A lavender filled meditation hill, daily Tai Chi classes, delicious nourishing vegan smoothies, a luxurious spa - reading Liane Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been to Tranquillum before. I’ve visited many retreat centres over the years but the luxury wellness retreat run by cult guru Masha, played in the Amazon adaptation by Nicole Kidman, seemed strangely familiar.
When I reached the acknowledgements at the end of the book, sure enough, there it was - “with thanks to the Golden Door”, a retreat I’ve visited several times and where Moriarty stayed while she was researching her book about a group of strangers staying at a fictional, heightened equivalent.
The retreat itself was familiar but so was the shared experience of attending a wellness getaway.
Masha [Nicole Kidman]: “Why are you here?”
Jessica [Samara Weaving]: “Transformation? I’m really interested in fixing what’s broken."
The first time I went on a health retreat, I stumbled across it accidentally. It was the year 2000. The world itself hadn’t ended but my world had; the dotcom I’d worked relentlessly on since its launch had folded and I’d taken my woes and redundancy to backpack around Thailand (yes, this could be a modern day tale minus the travel).
I stumbled across a very basic beachside ‘detox’ retreat and checked in for five days of pineapple juice and coffee enemas.
Twice a day, between gentle yoga and Chi Nei Tsang (Thai abdominal massage), I’d walk over to the ‘health centre’ and collect my bucket of coffee, schlepping it back to my spindly, creaky hut on the beach where a hook hung from the ceiling over the squat toilet, which was beside my bed. I’d run the plastic hose I was given at check-in from the bucket to my anus, lie back and let gravity happen.
At night I’d walk the muggy, broken street to the internet cafe, trying not to inhale the delicious scent of street food vendors, email home to let them know I was alive, and then return back to the ‘resort.’
After dark, mice would run across the floor of my hut and disappear under my bed. I compulsively tucked my mosquito net into the mattress after getting into bed each night, terrified mice would use it to climb onto my bed. So I spent as little time in my room as possible, instead forming a social clique at the charming resort restaurant/bar. Which served only bone broth, fresh coconut water and pineapple juice mixed with a kind of bentonite clay/psyllium husk combo (all the better for pooping, my darling).
It’s an interesting concept, hanging out with a bunch of strangers around a table, for long stretches of time, without food or drink. Disparate though we may have been, we all had one thing in common: we were all desperately seeking something enough to put a plastic pipe up our bottom twice a day.
With bare feet nestled in warm sand under the table and sipping from a fresh coconut, we would talk about the two topics we had in common - what our journey had been to getting there, and poop.
The redundancies, divorces, ill health and grief; all of us were united by major life change and seeking answers. There was no therapy as such on offer here but the table, with its uneven surface, provided just that. The poop provided a different kind of therapy, as we all looked deep inside ourselves and shared our findings. Colour, smell, texture; we were desperately combing through our innards trying to find answers for all life’s problems.
Napoleon [Michael Shannon]’: “I’ve been emotionally constipated. Last night I came uncorked a little.”
The first time I visited Golden Door in the NSW Hunter Valley in 2006, I was three years post breast cancer diagnosis and recently off hormone treatment that had caused complications leading to a misdiagnosis of secondary cancer on the ovaries.
My periods had not returned and no one knew if they would. I was 29 and newly engaged.
A shuttle bus collected a gaggle of us, predominantly women, from Sydney’s domestic airport terminal. Discussion on the way centred around panic over the lack of alcohol, chocolate and coffee. It felt like a camp fireside chat on Survivor. The absence of these things holds little interest for me; I put my iPod on and zoned out.
Lars [Luke Evans]: “Everyone has a story.”
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that trauma is both personal and universal. I met someone on that retreat who’d lost her husband in the Boxing Day tsunami while on honeymoon in Thailand. I also met a woman who’d given up her career to support her husband’s business and raise their children. The kids were older now and she was grieving her loss of identity.
I’ve been on retreat with all the characters in Nine Perfect Strangers in various locations around the world. I’ve sat around tables eating various iterations of ‘health’ food and drinks with them. Our collective experience in seeking out personal growth, a desire to be nurtured and heard brings us together.
Luxury or basic, all the fancy facilities in the world and all the Mashas and legitimate health care professionals you can get - but it’s sitting around with perfect strangers you’ll never see again where the magic happens.
Francis [Melissa McCarthy]: “Most of us came here searching for desperate measures.”
The second time I visited the Golden Door, my second child had just turned one. I’d spent several years pregnant or breastfeeding and was well overdue for a mammogram. I’d also recently lost two dear friends to breast cancer.
‘Scanxiety’ and fear of recurrence is something all cancer patients can relate to. While outwardly I was a happy young mother of two beautiful boys, on the inside I was constantly writing farewell letters to them, planning for a future I didn’t think I’d be around for, feeling like an imposter for existing.
I booked the retreat as an extravagant reward for completing my mammogram but also as a chance to get my head together.
The set up at Golden Door is a timetable of activities each hour to choose from, and then spa treatments and access to a range of practitioners you may book around them.
Everyone comes together at meal times (and for the sunrise Tai Chi on Meditation Hill each morning), and food is eaten communally. Tidbits are shared over meals: the massage therapist you must see, the kinesiologist who made someone weep with joy. Once a glowing recommendation is made across the lunch table, spaces fill up. Someone mentioned a hypnotherapist they rated. Intrigued, I made a booking immediately.
I’ve spent time with a spiritual healer in a river in Ubud, Bali; steamed my vagina in Ponsonby; frozen in a cryotherapy chamber in LA (and done contrast therapy in Auckland’s Grey Lynn). I appreciate the care I got from my acupuncturist through my cancer treatment as much as that of my oncologist.
But honestly, this hypnotherapy session truly changed my life.
I went into it broken. Physically my body hurt. I’d had major reconstruction on my right hand side, using a muscle from my back to rebuild my breast. Carrying toddlers and feeding babies off the remaining side had aggravated existing issues, and everything had been exacerbated by the weight of anxiety.
I sat in a very ordinary office and explained to a very ordinary man that my crippling fear of recurrence was getting in the way of motherhood. From there it was a simple process; I lay back in a relaxed state (I was conscious; if he’d been creepy I could’ve punched him) and he got me to visit ‘myself’ in key points of my life.
I had to visualise the younger me, sit with her, reassure her that everything was going to be okay, tell her that there would be challenges along the way but that I would be there to help her through them.
I sobbed throughout, happy tears. The kindness I displayed to myself was extraordinary and poignant. But more than anything else, the sheer loneliness I’d suffered from for years dissipated. I now had someone on this journey with me. The irrational anger I felt for those around me, and their lack of understanding of my inner pain, faded.
There it was - that transformation that everyone seeks when on a retreat, the palpable difference they leave with that’s so much more worthwhile than a salad dressing recipe and a (temporary) inch off your waistline.
Would I have had the same breakthrough if I’d attended this appointment in the lunch break of my everyday life, without the encouragement and support of a group of strangers? Unlikely.
There’s a fine line between sinister and genius, especially in the murky world of wellness. I watched the retreat guests in Nine Perfect Strangers dig their own graves and lie back hopefully as they had dirt scattered over them. I saw myself in that moment, peering through my poo looking for parasites; lying on a table comforting my younger self.
As things turn darker and darker for them, they still don’t want to lose hope that the transformation they seek is just around the corner. In my case it was.
• The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers will screen on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, with new episodes launching weekly.