Why Wellness Isn’t The Answer To Everything
As I walked through Hyde Park on a golden London evening last summer, I couldn’t remember ever feeling as good. Rather than enduring rush hour with my face pressed into the armpit of a stranger on the Central Line, I was 20 minutes into a six-mile hike home, listening to my favourite Spotify playlist, enjoying the sun on my face and the endorphins coursing round my body. I had recently given up smoking after 35 years, while the mosaic of wellness and fitness apps on my phone, one of which was tracking my walk, were symbols of a renewed determination to fashion a better version of myself.
Completing my calorie-burning target of 12,500 daily steps recommended by BetterMe: Walking & Weightloss was only one part of my new app-based regimen. The day now began with a tap of the Sleep Cycle icon to check how well I had slept. The soothing voice of Yoga Studio’s female instructor then talked me through low-intensity back-strengthening stretches, which then set me up for a 10-minute meditation session on Calm. At work, my phone bleeped, chirped and gurgled with notifications reminding me to drink more water, eat more healthily and project positivity. The messaging quickly became an onslaught, but the advice was sinking in, even if my weekly screen time was spiralling.
I had needed to hit the reset button. The combination of being trapped in a job that was wearing me down, the frenzy of home life with three small children and my residual angst about career, money and the future had left me feeling frayed and increasingly frustrated. The looming spectre of my 50th birthday didn’t help, either, mocking me with every glance in the mirror, every twinge in my back and every flare of my bald patch on the CCTV screens of London buses.
This compound negativity was becoming a problem – for me and for those around me. Even my Instagram feed seemed to be picking up the vibes, bombarding me with promos for fitness and weight-loss apps, self-improvement programmes and video clips of ripped, tattooed men doing one-handed planks. The problem was, I couldn’t summon the energy to try any of them.
A quick search reveals there have been no fewer than 33.9 million public posts on Instagram containing #wellness. The pursuit of healthy mind, healthy body has a ubiquitous presence in our social media feeds. Motivational soundbites and aspirational images of toned, content and seemingly fulfilled people showing off their lean bodies and Zen-like existences are catnip in an age of screen addiction and attention deficit. They just beg to be liked, but simultaneously fuel a collective anxiety over whether any of us is trying hard enough. This perfect storm of guilt trip and virtue signalling has become an ideology that has spawned an industry, the market value of which is set to hit $179bn this year in the US alone.
Since trying and abandoning antidepressants in my mid-thirties, I have periodically embraced wellness. At various times, I have sought a more holistic understanding of my physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing through talking therapy, fasting, cycling and long periods using Headspace, the mindfulness app.
“If my bad back had been a manifestation of stress, what was my seriously distressed kidney now trying to tell me?”
I once even spent a week on a residential life change course in Thailand, which entailed sharing my darkest fears with a caring and very sympathetic life coach, having massages and producing a Change Plan, which seemed to work – until I got home and let life take over again.
Of all the things I have tried, nothing compares with playing five-a-side football. Being able to forget everything for an hour each week and then retire to the pub with a group of men to laugh and talk candidly about what’s going in our lives is the perfect combination of physical exercise and therapy. I have yet to find an app or an exercise bike that can fire my imagination, sustain me for a week or offer camaraderie, consolation and good-natured ridicule in equal measure.
But how effective is wellness, in whatever form you seek it, when your health, both physical and mental, falls off a cliff? I found out last year. The football season was about to resume after the summer break when I picked up our 18-month-old son and felt a familiar, sickening spasm of pain in my lower back. Within hours I was struggling to stand up straight, which meant the walking, the yoga and my weekly football all went out the window. It felt like an injustice, given all the hard work I had put in, and my mood slumped. The meditation tailed off while monitoring the quality of my sleep seemed less important now that getting in and out of bed had become a physical hardship.
I finally got an appointment to see my osteopath and, after listening to my exasperated rant, he asked me a series of questions about my emotional state. He then went on to explain how our mental health is frequently reflected in our physical symptoms and cited stress as the likely root cause of the recurring problems with my back. We talked solidly for an hour and it was a relief to leave in less pain and with fresh insights.
Unfortunately, the only way was down. Just as I was starting to feel strong enough to play football again, I woke up in the early hours of the morning with severe pains down my right side and knew instinctively they were nothing to do with my back. Fearing I was having a heart attack, my wife called an Uber, which dropped me at the emergency drop-in centre at a local hospital. The nurses there suspected acute appendicitis and arranged for an ambulance to take me to another hospital where scans eventually revealed I had a large kidney stone lodged in my ureter, the tube that connects the kidney and bladder. Prescribed suppositories, I was discharged and told to wait for the stone to pass naturally, a process that has been described as the nearest thing a man will experience to childbirth.
If my bad back had been a manifestation of stress, what was my seriously distressed kidney now trying to tell me? I hadn’t seen my GP for three years, but the panic and loss of control I was experiencing due to my failing health persuaded me to seek help. The doctor who saw me was attentive and kind, and we agreed I would try antidepressants again. But after only two days of taking the pills I felt terrible – spaced out, nauseous and desperately anxious. After three days, I was back in hospital, this time bent double by the pulsing pain in my side. I was admitted and 36 hours later was seen by a consultant, who explained I needed to be operated on immediately.
“I came to with what looked like fishing tackle sprouting from the worst place imaginable”
The next three weeks were a blur. I was off work, advised to stop taking the pills, and was in and out of both hospital and the doctor’s surgery. I also experienced general anaesthetic for the first and second time in my life. After the first surgery to laser the kidney stone failed, I woke up with a catheter and a stent in my ureter. After the second, some two weeks later, I came to with what looked like fishing tackle sprouting from the worst place imaginable for a man.
The pain this caused, and the amount of tramadol I required before allowing a nurse to remove it, contributed to what can only be described as a manic episode. Rather than going home and resting, I became inexplicably fixated with the need to buy a new family car. So, less than 24 hours after lying unconscious in an operating theatre, I drove across London in the pouring rain for a drawn-out negotiation with the sales staff of a Ford dealership, before signing an agreement to buy a vehicle we couldn’t afford and didn’t need. It was only on the way home, when I caught sight of my wild-eyed reflection in the rear-view mirror, that I finally came to my senses. I pulled over, phoned my wife and then burst into tears. Luckily, we were able to cancel the contract.
One kidney stone, two operations and five weeks of sick leave later, I finally made it back into work. Within three days, I had a streaming cold and by the weekend, I looked like I had gone 10 rounds with Mr Tyson Fury. My eyes were bright red and my nose, cheeks and eyelids were grotesquely swollen. I went back to the doctor, who told me my immune system was shot and sent me to yet another hospital where I was diagnosed with viral conjunctivitis and signed off for another week.
After boasting about never getting ill and rarely, if ever, having to take a day off work, my defences had disintegrated. And just weeks after telling everyone how great I felt and how apps were fashioning a better, fitter, happier me, life had been reduced to a desperate lurch from one disaster to the next.
Five months on, I’m feeling much better, but still trying to make sense of what happened. What I am now convinced of is the need for balance, both in the strategies deployed to survive life’s slings and arrows and in my expectations of what they can achieve. I placed too much faith in the idea of wellness and felt let down when hit with the rank bad luck of consecutive health issues. How much those problems were linked to my deteriorating state of mind remains a bigger question. It’s one I’m trying to avoid having to answer again through my own kind of combination therapy: drinking less and sleeping more, swimming and running each week, watching what I eat and listening more attentively to how I’m feeling from day to day.
I’m still playing football and enjoying it more as a result of feeling fitter, thanks to the other forms of physical exercise I’m doing. There’s also a fresh set of apps on my phone, including one, Asana Rebel, that has me attempting one-handed planks in the kitchen once the kids are in bed. The difference is I am not relying on any one of them to change me, only to help me from time to time.
Illustration by Mr Iker Ayestaran