Skin Deep: SHA Wellness Clinic, Spain | SUITCASE
Published in the SUITCASE, The Slow Issue, December 2018
A combination of modern Western medicine and holistic Eastern philosophies trigger an emotional transformation at Altea’s SHA Wellness Clinic
As a child, my dream in life was simple. I wanted to change my name to Amanda, have two children by the age of 26 and be an audacious chain smoker. Disappointingly – despite setting the bar exceedingly low – I’ve not managed to achieve any of those things, so I’ve been forced to downgrade my ambitions. Now my moment of zenith will come when I fully morph into Marion Cotillard. This may seem ludicrously unattainable, but from what my child-bearing friends have told me, channelling French sass and dying my hair is going to be a lot easier than birthing two babies (I’m now 34) and taking up an extremely expensive habit that makes me wheeze (I’m asthmatic). Plus, I’ve become quite attached to my name.
It’s funny though, because there’s beauty to be found in the naïveté of my seven-year-old self. The goals I set back then were constructed in a time before health, love and money worries, before life did its characteristically chaotic thing and swept me up in a confusing cascade. That’s not to say that life until now has been terrible – far from it – but tip-toeing through each day, desperately trying not to stray from the tightrope while swerving heartache, headache and harm as they come hurtling towards you at 100mph, can take its toll. Negotiating life’s peaks and troughs is exhausting – no wonder we lose enthusiasm and motivation and our health and self-worth suffers, and no wonder navigating a way back to the optimistic soul who just wanted to smoke cigarettes seems insurmountable.
The truth is, it’s rare that the flame of innocence is completely snuffed out. A scintilla of sparkle always remains buried deeply within us somewhere – it’s just a case of digging it out. And that’s where places like SHA Wellness Clinic in Spain’s Altea region can help. Unlike most other spas, SHA’s primary focus is to educate, raise awareness and arm guests with the tools and knowledge required to instigate a renewed sense of purpose. They do this by fusing the technologies and developments of Western medicine with holistic Eastern philosophies and by delving into every nook and cranny of your being, before boldly highlighting where your problems lie and what steps to take if you’re keen to change them. Then it’s up to you to stride outside the boundaries of their space-age, five-star set-up and start applying it all. Sound overwhelming? It is, a little. But luckily SHA equips you well – its award-stacked shelves are testament to the fact.
Regardless, I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous before embarking on this particular trip. In recent years I’ve had a recurrence of a childhood skin condition that’s battered me both physically and mentally. In the process of trying to overcome it I’ve tried a variety of weird and wonderful treatments – some mainstream, others more obscure – but nothing has worked. The crushing disappointment that comes when I bow to another defeat in the battle against my own body is tough, so in the face of all new suggestions, I’m skeptical. (Plus, it took the Buddha 49 days of stillness to reach enlightenment – I’ve only got two days, three nights and a mind that wanders through Rihanna’s back catalogue every time there’s silence). Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that surrendering to the darkness will allow a little bit of light to creep in, and maybe, with all its high-tech, innovative treatments, SHA will finally provide some of the answers I’m seeking.
The drive to the clinic does its best to dampen my positivity. The sky is a melancholy shade of dusty, leaden black, lightning strikes pierce the horizon like a beaten-up voodoo doll and as we course past the towering, bizarrely Gothic skyline of Benidorm a cantankerous grumble echoes through the air – pathetic fallacy is doing a faultless job of communicating how I’m feeling. However within the hour I’m lying on a squishy, king-size bed looking out onto the glittering lights of Altea below and my anxieties have mostly subsided. Tomorrow I embark on the clinic’s Discovery programme and according to my schedule, I’ll be pampered with no less than two massages, two body wraps and a facial in between bouts of burrowing into my deepest, darkest secrets. If that doesn’t make you sleep soundly, nothing will.
The following morning I head to breakfast on the clinic’s spectacular rooftop terrace – infinity pool included – overlooking the mountains and the Mediterranean beyond. Two things become immediately clear. One: wearing a robe 24/7 is what we do now. Two: diet plays a pivotal role in the SHA ethos. The founder Alfredo Bataller cured his own chronic illness through a combination of diet and naturopathy, so every dish on each of the restaurant’s three menus (a doctor prescribes the most appropriate depending on your physical condition) is highly alkalising, balanced and nutrient-rich, as well as utterly delicious. Over the next few days consultations with a nutritionist, a bespoke cooking lesson and gallons of miso soup reaffirm how important diet is for helping to treat skin issues from the inside out and is one of the most poignant lessons I take home with me.
As the days unfold and I march from one appointment to the next my doubts begin to melt away. It’s inspiring to be in the presence of so many qualified experts and empowering to receive simple advice that has the potential to be life-changing. A therapist recommends spending more time on creative pursuits to de-stress, a factor that directly impacts skin. “If you ignore your creativity you end up feeling like you’re missing something,” she explains. “And you look to replace it – often with damaging things.” A personal trainer demonstrates that my shoulders lack mobility and advises exercises to improve the problem. A cognitive assessor points to a jagged red trench on a chart and notes that my kidneys aren’t performing as well as they should be, a sentiment echoed by a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner when she measures my pulse. “You’re lacking in vitality, so take note of how you eat and sleep,” she says. “It’s important to strengthen from within.”
If I’m honest, a lot of this information was stuff I already knew but for whatever reason hadn’t fully acknowledged. As a result I find these revelations intensely emotional. I sob on the toilet, while I being plied like ciabatta dough on the massage table and internally at the spa circuit when a particularly ferocious water jet tears my bikini bottoms off. But with these realisations comes a sense of release and a newfound confidence that with time, bodies, minds and bruises from the past can heal and when you tackle a problem from all angles, its chances of survival are slashed. I’ve always been fascinated by the symbiosis of the internal and external, and my time at SHA emphasises the importance of working on both to improve either.
The rehabilitation process continues on a yoga mat, where I flex both my hamstrings and my soul, and later among nature while walking at a much faster pace than I’d like up a mountain, which admittedly is worth the sweat-inducing effort once I see the sun peek over the ridgeline at daybreak. On the final evening during dinner a sulky cloud with a luminescent silver lining appears in the sky and every guest at SHA throws down their forks and runs off to take a picture, desperate to document this literal marker of optimism. Suddenly it strikes me: it’s not definitive answers we’re searching for here, but rather a small flame of hope. Perhaps the biggest fight we ever have to overcome is that with ourselves and often our most potent weapon is reassurance that change is possible – in whatever form that might be. For now I’ve waved goodbye to Amanda – and reluctantly, to Marion – and instead I’m learning, gently and tenderly, to be comfortable in my own skin.
Words and photos by Abigail Lowe.