Monday 19 August 2019

Anxiety is my superpower: Writer Sarah Wilson talks about 'making the beast beautiful'

She was editor of 'Cosmopolitan Australia' at 29, hosted 'MasterChef' in that country, and has written a dozen best-selling books. She has also been diagnosed with insomnia, anxiety, OCD and bipolar disorder. So when Sarah Wilson arrived at her door, Susan Jane White took her skinny-dipping to find out how to make peace with your anxiety

Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson and Susan Jane enjoy a laugh together

Susan Jane White

I procure parenting books like iron filings to a magnet. They make me feel like I'm on top of this Mum of The Year business. Never mind that many of them contradict each other. These books validate me like a tummy rub to a homeless pup.

However, I'm not so happy to read about the latest ubiquitous parenting style that has emerged among my generation - the snowplough.

Somehow, I think I fit the box. Snowplough parents are those who fret about their darlings having to experience anything unnecessary.

These parents plough obstacles out of the way, so that the 'stressor' need not exist in the first place. Sound familiar? I pride myself in having avoided the trap of helicopter parenting.

These are (according to psychoanalysts and horoscopes) the kind of parents who would have hovered over their darling and done the task for him or her instead. You know the one - shouting at the sidelines, instructing their kid to do exactly what they say. Nope, I'm not a helicopter mum. But snowploughing obstacles out of my sons' paths? Guilty.

The theory goes that unless we allow our goslings to tackle stressful situations and problems, they will not develop the necessary techniques to cope with challenges and pressure later in life.

Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson

In other words, a breeding ground for anxiety disorders. I totally get this, but I didn't anticipate the consequences of what I thought was merely caring for my boys.

The rocketing levels of anxiety our teens are experiencing today in Ireland may not be simply attributed to social-media pressure. One in three Irish teenagers are experiencing "elevated levels of depression and anxiety" according to a national study on 6,000 adolescents.

These rates may very well increase as we witness the by-product of snowplough parenting. I'm freaking out that I've damaged my children, just like TV psychologist Oliver James predicted I would, by way of Philip Larkin ("They fuck you up, your parents do. They do not mean to.")

Desperate bid

In a desperate attempt to remedy my fit of poor parenting, I sign both my boys up for a junior version of Tough Mudder called Hell & Back Junior. I'm going to make them do it barefoot and blindfolded.

Sarah Wilson and Susan Jane enjoy a laugh together
Sarah Wilson and Susan Jane enjoy a laugh together

This is when Sarah Wilson walks through my front door like a Greek goddess on a moonbeam. Sarah is not exactly a stranger (I own many of her internationally acclaimed cookbooks, such as I Quit Sugar and Simplicious). But I am a stranger to Sarah. Sarah Wilson knows nothing about me, and yet finds herself in my care for a few short days while travelling through Dublin. Cross-eyed and slack-jawed, I offer to take her skinny-dipping in the Dublin drizzle, as if it were a delicacy served up to royalty. I wanted to offer her something that she could not get in her native Australia. I was pretty confident that being cold and wet was on the right track.

What I didn't know then was that Sarah was in Ireland to introduce her New York Times bestselling book on anxiety, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful. And here I was, dragging her to a public place to get her kit off with a group of randomers. Looking back at that episode, it feels like the epicentre of her book's thesis (having now read and cherished each chapter). Anxiety doesn't have to be something we endure or block or cure.

Sarah's belief is that anxiety can and should be something we honour, and even use to thrive. She wants to be part of a different conversation about anxiety, one which does not perpetuate shame or the impetus to 'solve' the 'problem'. The vernacular used to address anxiety is itself didactic and unhelpful, conjuring up images of military action (battle; problem; eradicate; the war against; solving; curing; overcoming; overthrowing). First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is about embracing anxiety and opening a different dialogue. Sarah didn't run away screaming at Vico Baths. She navigated the situation beautifully and gave herself permission to feel uneasy, to notice her body and her mind respond to the invitation, and to ultimately endorse those feelings in a way that honoured and challenged her anxiety with equal measure.

Starting a conversation

The inspiration for writing First, We Make the Beast Beautiful came in tandem with the realisation that dealing with anxiety as a problem to overcome was in and of itself unhelpful. Sarah's anxiety was rooted within her. She couldn't shut it out, and found conversations around eliminating anxiety frankly stressful. The idea of having to be cured didn't sit with her any more. Few were talking about how anxiety could be recast as a positive force in our lives.

"We have to embrace it and see it as a beautiful thing," she smiles, eyes confidently locking on mine. "I wanted to start a conversation around the evolutionary purpose and beauty of anxiety. I hope readers can feel less alone. And be encouraged to go on a journey that will eventually bring incredible character and richness to their lives."

In Ireland, we have an odd attitude to anxiety and depression. We are expected to conceal our mental-health status if it is below par. Irrespective of age, anxiety is on the increase, and the very things that are totemic of a successful modern life appear to be driving it - too much work; too little sleep; social-media success; the myriad social events we subscribe to; an idyllic snowploughed childhood.

Such conditions are applauded and validated either by some souped-up societal expectation or the intoxicating pull of perfection across social media. Many of us feel like we are living inside a pressure cooker. How did we get here? When did it start being cool to have insomnia? It all sounds like a bad episode of Black Mirror.

"Many of us with anxiety don't look as if we have a problem, because outwardly we function ludicrously well," Sarah admits. "Our anxiety drives us to make industrious lists and run purposefully from one thing to the next. We are a picture of efficiency and energy. But beneath the veneer, we're being pushed by fear and doubt and a voice that tells us we're not good enough."

This woman knows a thing or two about fast-paced, stress-fuelled life. As editor of Cosmopolitan Australia by 29; author of a dozen books including some international best-sellers, and host of MasterChef Australia, Sarah's hard-earned wisdom flows through the pages and is filled with both harrowing and uplifting stories about her journey with mental health.

Diagnosed with insomnia and anxiety at 12, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and bulimia in her teens, bipolar disorder in her 20s, and a debilitating immunological disease in her early 30s, Sarah's search for solutions takes her on a creative and courageous direction. From this uniquely generous and spirited woman comes a gripping book where neuroses are peeled back and masks are taken off to expose her "buzzing dis-ease". To say it is gripping would be a monumental understatement.

Deep and dark

Sarah's belief is that anyone can turn and look at their anxiety as a superpower, a beautiful beast that deserves more respect than perhaps modern medicine gives it. "The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast, you first must make it beautiful," she says. "I believe with all my heart that just understanding the purpose of the anxious struggle helps to make it beautiful. If I didn't know what it was like to go down deep and dark, I wouldn't know how to take creative risks. Purposeful, creative, bold, rich, deep things are always beautiful."

Scientists have found that anxiety and excitement may even release the same response in our brains. With a bit of mental parkour, we can convince our brains to believe we're the latter, not the former. That buzzing dis-ease Sarah refers to doesn't have to be an obstacle like we are conditioned to think. It can be a springboard.

Early research at Harvard University has already demonstrated promising results. Subjects were instructed to repeat, "I'm excited" out loud to help reframe anxiety into excitement, which in turn, improved performance during anxiety-inducing activities.

I'm reminded of Tiger Woods bagging the US Open, where he famously divulged that "pressure and feeling nervous is a good thing. How you personally interpret pressure makes all the difference in the world."

Sitting with Sarah, sipping coffee at The Happy Pear in Greystones, she tells me that her anxiety is "the gift that keeps on giving". And there it is. The golden snitch that no amount of parenting books could ever bestow upon me. In vulnerability, we find strength.

We need to summon and sustain the courage to be vulnerable. It's really difficult, but it's work that needs doing and that needs validating at a personal level and at a broader societal level. The task is two-fold. Books like Sarah's could transform the way we live, and, indeed, the way we parent.

'First, We Make the Beast Beautiful', a new story about anxiety by Sarah Wilson is published by Bantam Press, Eason, €18.10


Sarah's Life Hacks

1 Think of reframing anxiety as excitement, where you can. At a biological level, the two sensations are very similar, making the heart quicken and the stomach flutter. So now I choose to interpret anxiety as a buzz, which makes it more fun.

2 Give yourself space. Someone with bipolar once told me they need to be alone a lot in order to have space to play out the conversations in their minds. Without space, being anxious is like watching a movie a metre away from the screen. We can't see the whole picture, and we lose ourselves in the noise and fuzzy pixilation.

3 Stick with anxious feelings. Do this until your fear becomes exhausted, to build what psychologists call 'distress tolerance'. Long-standing or highly reactive problems are best dealt with alongside a counsellor or doctor, but you can experiment with less intense anxiety-provoking scenarios. Hopefully you will feel more empowered because you have chosen to sit with the discomfort, resisting the need to grasp and fix things.

4 Make routines. Drop 'certainty anchors' into your day, such as a morning routine, so that you have fewer decisions to make. Let go of the idea that you don't have time. Get up half-an-hour earlier and commit. I get up at 6am, drink hot water and lemon, exercise, then meditate. Then I shower and start my day. I've been doing this for six years now. Every. Single. Day. When I travel I adapt it, meditating in the cab on the way to the airport. Other certainty anchors that ritualise tiny decisions and ease anxiety include always buying the same brands of loo paper or frozen peas, and saying yes to anyone who comes to me with a definite plan, so that I don't have to decide.

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