America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Punishing Yourself to Health: One Day at a Time
By Josh Schultz
Many modern health fads are all about having your cake and eating it too; but a new coterie of health experts are forging ahead with what is being called the “self-punishment movement” – a set of extreme diet, exercise, and meditation practices designed to promote health and longevity.
At its core, the movement is not so much about exactly what to do, but more about the picture, or concept, that whatever you’re doing, eating, or drinking shouldn’t feel, or taste, good.
I interviewed one of the movement’s main proponents, Dr. Steven Wilson. He is the author of the book How to Get Healthy by Punishing Yourself One Day at a Time. With chapter titles like “Bloodletting for Beginners” and “Vegan: Not Radical Enough” it is no wonder he has ruffled a few feathers in the alternative health community. I met with him at his lavish home in Beverly Hills and I was a little surprised at the ostentatiousness of it all. As I looked around, visibly astonished, he assuaged me: “It’s not what you have, but how you use it.” If this was punishment, I thought, “Sign me up.”
He told me that, “health shouldn’t be easy.” Take for example, the exotic herbal teas Dr. Wilson sells on his website; he made us a sample of his favorite brew and it tasted absolutely terrible, but it is also an excellent cancer preventative. Wilson says he, “wakes up every morning and eats plain oatmeal, with no sugar, or anything else in it. Every bite is a battle.”
As I sat, he described his daily routine in abbreviated list form with glee. “Rise, 4:30am. Cold shower. Vitamins. Oatmeal. 5 mile barefoot run. Vitamins. Meeting with assistant to assign tasks. Meditation. Primal scream session. Kitten attack session.” My curious eyes interrupt him and he explains, “I have a terrible allergy to cats, so every day I spend five to ten minutes nuzzling kittens all over my nose.”
I bit my tongue, literally, at the ridiculousness of his statement and nodded my head as he continued. “Competition self-assessment, followed by raw, tasteless, vegan lunch. Mid-day weekly challenge. Mondays: coffee enema, Tuesdays: mock crucifixion, Wednesdays: affirmation overdose, Thursdays: communist cardio, Fridays: zeolite dirt-eating, Saturdays: auto-urine survival training, Sundays: Kombucha confessionary.” He fired off this list of strange health ideas as if he were shooting a semi-automatic pistol at practice targets. His, eyes fixated somewhere in his own mind, revealed a fervent lust for healthiness; his assistant entered the room and interrupted, “David is on the phone. He says it can’t wait.” He sighed and looked disappointed – his spell evaporated. “I will be just a few minutes, relax.”
His assistant gave me a faux, condescending, smile and left; I wondered how often they fucked, assuming the gaps in his daily to-do list might reveal it to me. I reached into my jacket and fingered a candy wrapper. I sneaked what was left of the chocolate down my throat and felt like a criminal as I waited. As I sat, I imagined his nostrils quivering at the smell of the chocolate, his eyes filling with rage, and him kicking me out of his home with a complementary bottle of vitamins to go; “this guy is unpredictable,” I thought.
But he returned with a smile, sat down, and no nostrils flared.
Dr. Wilson said, “As a nation, we have become so separated from the world in which we live that we now have the luxury of doing physical activity for the sake of our health alone. One must think about all the lost production capacity. A hundred years ago that brutish physical activity would have been put to use plowing a field, cutting down trees, or killing Native Americans. Today, all of that production capacity has been lost to treadmills and cycles, which actually consume energy!”
His solution? To partner with international companies to procure free labor pools in the name of health and volunteerism. Followers eschew normal forms of exercise, opting for more grueling opportunities; through Wilson’s program, they volunteer at farms, construction companies, and even in underground sweatshops – working for days on little more than bread and water – in what is being called the “3 day prison detox.”
Their goal? To complete chapter one of Dr. Wilson’s book and “get serious” about their health and punish themselves by re-creating work-camp conditions, all while helping their communities and losing excess weight. Chapter one is ironically titled, “Breaking out of the Fast Food Prison Complex.” As we sat, I tried to reveal, to suss out, with my observation, if there was a hidden irony behind his steely eyes; I wondered just how much of all of this was genuine to him, and where his secrets lay.
I asked Wilson what he thought about being called a “dangerous cult of personality,” and he paused and sat silently for a few moments; it was as if to say it was something he took seriously and that he wanted readers to know it too.
“It is a valid concern,” he says. “My students and customers have the option to leave at any time. No one is forcing anyone to be here. I am a teacher, but everyone has their own answers too.”
Wilson has been criticized by some health experts, as well as the Mayo Clinic, for being “too severe” after three of his followers had to be hospitalized from going on the “prison diet” for more than 6 days, which he says he does not recommend.
But despite these small hiccups the movement is exploding; and Wilson’s marketing team has devised new and unusual hooks for potential customers too. One pamphlet markets the 3 day prison diet retreat as a “kinky singles experience” where customers pay a premium to go on “forced labor dates.”
The movement also has a strong, and exhausting, foundation of self-competition and obsession with perfection – always trying to be better, right, and more perfect. “Putting people into competition with themselves is the foundation of many great ism’s and philosophies,” says Wilson confidently, “And why not, who doesn’t want to be better? Who wants to look in the mirror and say ‘I love being lazy’? No one, that’s who.”
Their meditation practices involve sitting out in the forest for hours on end, in the cold rain, often on awkwardly shaped rocks – all so they can “feel the mental burn.” Unlike most other meditation practices, which tend to put practitioners in a disassociated, out of body space, and consequently create a sense of inner-peace and joy, the movement intimates that being in the body, no matter how painful, is more important. They maintain that inner peace will just have to wait until all that pain, trauma, and suffering has really been experienced fully.
“If you feel good when you’re meditating, you’re probably doing it wrong,” he tells me. I winced my lips together and tried to understand as he rambled on: “Your meditation practice should be pissing people off, not by any actions, or words, but just by your mere effectiveness at releasing shit. Think about it, if you’re meditating, getting fitter mentally and spiritually, you’re changing yourself, and you are going to upset all of those people around you who don’t want to change themselves and who don’t want you to change either, because then it means they have to examine themselves.” Somehow his logic actually makes sense and I nod in agreement. He says, “Your meditation practice should involve ending karma with people and if it’s working, it will be pissing some of them off.”
His logic has a strange, twisted, truth to it and he advises his readers, and followers, to, as chapter three’s title suggests, “Design your own Self Castigation Boot Camp.”
Unfortunately, according to Dr. Wilson, “Buddhism and Raw Veganism are two ism’s which have cornered a large portion of this pain and self-punishment market.” But he says that he is “making inroads toward getting more philosophic market share and meme space.” Wilson secretly admitted that if you can get people “stuck on the belief that they have to try really hard,” then you’ve got a potential customer.
But the self-punishment movement also has a dark side that very few are willing to talk about – binging. Followers often punish themselves for weeks, or months, at a time and eventually break; that breakdown tends to be followed by a hedonistic revelry of wantonness and feverish consumption. Chocolate, sex, and alcohol are three of the biggest binging sins in the movement.
Anything that validates the body, mind, or spirit, is generally looked down upon by adherents.
But the doctor even has a solution for that too – chapter seven: “Recidivism and Reformation (Or How to Say No to that Chocolate Martini).”
As my time with him quickly comes to a close the doctor brags that next on his regimen, after our interview, is one of his favorites: Hot coal Chihuahua throwing. “Tony Robbins’ fire walk has got nothin’ on this,” he tells me avidly. “And it’s great for the arms; they make a screeching splash when they hit the water. My record is 112 feet. The animal activists go bat shit over it, but the dogs are just fine.” As he says this I am glad the interview is almost over and, at the same time, secretly curious.
When I ask Dr. Wilson what message he would like people to take home he says, “What is healthy for us doesn’t always make sense or taste good.” But that, “when it hurts, you know it’s working.”
Before I leave I ask to use the guest bathroom; it is bigger than the bedroom in my townhome. As I emptied my bladder I looked up, closed my eyes, and imagined his kitchen cabinets full of liquor and hundreds of thousands of chocolate bars. I finished up, washed my hands, and dropped my candy bar wrapper in the small plastic bag of the open, but otherwise empty refuse bin, thinking, just maybe, I had dropped a smoldering cigarette in a dry summer’s forest.
As I walked out of the foyer his assistant handed me a member’s only pamphlet: a special 2 week raw retreat, with unlimited coffee enemas highlighted in red text – all for only $2,600 if I sign up by Sunday. I say goodbye, politely, and her smile tells me everything else I need to know.