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"But I thought you were happy," my mother says over the phone from England. There's a pause. "Aren't you?"

"Very," I reply without hesitation. Because I am. But there were years when I wasn't. "I just want to be clearer," I explain lamely.

"About what?"

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"Things. I don't know. It's an experiment," I say. "It's what these diets promise."

My mother is a fifties-era wife who's been married for almost 57 years. A mother of five, she was never under the pressure women today face about the wisdom of their options (marriage, divorce, children or no children, stay at home or work outside the home).

The weight of those choices helps explain the current detoxification trend. There's the health promise, of course - lower blood pressure, cholesterol, weight - which is no small incentive. And who doesn't sometimes feel sorry for her liver, the organ that works harder than a maid? But the idea that you can purge your way to happiness is a bid for control; a reflection of the confusion in modern life; a way to quiet the cacophony of others' opinions; to hear yourself.

At least, that's the theory behind cutting out caffeine, sugar, gluten, alcohol and all animal protein, including dairy, for three weeks.

"You're supposed to get spiritual wellness, too," I tell my mother.

"Ridiculous," she scoffs. This is a woman who is still fly-fishing and skiing in her 70s. Wellness wasn't a word in her time. She just got on with enjoying her life.

I was talking to her in the early part of this year. Several of my friends were on detox diets. Even in midlife, clarity is a welcome and elusive thing: By this age, the body can feel like a car in need of an oil change. The mind has a few clogs, too. Some are struggling to figure out how to be an empty nester. Others are divorced, wanting to feel sanguine about being single again.

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I was just hoping to feel like a Lalique vessel. I wanted to feel like Gwyneth Paltrow looks. She's an old hand at detoxing.

The worst of it

I hadn't gone a day without coffee since I was 15. I started a slow withdrawal the week before embarking on a 21-day hard-core vegan cleanse, as prescribed by Kathy Freston in her bestselling Quantum Wellness Cleanse. That week, I allowed myself just one small cup of coffee in the morning. I could manage that.

But when I started the cleanse for real, I fell into detox hell. I was so irritable, I got mad at the office elevator for not arriving quicker. I yawned all day. And the headaches: a dull, persistent, low-grade thrum.

Ms. Freston describes coffee as "a central-nervous-system stimulant, which earns it the distinction of being classified as a psychoactive drug." It raises the level of dopamine in the brain.

Weirdly, knowing this helped. It's kind of cool to realize you have an addiction. I had never had one before! I have smoked cigarettes in the past. I like wine. But I could always stop as easily as I began. Now I could empathize with Charlie Sheen. An addiction is a badge of badness, an obvious sign of human frailty. And look, I can make myself good and clean! Overcoming an addiction is a clear-cut opportunity for transformation. I felt virtuous.

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"I don't want to be owned," a girlfriend said over a cup of herbal tea one Saturday morning. She was following Dr. Joshi's detox (Ms. Paltrow's choice too), which calls for eliminating sugar, gluten, coffee and alcohol. You can eat some animal protein.

She had struggled through the brutal caffeine withdrawal. It was over, and she had a way of talking, with her hands lying calmly on the table between us, that suggested she'd just had an earth-shattering epiphany. Having forged our friendship when we both were in the throes of divorce with children to raise on our own, we knew each other's worries the way you know your own freckles.

"I feel free," she told me, smiling beatifically.

Yes, the need for that cup of coffee is like the need for romantic love. It can be a good thing to know you can survive without it.

The best of it

"Look, no eye puffiness," I exclaimed to a friend. I was one week in, and feeling like a peach. "Going without alcohol is cheaper than getting an eye job, I figure."

The natural high

It takes time, but it happens. All the happiness diets are really about eating well; putting clean, high-grade fuel in your Maserati. If nothing else, such a diet increases one's respect for the body: I was given it for free, why not take care of it?

I had become more alkaline, which is the point, according to the diet gurus. Reducing acidity levels allows the body to operate efficiently. While colleagues around me succumbed to colds, I didn't get sick.

By the middle of the third week, however, I had to cave in and eat some chicken. I had been suffering a three-day headache I couldn't shake.

"Maybe it's toxins rising from my baby toe that have just now reached my head," I said, half-joking.

My eldest son, who is studying medicine, looked at me the way I used to look at him when he was 10 and prone to cockamamie ideas. "Eat some meat, Mom. Don't be stupid."

Be warned: There is scorn involved in this diet.

The add-on effect

At first, you're just trying to avoid the daily crutches. But as you enter the second and third week, you feel that the world is just a cesspool of toxins. And that might include some of your friends. Just as you've grown accustomed to doing without coffee, you figure you can do without the one who always complains about her life, drawing you into her emotional whirlwind.

I asked Ms. Freston about this feeling of separation from the world when we spoke on the phone. I wondered if she ever felt she lived in a pristine, toxin-free bubble and didn't want anyone to sully it.

"On no," she said, sounding alarmed. "I hope people don't feel that. You have to live in the world."

It was time to stop. If I didn't, I might become friendless and Howard-Hughes odd, which would make me very unhappy.

Ah, the retoxification

"It's over now, Mom," I told her three weeks later in our regular telephone chat.

"Did you feel happier?"

"Well, it was interesting. I felt very pure. Like a tall drink of water. And I lost six pounds."

"And now?"

"Well, I'm happy to be back to my old routine."

My first cup of coffee felt like the best drug in the world. My brain hummed like a superpowered word processor.

Maybe that's the secret to happiness: Deprive yourself of things just so you can find new joy in their reintroduction.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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