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BooksMay 23, 2017

Trying to beat anxiety with brute force: A review of a new, very weird, Australian self-help book


“I know it may appear mean-spirited,” says Deborah Hill-Cone, “to write a bad review about anyone who has the courage to speak publicly about their mental illness.” And then she proceeds to write the bad review.

Sarah Wilson writes in First We Make the Beast Beautiful, “I’d spent my life agile and I arrogantly traded on being fit and having a relatively androgynous form.”

That sentence! Go on. Read it again. It doesn’t get better, does it? I’m picturing a grown woman wearing a school uniform, like Angus from AC/DC. It seems an odd sentence to find in a self-help book about anxiety.

Biting my fist. Trying not to judge. But this is a really, really, weird self-help book.

When I was depressed, had torn off my fingernails, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and could barely breathe, I had a friend who would come round and tell me I needed to tidy my kitchen drawers as it would make me feel better. Not surprising I suppose. In Mad Men, when Betty Draper finds Don has been having an affair, she cuts new paper to line the cupboards.

Well, First We Make the Beast Beautiful is that clean-your-drawers lecture in book form. If you are the kind of person who finds it useful to be told to ferment vegetables and work on your core as a method to ward off existential angst, you may find Beast right up your alley. Personally, I just wondered what I was doing taking mental health advice from a former editor of Cosmopolitan.

Sarah Wilson has also been host of Masterchef Australia and has made a fortune as a diet guru with her book I Quit Sugar. (Take her advice with a pinch of sugar or, I suggest, a red velvet Magnum with cream cheese swirls ) She suffers from auto-immune condition Hashimoto’s Disease and as she tells us – a lot – she is a Type A control freak perfectionist who boasts she would never be so weak as to go to bed when she has the flu.

Yet despite this, she does not strike me as anxious in the grotty, grisly, feeble way most of the anxious people I know are anxious. Yes, I know that’s a terrible thing to say – mood shaming? – like criticising someone because they are not grieving in the right way.

But well, there is this: “I hitchhike, camp solo, fling myself down mountains on bikes, break up fights in the street, scare away snakes, scoop up spiders in glass jars and dispose of them for neighbours, surf breaks well above my ability etc etc.” (The etceteras are hers. I hate to think.)

Wilson acknowledges how “precious I seem to those around me” but she still seems to think you can beat anxiety with brute force. She tapes her lips shut with surgical tape at night to stop her grinding her teeth and considers this a great piece of advice: “I still rigidly control my sleeping arrangements with a white-knuckled grip. I feel I have to…to ensure I can function and run a business and write books and handle other humans and be a passable girlfriend.”

I know it may appear mean-spirited to write a bad review about anyone who has the courage to speak publicly about their mental illness.  Then again, since Wilson is an international diet guru, who doesn’t hold back from bossily telling other people how to eat, I’m assuming she has a certain amount of scaffolding protecting her ego. She brags, “The anti-sugar crusade that I’m told I’m largely responsible for… now sees me travel the world for five months of the year, publishing books and running a business with twenty-three staff from a converted warehouse (with a worm farm on the rooftop balcony and all manner of clichéd internet start up accoutrements.)”

So when Wilson talks about “clean living” and how meditating releases a special oil in your forehead that makes you look younger, it’s like being lectured by a slightly daggier Gwyneth Paltrow.

Sarah Wilson doing lots of things (Image: Sarah Wilson Instagram)

It’s quite on-trend these days for mega-successful people – Sheryl Sandberg, say – to talk a lot about vulnerability and failure. Wilson seems to fit in this ‘I’m just like civilians’ brigade. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that they are secretly still rather proud of how busy and important they are.

Overcoming an anxiety disorder and still being capable of running an international anti-sugar empire, far from being a humbling confession about your fragility, may simply be a new form of boasting. Look at me: I’m so fucked up I can’t go to the loo at my mediation retreat but I still manage to be a global diet guru superstar!

Anxiety: just another fashionable accoutrement to go with your worm farm.

I really try to feel for Wilson in her distress, but I’m not sure it’s helpful to suggest to others you can beat anxiety by becoming even more uptight, just in a smarter-toggled way, with nifty life hacks and more punishing runs.

And sometimes Wilson offers up a real-person insight which makes you realise that she could have written a different book if she wasn’t embedded in the diet guru firmament. (Although I guess she wouldn’t have got a book deal then.)

She calls non-anxious people “life naturals”. “This is what life naturals do: they see a flower. And find it beautiful. That’s it. They don’t wonder if they’re liking it enough, or if the whole experience is a waste because today they’re too stressed to appreciate lovely things like flowers.” Wilson never seems to think the toxic glossy magazine complex in which she lives might have something to do with her relentless perfectionism. It’s hard to be a “life natural” when you’re also a blonde-helmeted reality TV presenter.

Sarah Wilson as Cosmopolitan editor, poses in front of other participants during a world record attempt for the biggest swimsuit shoot on Bondi Beach, 2007 (Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage)

Wilson has done her anxiety research like a good A-student and the title of her book is from Kay Redfield Jamison’s famous memoir An Unquiet Mind. “The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you first must make it beautiful. In some strange way, I have tried to do that with manic-depressive illness.” I’d like that quote better if Wilson’s book wasn’t so full of other predictable starfucker-style name-dropping. “When I met New York Times bestseller and TED sensation Brene Brown…” And, “As Canadian spiritual author Danielle LaPorte shared with me..” And, “When the Dalai Lama made me a smoothie…” Actually, I think I made up the last one, although boy does she go on about meeting Oprah’s life coach.

I did wonder if Wilson has read the also just-published book Can’t Just Stop: An investigation of compulsions by Sharon Begley, which questions – with compassion – whether all our compulsive organising and compulsive zhuzhing of the kind which seems to torment Wilson, is just an attempt to quiet the unceasing drumbeat of anxiety. “We cling to compulsions as if to a lifeline,” Begley writes. “For it is only in engaging in compulsions that we can drain enough of our anxiety to function.”

It might follow that becoming more compulsive – all that white-knuckled advice – might make you feel you are doing something but it is actually sending you further down the hole, not digging you out of it.

People who are suffering from anxiety are in pain. So you have to treat them gently, gently. I’m not sure this book does. Personally, I believe the antidote to being anxious is acceptance and kindness rather than more self-improvement and punishing runs.

Maybe Sarah Wilson should go and clean out her worm farm.

Read a response to this review:

In defence of Sarah Wilson, whose brave mental health memoir doesn’t deserve to be insulted

First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson (Pan MacMillan, $34.99) is probably available at Unity Books.

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