Crystals, Condiments, & Tibetan Karaoke
On veganism as a ‘cure all’, self-care, and practising a little secular magic 🔮
I wrote this piece for T.O.F.U. Magazine’s twelfth issue on the subject of veganism and mental health. The piece took a rather different direction than the one I’d intended; I’ll be honest, I set out to critique the rise of esoteric ‘wellness’ and/or self-care activities, and I ended up coming out on the side of all the 21st century Instagram witches and weirdos. Consequently the first few paragraphs are fragmented and meandering. It was a strange and exploratory time; my Mum was critically ill in hospital and I started to appreciate the value of finding comfort and reassurance in practices that empower and soothe us. I discovered that words, objects, ideas, and rituals can produce a kind of magic after all.
Acute, chronic depression was my secret shame for many years. My physical health was never particularly peak, but I had youth on my side. Until my late twenties, I smoked Marlboro reds, drank booze, ate rich dinners, and pretty much got away with all of it. I propelled my fragile mental health turbulently forward through nearly two decades fairly convincingly, as what you might call a ‘high-functioning’ depressive.
It took a long time before acute depression stopped being my secret shame -something I could pocket and put to one side while I got on with life- and started being my chronic illness; rudely compromising my ability to function successfully. I’ve tried psychiatry, fluoxetine, citalopram, mirtazapine, person-centred counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, apps, bullet journals, mindfulness, etc., ad-nauseam. It took a long time before depression became something I accepted as a permanent condition with no sure-fire cure.
That’s hard to do.
Depression is still my secret shame in some ways; I’m not ‘out’ with my family (though I’d be surprised if they didn’t already know or suspect) nor at my full-time job. I’m terrible at sharing. I hide the really negative stuff away and I hold the brace position until the storm blows over. I’ve lost friends and partners that way. But I keep on trying to find new and better ways to cope.
When I hit 34, I started to experience symptoms of physical illness. There were gastro symptoms that merited a sigmoidoscopy (you can look that up, the same way the camera looked up my ass), fatigue and ‘brain fog’, cognitive difficulties, and numbness, along with other weird sensations in my hands and feet. I also had a long bout of tonsillitis (later upgraded to glandular fever) that just wouldn’t quit in early 2016. I was diagnosed with a B12 deficiency, treated, and a barrage of other tests gave me the all-clear. With symptoms persisting, in September 2016 I was eventually diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or, It’s All In Your Head, Just Try Harder), and since then I’ve been coming to terms with another chronic condition with no cure.
The absurdity of suggesting kale smoothies or hemp powder or mindful sunrise-watching to someone suffering from a chronic physical illness for which they have already sought conventional medical advice is often blessedly self-evident. But…
One of my most dearly-appreciated sources of catharsis is the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast. To me, it’s free therapy, and it provides me with more lightbulb moments than any real therapist ever has. Recently, a guest talked about the dizzyingly wide array of ‘treatments’ she’d tried in order to tackle the symptoms of a chronic pain condition: yoga, reiki, meditation, green smoothies, raw vegan, paleo, Atkins, you name it. Host Paul Gilmartin zoned in on this struggle instantly and mercilessly, “…but have you ever considered moving to Tibet, and visiting a karaoke bar?”
So here’s the thing: can we talk about the ableism inherent in this rhetoric? Can we talk about suggesting that chronically or even terminally ill folks try yoga? Can we talk about vegans who (like me) get sick, and/or stay sick? Can we talk about a positive mental attitude? And can we talk about how, sometimes, no matter how much we wish it weren’t true, just sometimes, the only avenue open to us is conventional medicine, drugs, science, and the knowledge that not everything can be fixed?
Veganism touted as a cure-all or an alchemically-transformative lifestyle is nothing new. In 2005, Skinny Bitch promised that veganism done ‘right’ could lead to nothing but thinness (and therefore attractiveness, and, of course, worth). Veganism as clean eating is a very common trope, and one that is exclusionary and just plain wrong (let’s not even touch vegan YouTube). So often we see efforts to convert omnivores to veganism relying on the promise that better (physical) health will follow, while a study has shown that those who go vegan for ethical reasons are much more likely to remain so.
More recently, Netflix-exclusive documentary What The Health? attracted criticism for its dodgy science and wild promises, showing that in many ways not much has changed in the last 12 years where veganism’s clean eating bombast is concerned.
See, I don’t know, it’s tricky because I’ve been vegan for nearly 10 years, my mental health has been poor for 20 years, and my physical health has been an utter shit-show for about 18 months now. But I still desperately search for correlations. I still get sucked in sometimes and consider returning to that state of mind where the biggest propellant for treating my body ‘well’ is to despise and be disgusted by every excess inch of it, putting my mental health at serious risk, and more likely than not failing to achieve sustainable, long term weight-loss which is of course the cure for everything that ails an unwell fatty. How exactly does one navigate this minefield that exists twixt the metaphorical rock and hard place?
But this is all old news, and I’ve ranted about such things before now. The focus of this issue is, after all, mental health, and its place in the sticky mire of veganism, activism, and of course the promise that a certain sort of vegan lifestyle will not only save your body, but also your soul.
There is a very insidious brand of advice that has always particularly irked me. Hyperbole and a Half’s Allie Brosh captured this brilliantly in the second of her two-parter epic about depression. As her cartoon avatar rests almost supine on a couch, robed in a grubby hooded top and looking distinctly angst-ridden (all rendered brilliantly in MS Paint by the way), a companion describes how she “should do yoga while watching the sunrise. it’s literally impossible to feel negative and sad while appreciating the wonder of the universe”. And of course, Paul Gilmartin of the above-mentioned favourite podcast of mine nailed it with his Just One More Suggestion of visiting a Tibetan karaoke bar. Because of course.
When I announced to my blog readers that I’d been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I was feeling so emotionally beaten-down that I couldn’t help but add a caveat, which went like this:
“Quick disclaimer that if anyone is of a mind to tell me that smoothies/yoga/positive thinking can cure me then please don’t because I won’t know whether to laugh or cry for a week LULZ.”
So you probably have a fair idea of my feelings on this certain sort of advice when meted out for either physical or mental illness. The absurdity of suggesting kale smoothies or hemp powder or mindful sunrise-watching to someone suffering from a chronic physical illness for which they have already sought conventional medical advice is often blessedly self-evident. But when one considers the stigma still firmly attached to mental illness, and specifically to the pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, the burden of deflecting these supposed well-wishes can be doubly difficult to bear.
I suspect that in writing this piece for T.O.F.U., I am preaching to the choir. I suspect that its readership, and of this issue in particular, would not be the type to recommend a forest reiki retreat as the answer to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, for example.
However, assuming that many are on the same page as I when it comes to unsolicited woo, I thought it would be interesting to explore the rather new phenomenon of more ‘informed’ use of traditionally maligned ‘wellness’ activities, particularly among women and femmes (link and link). (N.B. I’m now aware of how problematic it is to use the phrase ‘women and femmes’ but I wanted to leave this as originally published and to show that I am always learning.)
I’m a lifelong atheist (though can I make it perfectly clear that I am not in Dicky Dawkins’ camp), and I have a wonderfully eclectic collection of treasured items that most of my fellow non-believers would regard as anomalous. There’s the Ouija board (above) that belonged to my Mum back when she attended the haunted English countryside boarding school in the early 1960s (my Nana remembers buying it knowing full well she shouldn’t have, and my Mum got in big trouble with the resident nuns…) There’s the Rider Waite tarot deck gifted to me by a very dear family friend more than two decades ago. There’s my wonderful collection of Catholic kitsch knick-knacks and artworks, including a foot tall wooden crucifix that I picked up in an Amsterdam flea market during one of my many hazy visits in the early 2000s. I still have all the wonderful crystals and semi-precious stones that are so commonly sold in the gift shops of rural England and Ireland for some reason. I love my crescent moon earrings, and my faded copy of Zolar’s It’s All In the Stars, which I simply had to have after I saw Little Edie squinting through a magnifying glass at her own copy in Grey Gardens.
Over the years, I’ve settled on what I feel is probably the right explanation for this strange hobby of mine. I’ve always had an intense aesthetic appreciation of anything curious or unusual. Catholic imagery in particular I find arresting and beautiful, and at the same time I find the Catholic Church to be a harmful and regressive institutional power.
Perhaps in much the same way I feel attached, reassured, and aesthetically pleasured by my variously acquired curios, maybe these objects and rituals hold a potent purpose for those who make use of them.
Putting these contradictions aside, I’d like to look at the adoption of non-conventional wellness activities as a form of self-care, used by folks who may well “know better”    . As someone who opposes vehemently any person or organisation that knowingly and purposely sells, by whatever means, ‘cures’ that are not evidenced as successful by pretty hard science, this has been a challenging exercise. But I’ve seen writers and academics and bloggers I admire embrace elements of astrology, lunar cycles, tarot, crystals, and similar esoterica. Perhaps in much the same way I feel attached, reassured, and aesthetically pleasured by my variously acquired curios, maybe these objects and rituals hold a potent purpose for those who make use of them. Perhaps in the same way that words can carry immense power (is there anything you find very hard to say?) there is a different kind of magic we can seek from these activities or ideologies.
There is a very generous part of me that delights in the reclamation (particularly by women or femmes) of traditions and/or beliefs that have traditionally been used to deride or punish (witchcraft, anyone?).
Above all, no matter what we seek, I feel that any wellness activity (whether conventional or otherwise) should not seek to exploit, harm, or deceive its adherents. Self-care should empower, soothe, and protect practitioners, but not at the expense of the wellness of others. It should be an honest and informed endeavour, but it should not claim to be for everyone.
In many ways, veganism is presented as a quasi-mystical transformer of physical health. To promise that veganism will ‘cure’ diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or even mental illness, is as irresponsible to me as TV spiritualists. Unsolicited advice-giving is rarely, if ever, the route to offering effective and genuine support.
Whether that advice is hemp milk spinach smoothies, crystal-charged cannabis, or forest walks, we should all have respect for the ability of any one of us human animals to seek out what sustains and empowers us.
I really wanted to have an issue with the rise of the crystal-charge flat-lay. I wanted to have an issue with astrology-loving badasses who Should Know Better. But I’m also helpless to resist the aesthetic, and there’s a part of me that loves the shameless and knowing appropriation of an activity that might have once been (or still is) reason to exploit or mock, but is now used to empower and reassure. Coincidentally, much in the same way I love appropriating condiments intended for use with meat, as I marinade tofu with them instead…
I can’t speak for all the 21st century alternative-wellness lovers out there. I don’t know the true nature of their beliefs; whether their appreciation is aesthetic or spiritual, and that’s probably none of my business. I feel that we should all engage in non-harmful activities that bring us peace, comfort, and power. Who am I to stop anyone from visiting that karaoke bar in Tibet? But please, let’s not make wild promises about veganism. Let’s not presume to know what’s best for sufferers of physical or mental ill-health.
For sure the world is full of magic, like science, nature, words, feelings, and love. My favourite kind might just be compassion. What’s yours?
This article was first published in T.O.F.U. Magazine issue 12, on the subject of mental health and veganism. You can buy the beautifully illustrated full-colour magazine with this and other articles at a price you choose on the T.O.F.U. store. Thank you to editor Ryan for allowing me to publish this piece on Medium!