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“T he colon is as long as you are tall,” says Patricia Stranahan, certified colon therapist and director of the Natural Healing Center. “If the fecal matter stays in there, just imagine what’s happened to it. Imagine if you let a piece of raw meat sit out in 90-degree heat….Doctors have a term for that: autointoxication, which means you’re poisoning your own body.” But Stranahan has just the antidote: colonic irrigation.

Not that I have any fixed idea of what a certified colon therapist is supposed to look like, but Patricia Stranahan is not it. The belief in high living through high colonics evokes images of 19th-century quackery and 20th-century cosmopolitan frivolity, The Road to Wellville and L.A. Story. Driving toward the center, which is housed in a notably bland piece of office-building sprawl a stone’s throw from Tyson’s Corner, I imagine Stranahan as a synthesis of the two: Princess Di, say, wound into a Victorian frock, doused in patchouli, poking a pile of human feces with a pair of gold-tipped forceps.

The waiting room, with its cheesy Southwestern landscapes, its dubious literature on medical conspiracies, and its book of gushing, Psychic Friends Network–style testimonials about lives forever changed by naturopathic remedies, confirms my suspicion that I am about to encounter dogmatic quackery. But Stranahan’s reserved appearance, precise diction, and utter lack of authoritative bombast quickly disarm my inner Medical Licensing Board. She is dressed in a dark suit and wears a hairdo reminiscent of a preservative-free Margaret Thatcher—no aerosol here! I almost forget that she flushes intestines for a living. Rather than bubbly infomercial hostess, Stranahan plays the accidental homeopath, prefacing assertions about health, wellness, and the universe with more, “according to”s, “I believe”s, and “I don’t know, but”s than you can shake a bowel cleanser at.

“When I first heard about colon therapy,” she says, “I thought, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding.’” At the time, Stranahan was suffering from a surfeit of late-20th century illnesses, including migraines and chronic fatigue. Initially resistant, Stranahan was eventually converted to the virtues of intestinal evacuation. She earned the title of certified colon therapist from Dotolo Institute Inc., a Florida-based correspondence program. (Her résumé of lengthy if obscure credentials also includes membership in the National Guild of Hypnotists and the Association for Past-Life Research and Therapies, and status as an ordained minister in the National Association of Spiritualist Churches.)

The Natural Healing Center, which Stranahan purchased a year ago, is listed under “Colonic Irrigation” in the yellow pages—not that this is the only service her clinic offers. “We like to focus on a more positive goal of being in a more balanced place,” she says. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Getting to a more balanced place requires dietary changes—green-bean juice is popular—and a dizzying array of diagnoses and treatments, ranging from ear-wax analysis to massage therapy to iridology. This last procedure, Stranahan claims, reveals internal bodily weaknesses based on the location of spots and discoloration on the eyes. She’s also big on skin-brushing. When people use lotions, she says, “the skin cannot breath. It’s no wonder people are getting sick!”

Still, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned colonic. Intestinal irrigation remains the most compelling of the Natural Healing Center’s services, and the Toxygen Model B is the clinic’s central piece of equipment. The wall-mounted machine is about the size of a briefcase, and looks like it was borrowed from the set of a bad science-fiction movie. Its dials, which measure water temperature and pressure, vaguely resemble those on an electric meter. While Stranahan maintains that references to good health through colonics date back to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Toxygen-B has taken elimination into the Space Age.

The basic physics of the Toxygen-B are fairly simple. As the patient lies face up on a medical table, the Toxygen-B injects purified water into the colon (the large intestine) through a small, sterilized tube. The water pressure begins at .25 psi (pounds per square inch) and then is carefully maintained by the Toxygen-B at between .5 and 1.0 psi. Then the therapist shuts off the pressure. The water flows out again, flushing everything in the colon along with it. The outflow passes through the machine and into the sewer system. A clear viewing tube on the machine allows the therapist to analyze what is or is not coming out of the colon.

Stranahan is quick to note that colon hydrotherapy is not the same thing as an enema. “An enema that you’d get in a hospital, they’d take a bag of water, hold it up there, allow it to flow in….And that’s also rather forceful water: Gravity pulls really fast. With a colonic, we have it all set up here with nice music playing…. It’s completely enclosed, so there is no odor.”

The nice music, nonviolent psi, and odor-free comfort don’t come cheap. A single consultation, nutritional plan, and colonic costs $90. A series of eight colonics and a follow-up session cost $545 (they sell gift certificates, too). In addition to the initial series—a series is important since “you get a little further up each time,” Stranahan says cryptically—the center also advocates maintenance colonics for its customers. “It’s up to them when to come in,” she says. “Some people come in at the change of each season.”

As for its benefits, just read the promotional literature. “It cleanses the entire colon without stressing the individual,” gushes one promo pamphlet, which also touts colon hydrotherapy’s glorious impact on everything from drug addiction to “the yeast syndrome” (if you’ve never heard of it, don’t ask).

The mainstream medical community doesn’t share the center’s enthusiasm. David Flei-scher, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Georgetown University, says the human body has a much better idea of what it needs than does any machine, even the $2,000-plus Toxygen-B. “Your body’s a fairly sophisticated computer [that] is designed to absorb what’s good,” and naturally eliminate what’s not, he explains. “I don’t condemn every nonstandard medicine,” he adds, “but as I’ve looked at the logic of purging your colon of toxins, it doesn’t make much sense to me….There’s no conventional medical system that’s found a logic to this.”

Ultimately, the attraction of irrigation may be more psychological relief—an urgent need for a sense of complete cleanliness—than the physical improvement Stranahan touts. Nonetheless, enough people remain high on colonics to keep Stranahan and her staff of four busy. “Some people come in here just dragging, with terrible headaches, and they leave on top of the world,” she says.

Back at Washington City Paper headquarters, I am describing the Toxygen-B in incredulous cultural-elite terms. Between Vienna and D.C., the machine has grown in my imagination to a Rube Golbergesque machine approximately the size of a Honda Accord. In my mind, Stranahan has reverted back to enema-wielding medicinal menace. My editor, though, has seen it all, and is unimpressed. “Mike,” he says, “you’ve gotta do it.”

This isn’t the first time he’s hinted that my article should include some primary research. When we first discussed my impending voyage to the Natural Healing Center, he told me the story of a Chicago journalist’s amazing profile of the inventor of a masturbation machine, an article that required hands-on (or rather, hands-off) research. “At some point in every career,” he said, “you’ve gotta take it to the wall.” Just like a writer, I thought, to confuse masturbation with work, and then assume everyone else’s research will be just as jolly.

The weeks pass. There is a blizzard. A listless game of phone tag with Stranahan. I start a new job. Other projects pile up. My editor calls to ask about the story. He says he’s leaving town for 10 days and wants a story when he gets back. I tell him I’ve been planning to make another visit to the Natural Healing Center. “Look,” he says, “you really need to do this.”

I tell him he has no idea of the enormity of what he’s asking me to do.

“Come on,” he says leeringly, “we’ll get you a bonus for this.”

As a free-lancer, the feeling of prostitution is familiar. But evoking it does not necessarily help my editor’s argument. He wishes me a good trip. “Irrigate, baby!” he says.

The thing is, though, there’s a certain logic to my editor’s insistence, even if he really has no idea what he’s getting me into (“I’ll see you on the toilet,” he once joked, clearly demonstrating an unfamiliarity with the principles behind the Toxygen-B). There’s no experience like experience. So when my game of phone tag with Stranahan finally ends, I sheepishly mention that my editors thought it might be a good idea if, well, you see….

She is unfazed, “I can make you an appointment with one of our colon therapists.” She tells me to show up a little early, since there are some forms to fill out. An appointment. Yikes. I was imagining something less formal: I could drop by for a chat, and then, well, if I wimped out I could always opt for an ear-wax analysis and wring a natural-healing story out of that. Now it is a date on the calendar, a fixed event looming on my psychological horizon.

As the day approaches, I begin practicing my excuses. “I’ve been hospitalized for an overdose of green-bean juice.” Or, “I was disemboweled by a particularly radical faction of the Shining Path.” The morning of my appointment, I realize I can just call in and say I had an accident on the way out to Vienna. But I figure they would just answer that there’s nothing better for post-traumatic stress disorder than a round or two with the Toxygen-B.

As the terror mounts, I try to remind myself that at least some people consider this a pleasant, therapeutic exercise. Hey, they say Madonna does it. Those “well-dressed” businessmen “with lots of diamonds” who Stranahan told me come to her clinic under pseudonyms all do it. I read again through the Natural Healing Center’s voluminous supply of comforting literature. Nevertheless, the next morning, as I flip through a copy of Wildflower Times in the center’s waiting room, eavesdropping on a conversation about whether the shipment of castor oil had arrived, I am a little surprised at myself for having made it there.

I begin with a hefty stack of paperwork. It poses nosy questions about the three key aspects of the healthy individual: Questions about my “intellectual center” ask whether I suffer from sneezing attacks, a coated tongue, halitosis, or the inability to get a thought out of my head (Answers: No; No; No, I hope; Yes). Whether or not I sigh frequently helps point to the truth about my “world center.” Answers to queries about whether I have burning feet and peeling skin help locate my “grounding center.” Questionnaires completed, I move on to the lifestyle analysis, where despite my confessions of occasional insecurity and hunger between meals, I manage to rate a “good.”

And now it’s time for the big show. My moment with destiny, or at least with Denise Kelley, ex-nurse and current certified colon therapist. As “nutritional counseling” is included in a standard first appointment, she fills me in on the dos and don’ts of food combination, advice that will extend my life comfortably to age 125. (Want to know the secret? Just pay my $90 bill.)

I’m trying to look composed, open, natural-healthish, interested in remembering to eat fruit only on an empty stomach, but Kelley sees through me. “So, your editors had to twist your arm a little to get you out here, huh?”

Not to worry, she assures me. “It’s just an internal bath.” I guess so. “The only part people sometimes don’t like is the probe.”

This is the point where I’d like to write some pithy sentence to describe the entire experience, thereby avoiding a potentially pornographic verb such as “slide,” “insert,” or “stick.” “Garbage in, garbage out,” I might say, if Kelley had not gone out of her way to tout the multiple-filter system that keeps the Toxygen’s water system clean and pure. Indeed, the whole experience is so covered-up—the Natural Healing Center stocks the world’s least-revealing medical gowns—safety-sealed, pressure-controlled, smell-proofed, noiseless, painless, and, well, suburban that I can hardly believe I’ve been, uh, probed.

Whir. It’s amazing the things you think about while .5 psi of multiply filtered water are flowing in and out of you. To tell you the truth, there’s not a whole hell of a lot else to do. So I contemplate the plight of the brave and plucky Finns during World War II. I think about the decline of organized labor, the genius of Cal Ripken Jr. I imagine what things would be like if we were in the eighth year of the Dukakis presidency instead of the fourth year of the Clinton administration.

Whir. It’s not that bad. Really. OK, it’s not that good, either, even with the music.

Whir. I am a little uptight, Kelley tells me. She’s not seeing anything interesting in the Toxygen’s view tube. To most people, that would mean that there’s not much interesting left in me, but here at the Natural Healing Center it suggests something about a temperamental unwillingness to relax, curable by, well, you know….By and by, she does see a little something in the super-pure water. “You’re eating a lot of mucusy foods,” she tells me. Oh.

And then it’s all done. I am cleansed, bio-detoxified, armed with reams of information on herbs, minerals, and all sorts of bowel-related nutritional trivia. I’m ready to take on the world. OK, so I don’t really feel that cleansed. Or that nontoxic. Or that good in any way, shape, or form. But I’ve still got my bio-detox bonus coming to me. And that should buy me a whole lot of mucusy food.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jonathan Carlson.