the early noughties and has since been used to sell everything from turmeric lattes, to yoga retreats, to detoxes and cleanse remedies and even vaginal streaming, via the Goop! website started by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Figures published by industry body the Global Wellness Institute, suggest revenues increased 10.6 per cent between 2013 and 2015 — from a $3.36 trillion to $3.72 trillion market. The wellness tourism sector went up by 14 per cent to $563.2 billion in the same period.
The industry itself is a vast hydra-headed beast — a web of companies and individuals making money from all those millions of us in search of a better life. It has been boosted by the growth of social media, with devotees spreading the word via hashtags, Facebook pages and Instagram accounts.
There, you can see what wellness looks like in action — and, as a result, what you are supposed to look like, yourself. Scroll down through Instragram on #cleaneating hashtags (currently more than 28 million posts) and you'll find an army of mainly 20-something women posting magazine-quality styled photos and videos showing us all how to live: there are sunrises with inspirational quotes overlayed, pictures of long legs wound into lotus positions, eyes closed softly, meditating and selfies — lots and lots of selfies.
"Follow us!" they say. "We will lead you along the righteous path." The path promised a lot — but you had to throw everything you had at it. It's quasi-spiritual as well as being honed, laser-like on the body. It promises enlightenment and community. Hotness and thinness. You will be clean and good, inside and out. Meditate and practise mindfulness and you will be calmer. Eat organic vegetables, plenty of salad, go to bed early, practise yoga, and cleanse with cold-press juices and you will be well, and look gorgeous.
You will stave off ageing — and negative thoughts! You could even cure your own cancer, according to some wellness bloggers, such as Australians Jess Ainscough and Belle Gibson. You just have to "eat clean" and eliminate your toxins. (In 2015, Jess Ainscough died from her cancer, and Belle Gibson was found to never have had cancer in the first place.)
In its extreme form, clean eating can tip over into "orthorexia nervosa", a term coined in 1997 when American physician Dr Steven Bratman, who became obsessed with clean eating. For example, he wouldn't eat vegetables picked more than 15 minutes earlier and insisted on chewing every mouthful 50 times. Bratman defined his condition as "a pathological fixation on eating proper food", or a fixation on righteous eating.
There's something slightly obscene about the worried well spending all this money on boosting their own wellness, when governments are struggling to fund healthcare, and millions of Americans face a future without health insurance.
Paltrow's Goop! website may offer a vaginal jade egg for $66 to help cultivate better sexual energy but, at the age of 42, I've finally concluded the best things in life are actually free.
Meditation is portable — you can take it anywhere, and it won't cost you a penny. I have also found it indispensable in giving me inner calm. A swim in the ocean or a relaxing bath, a good catch up with a friend, time in nature, moving your body and being outside — all these will make you feel well. And they can't be bought or sold.
Health is increasingly becoming an area where inequality is manifest, yet as long as the rich feel not quite right in their own bodies, and not quite calm in the mind — the wellness market will be there to take our money.
Wellmania, Misadventures in the Search for Wellness, by Brigid Delaney (Nero Books, $33).