Just before I left for NYC this September I was visiting some Berlin friends as they were preparing to go on a fast together, a deep cleanse is what they called it. We had a conversation about how it was nice to engage with the body every now and again by radically altering what one ate and drank for a number of days, a sort of somatic equilibrium being gained from emptying out the system. Writing an article about this on the heels of writing about the great migrations of our time and the forced hunger of many, as I did in my last article, seems somewhat perverse perhaps. But this is how contemporary life goes and the privilege so many of us enjoy: by the time I left NYC I felt that the cramped condensation of my senses that had accrued from the density of Manhattan had found in my lower abdomen a place to call home. Bloated, unhealthy, heavier. I recalled my friends’ fast and decided that upon returning I would undertake one myself. For better or for worse.
On my last night before flying home a friend happily informed me that the fast I was talking about had a name, the Master Cleanse, also colloquially known as the Beyoncé Diet as she claimed to have used it to lose ten pounds in the run up to shooting Dreamgirls. It is also known as the lemonade fast as the premise is fairly straight forward: for up to ten days you eat and drink nothing save a lemonade tea concoction, while the cleansing part comes about from a salt water flush that the faster should perform each morning.
Starting the fast with jet lag proved hard and not a very inspired move on my part, and starting on a Sunday made matters even worse. I cannot stress how important being prepared is, any excuse, any lack of one of the ingredients will be enough for you to abandon the whole thing. I must confess that I had an even worse start: jet lagged as I was, I decided to have a cup of coffee a mere three hours into the fast – otherwise I just wouldn’t be able to get out of bed I reasoned. So my fast got interrupted with a pot of coffee. An auspicious start.
The lemonade is simple enough to make. It becomes a trusted friend during the course of the fast as your body soon realizes it’s the only source of energy you’ve got, having thermal flasks of it is a good idea because as a companion it becomes soothing and reassuring and it keeps the fear of a total hunger at bay. This is the recipe I did my best to follow (I didn’t get to buy distilled water until the second day):
Master Cleanse Lemonade (Single serving):
- 2 Tablespoons of organic lemon Juice (about 1/2 a Lemon)
- 2 Tablespoons of grade B maple syrup (not the commercial maple flavored syrup you use on pancakes)
- 1/10 Teaspoon Cayenne pepper powder
- 0.3L of filtered (distilled) water
I found that I had the juice of a lemon or two remaining, and so I decided to cut up some garlic and have it with the juice. This ancient cordial that has been ingested through the ages as a natural cure-all remedy was introduced to me some years ago by a friend after a rather boozy weekend. He swore by its miraculous medicinal power, of which I’m skeptical, but I have grown use to its charming admixture of allicin-laced garlic whose pungency is neutralized by the acid of the lemon.
Day 2: The Salt Water Cleanse
Getting out of bed proved really difficult on the second day, between jet lag and the hunger as well as the lack of the incentive of my morning coffee. When I finally dragged myself out of bed, half-dazed and somewhat stunned, I realized it was now or never and I had to get to grips with the second part of the fast: the salt water cleanse. This is a rather strange part of the whole business and one I was happy to have a friend to talk to who had done it some weeks before. Everything about it feels counterintuitive and somewhat ill-advised. One thing that becomes apparent when fasting and doing something like the salt water cleanse is how helpful it is to have someone to confide in is because it is reassuring. Other people have done this madness.
All my materials felt wrong: I had yet to buy distilled water so was still using tap water. When your stomach is empty everything you ingest becomes suspect, at least for me, I’m sure careful eaters and healthier people in general probably always consider carefully what they eat and drink. And drinking tap water did really feel somewhat wrong, especially as I used the warm tap (the water has to be slightly warm), and all I could think about was the water coil heating the water in some tank somewhere in a dusty attic, ferric and calque ridden. Having said that I was adamant not to let my lack of distilled water become an excuse and stop me from going through with it. I chugged it back as much as I could bear, after grinding down sea salt and mixing this in the water, and texted my friend to ask just how much water I needed to drink. He wrote back to egg me on: you have to drink an entire litre!
I must say that it didn’t feel good, it made me feel bloated and weirdly like I was holding something inside that I shouldn’t be, a clandestine cargo that my stomach was going to forcefully reject. It took an hour for anything to happen, even though I had read it would be no longer than 30 minutes. I finally got up and took my phone and the book I was currently enjoying reading into the toilet and I had the same amount of bowel movements that I was told I would in the literature I read online, five or so, perhaps more, over enough time for my right leg to go to sleep. I was somewhat put up by the warmth of the effluent which made it feel desperately bodily somehow, even maternal or amniotic, perhaps these are the wrong words but somehow it felt very close to me and even the sound was alien and seemed out of place.
The jet lag was easing and my waking hours were more in line with the rest of society. Just before waking on the third day of the fast I had a dream, and in the dream I ate food with delight and innocence. The criminal meal: cheddar cheese on dark brown bread, and some juice. I awoke and was despondent to still feel as bloated and sore as I had in NYC – although the truth was I felt in a way lighter or less full then before I started to fast and cleanse. I decided there and then that I would do only one more day without food, and that the next day, technically the forth without solids, I would start back on juices and possibly soup.
Not continuing the fast any longer (online it’s generally suggested to be done for ten days or more but no more than thirty) gave me the resolution that I would manage one more salt water cleanse. I think I ended up taking about half the amount of salt water I took on the first day, but still it wasn’t all that easy to swallow. Or stomach. And then the final purging, and yes there was still something to purge. I didn’t know how to feel about this, happy that I got myself cleansed or doubtful because perhaps there was a lot more up there that needed to be washed out. I thought of people who see this through for ten days or longer, I mean the water must come out pristine after a point? Something I would not be able to find out empirically for this was the last salt water cleanse. The third day of a fast is a strange state to be in, you move through the world slowly, as if in an enervated state of slowed, more languid perception.
Which of course is a strange state to be in and one I was happy to experience for a short period of time, and one I was equally happy to leave. When I was a young boy I remember being encouraged to fast for 24 hours for charity at some point during Lent, to be sponsored by friends and families not to eat for a day as a fundraising effort for those people in the world affected by hunger and famine. An exercise in empathy, applied imaginative embodiment. Fasts and cleanses are as old as humanity and their influence on our culture and religions is legion, well documented, and in the West, often forgotten. Fasting as a form of dieting is obviously prone to health risks and seems somewhat perverse even, fasting as a form of cleansing, while also seeming like some kind of perverse, and privileged, form of penance, it thought me, for a few slow, jetlagged days, a little bit more about my body.