Non-Refundable: The Price Tag Of Emotional Well-Being
At the Doubletree hotel, the leader of the movement told us how she rid herself of a basketball-sized tumor in less than two months without drugs or surgery. The cancer had come at what was otherwise an idyllic time in her life. Rita had a happy marriage and a home on the beach in Malibu. The conference room was filled with nearly a hundred people, but you couldn’t hear a murmur of doubt, a shifting of feet, a search for a cell phone. We already knew the story of how she’d gone from cancer-ridden to the radiant, healthy woman in front of us. It was a method of therapy that she invented.
She never called it “therapy,” perhaps for legal reasons. Mostly she referred to it as “healing work” or “processing.” But we were still in awe. Her flowing white outfit, suggesting the purity of a guru, and matching white-blonde hair emphasized her ocean-blue eyes. Even her manner of speech evoked a feeling of mysticism. The way she said the word tumor: “teyumor,” like she had slain the mass with her enunciation.
Rita wasn’t physically in the conference room. She was speaking to us on a video that was projected above the stage. The weekend training leader, Bob, showed the footage at the beginning of each healing workshop. Rita was the face of the organization, so she called the shots. Onstage after the video, Bob held up a large piece of glass, cut to look like a giant diamond, to represent our true selves. He told us that this afternoon, we were going to remove all of the dirt and minerals caked over our diamonds.
Rita had spoken in the video about how uncovering traumatic memories could heal the body. This was done through a specific step-by-step process of visualizations and prompting questions, which would spontaneously uncover cell memories, allowing them to regenerate in a normal, healthy, fashion. I sought relief from the debilitating stomachaches I had experienced on an almost daily basis since middle school. I also hoped to be freed from my incredibly low self-esteem.
I had wanted to go to counseling since I was fourteen, but my parents weren’t the therapy types. I didn’t want them to think they had done something wrong to have raised a daughter who asked for psychotherapy as a birthday gift. So I used the usual therapy replacements that could be obtained by a teenager.
At twenty, I was the youngest person attending the seminar by at least a decade, maybe two. I wasn’t surprised that the group was made up of what looked like mostly upper-middle class retirees. Who else had the time or money to attend the weekend-long workshop at five hundred dollars a day? The summer beforehand, when I was living and working at a yoga retreat, a friend told me about how the program had changed her life. Her stories of transformation convinced me. So when I received a mysterious five hundred dollar direct deposit payment from the school of public health at my university just before the workshop payment was due, I took it as a sign that I was meant to go.
The year before, when I was a freshman, I was hired as a data-collector by the university school of public health for research on flu prevention. Study participants were recruited outside of the dorm cafeteria. Those who signed up were paid to either wear a face mask for a prescribed amount of time, use hand sanitizer regularly, or — for the lucky control group — carry on as usual. As data-collector, I was paid twelve dollars an hour to sit in various high-traffic areas in the dorm and record the people I observed. Each person was represented by a tally mark in one of the three categories: wearing a face-mask, using hand sanitizer, or neither.
When I told my dad about my new gig he said, “This is the best job you’ll ever have.” I laughed at him then, but now, I think he was right.
It was the perfect job for me during my first year of college, because I was being paid for my primary pastime: people-watching. And without supervision, I could do it in a daze, with a constant loop of Spoon and CocoRosie pumping through my headphones. I watched intently, pen ready to tally in that first column, but I never saw a soul wearing a face-mask. I asked my co-workers if they’d seen a mask in the wild. Nope. None had.
That was easy money. Much easier than the minimum-wage food service jobs I had worked in high school. And the mysterious deposit, a year after my job was terminated along with the study, was even easier than tallying passersby.
Bob reminded me of my elementary school principal as he spoke, narrow-eyed with a soft smile, about Rita’s transformative work. Bob was completely devoted to Rita and her wisdom. I wondered what Rita had done before she’d discovered this healing method to have earned enough money for a house in Malibu. More than that, I wondered how much wealth she had now. I looked around the room and tried to compute how much money she would make from the emotionally desperate people here. Though I was one of them, I started to pity the other workshop participants. They hung on her every word. They were intent on getting their money’s worth. A physical and emotional transformation, like Rita’s, for less than a couple grand? That was a steal.
The crowd erupted in applause and Bob left the stage. I realized the morning portion of the day’s training was over. I turned to the woman next to me, a spunky real estate agent named Lois who was a friend of a friend of a friend, and who had given me a ride from Ann Arbor to the hotel for the day. “Are they serving us lunch?”
“I don’t think so, hun,” she said, grin on her face from all the inspiration. “There’s a Red Lobster across the street, though. I can drive you over, if you’d like. I think a bunch of us are going.”
“Oh, no, thanks,” I replied, certain I was without the funds for any sort of sea-dwelling protein. Instead, I waited in the lobby during the break and ate a series of complementary cookies from the reception desk. I had noticed a Wendy’s down the interstate on the drive into town, but I didn’t think I’d have time to walk there and back before the next session began.
For the first afternoon session, we were placed into groups to walk through an abbreviated version of the process. Sitting in small circular clusters of folding chairs scattered across the carpeted room, we talked through the healing stages, eyes opened, as a sort of practice for the real thing to come. (I have changed the names and occupations of the women I mention, because I have no right exposing their wounds.) I learned that Lois had struggled with an addiction to painkillers. Several of the women detailed life-shattering divorces.
When it was my turn, I felt awkward talking about my problems, which must have seemed infantile to those who sat in the circle, staring at me encouragingly. Most of them had experienced more than twice the life I had and so must have collected twice the cell memories to uncover, twice the diamond-grime to remove.
After a short break, we entered the final session. This was game time. I was anxious, anticipating what deeply buried internal darkness might surface. I still had hope that this experience would change me.
I was relieved to be paired with a young nurse, Sarah, whom I’d met earlier. I felt comfortable with her. I didn’t think her cell memories held anything I couldn’t handle. It turned out I was right. The memory she described, and was prompted to release, seemed far from traumatic. She recounted being on a beach at night, and I braced myself for what she was about to describe. A near drowning? A rape? An unsuccessful CPR attempt? She described a group of boys who played a prank on her, jumping out of the woods, yelling, and scaring her. No physical contact, no brush with death. Luckily, her eyes were closed, so she couldn’t detect any judgment that might have been apparent on my face.
When it was my turn, I was paired with Lucille, a former therapist in her 70s. I worried my trauma wasn’t big enough. I worried that once my cells had let go and regenerated, I wouldn’t be different enough to love. I heard the murmur of processing among dozens of pairs in the large room. A pulse of whimpering and sobs radiated throughout. Her voice was gentle as she guided me through visualizations into my body.
She led me to my stomach, and then to a memory buried within. It was uncomfortable, and it felt somewhat forced, yet I was still moved to tears. By the time it was over, and I had opened my eyes, I wanted to run out of the room. When I recognized that everyone was in their own personal turmoil of memories, my panic shrank. Lucille was sweet. She introduced me to her husband, who was also a therapist, and she wrote down their phone number in my notebook. She said they’d like to have me over for dinner sometime.
Then we were herded out of the room. Many participants disappeared to their hotel rooms for some solitude. I went to the bathroom and rested in a stall. When I returned, the chairs were rearranged into rows facing the stage once again. I took a seat close to the exit as we waited for Bob to play Rita’s final remarks of the day. Most of the attendees had signed up for the full weekend. They had been here since Thursday night and would continue training tomorrow. I was only attending the Saturday training and would leave after the evening’s close.
I thought about the cost again. So this was what I chose to do with my five hundred dollars. I looked around the room for some sign of additional perks. Didn’t we get books? A pamphlet? Some handouts?
The day had consisted of a morning talk, very similar to the video I had seen on the program’s website before I signed up, and the chance to talk through my darkest personal moments with a stranger, who had also paid to be here. I felt ripped off. I asked the red-eyed women around me about the cost, trying to suggest it was overpriced in the most respectful manner possible, knowing that everyone’s wounds were still fresh. I got answers like:This method is priceless, and, I heard there was one young artist who couldn’t afford the sessions and Rita traded some paintings for training with him!
I kept thinking about her Malibu house. My resentment grew as I listened to her closing speech. She took a long, silent look around the room. Rita gave us all what felt like a moment of eye contact, even though it was a previously recorded video of her looking into a crowd five times the size in New York. The con artist, I thought.
In my mind, I began a list of all of the things I could have done with that five hundred dollars. At the time, I was working inspecting and cleaning housing co-ops for university students, but I wasn’t being given enough hours. I had just interviewed at a Ben & Jerry’s, and I couldn’t understand, with my previous ice cream parlor experience, why they didn’t call me back. (I suspected that it had to do with my reluctance when the manager asked me if I would be comfortable pushing customers to order larger sizes). Rita would have made a great Ben & Jerry’s employee. That sort of thing probably came natural to her. Salespeople were born that way.
As we exited the conference room, I looked at all the people, with their exuberant faces, their cells reborn, their diamonds scrubbed clean. We passed the Doubletree reception desk and I grabbed a handful of cookies before walking out the door.
Shannon McLeod is a teacher, writer, and youth slam poetry coach. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Hobart, NEAT, Gawker, Cheap Pop, and Word Riot. You can follow her on Twitter @OcqueocSAM.