Last summer I wound up in Sicily for three weeks. Day one involved a very hot and rather dark room. A group of 20-something, mostly post-graduate, international students gathered for a program centered around food, innovation, and the Mediterranean diet. One of the very first classes led by a nutritionist was to discuss health. She challenged the group to define health. “A balanced diet.” “Sufficient physical activity paired with healthy eating.” “Feeling good.” It wasn’t until someone with a phone and a decent signal rattled off the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition that we came to a pause: “A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." And there it was. Complete well-being. Physical, mental and social.

The definition seemed perfect (as a definition should be). It covered the spectrum of elements that are needed to stay well and not merely be not sick. These days, well-being is a tag line. We want to be well—well and good, well and happy, well and whole. Sometimes at any cost or every cost. And we’re always looking for a way achieve it: quickly, easily, effortlessly. The way it can seem everyone else is doing it, except you.

"Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing." - Wendell Berry

The hard part is that by definition, well-being means having it all. For a long time, before I even considered the definition of health, I strived to be complete. And for me, this meant being perfect. I was a poster-child for “starting tomorrow” or “starting Monday” or “starting next year” and then that time would come, I’d adhere to my healthy resolution (morning runs, a food diary, daily journaling) for all of five minutes and the minute I made a mistake, I’d abandon ship. Frustrated, angry, disappointed. All or nothing.

I wanted to feel good, look good and be good. I wanted an Instagram-worthy diet filled with abundant greens. To be able to run 10K without huffing and puffing. A thigh gap straight out of Victoria’s Secret swimsuit catalog, all while maintaining a loving relationship, a super social life, while of course being financially successful and intellectually stimulated through work. If I do this, I thought, I’ll feel better. If only I had that, I’ll be better. When it came to well-being, I wanted to be perfect.

But that sort of health perfection was out of reach. It’s the comic carrot dangling in front of the running rabbit on a treadmill. Never. Going. To happen (to me). Every time I got one thing, something else slid out of control. Amazing boyfriend and solid relationship? Complete self-loathing when bathing suit season came along. Weekly yoga routine and some semblance of upper body strength? Enough daily tears to fill a reservoir in California. Active social life? Couldn’t even tie my shoes to get out of the door for a run. Perfect? Never.

These days, well-being is a tag line. We want to be well—well and good, well and happy, well and whole. Sometimes at any cost or every cost.

As I pondered my accumulated years of health failures from that stifling basement in Italy, I felt a bit resentful that the WHO has, by definition, deemed me unhealthy because I just can’t fulfill their requirements. 

Fast forward nine months. I find myself on another island: Bali. Here it’s all sunshine, abundance, beauty and sea. Pure vacation. I lie on my back in a room that smells of spearmint, a thin sheet covering my naked body, with tears streaming down face. Plump but firm hands hold my head, massaging my neck with purpose. My body is shaking, convulsing, and I’m crying in front of a complete stranger. And I don’t stop crying after he quietly lets me know the hour is up and the massage is over, leaving me to the whirring of the fan and the hot, wet mess of tears and snot covering my face.

I love spas. Massages. Manicures. Any sort of treatments. But this was different. This wasn’t a relaxation retreat or day spa. There were no bowls of scented flowers or tropical massage oils. I came in wanting to be relaxed and left feeling forgiven: feeling complete. The moment he laid his hands on my back, sussing out sore spots, I could feel my body surge with energy. By the end, when the flood of tears began I could feel that I was whole. All I had ever done wrong, to others, but mostly to myself, was past. All the things I felt guilty for (stretch marks, missing yoga, saying yes when I meant no, fear, hurt, missing morning runs, sadness), it all came pouring out. Only then did I feel well.

Being healthy isn’t being perfect. It isn’t someone else’s definition either, and it certainly isn’t following a carrot on a treadmill. Wellness is completeness and with that comes sometimes sadness, sometimes smiles, and sometimes a rocking fitness routine paired with a failing love life. It’s understanding and being aware that I will never have it all, or really, that I already do have it all. That it is ok for me to feel sad, for me to feel hurt, for me to feel ecstatic, confused, nervous or like I can conquer the world (and then fail). It’s permission to love myself and the forgiveness for letting myself down. And it’s hard to find.

I was lucky to capture a moment of well-being on the other side of the world, but believe me it hasn’t been easy to hold on to. I still judge myself for overindulging or skipping morning journaling. But I also remind myself that being well is a practice. I know I won’t find it by chasing after it on a treadmill, or idolizing the Mediterranean diet (A lie, by the way. It’s a lifestyle, and a scientifically shoddy one at that, in my opinion.) But maybe I’ll hold onto by accepting everything that I am: complete. Tears, fears, frustrations and all.

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Henna Garrison is a word curator with an appetite for all things written, edible and adventurous. She lives in Italy where her favorite pastimes include drinking morning cappuccinos and searching for blue skies. You can find her words and work here.

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