Reviewing Sarah Wilson

First, we make the beast beautiful: a new story about anxiety by Sarah Wilson

Pan Macmillan, 2017

I was sceptical approaching this book. I was expecting the hard sell. I’ve read some of the I Quit Sugar content which swings between the tone of an evangelical preacher demanding repentance from your sugary sins, and that of a spaced-out yoga teacher who believes in the healing power of crystals.

This book wound me in, bit by bit. The structure was meandering, and the flow of the writing was juddering; sometimes flowing like conversation and other times obviously inspired by research. However, this is indicative of an anxious mind.

Most of all, it was a clear insight into the mind of an anxious person.

I nearly gave up at one passage in the first chapter where this lovely piece of writing takes place:

You know what else happened in 1980, just prior to anxiety being formally recognised and diagnosed? The first anti-anxiety drugs were manufactured. Which begs, was anxiety ‘invented’ to fit the drug? Just a question, just a question people… (p.19)

Yeah, it took a lot of effort to keep going after that.

Medical studies are referred to in magazine-speak, ala ‘studies have been done’, with little or no reference – sometimes the journal or author mentioned but little else and certainly no reference list or index section.

Supplements are peddled, sugar is demonised and caffeine avoidance is recommended despite Wilson regularly mentioning throughout the text that she does drink coffee.

Of course, being a tale of her own illness, Wilson admits that her own flavour of anxiety means that her own life is one of swings and roundabouts.

If anything, this is a text of philosophy. Discussing thinkers of Eastern, Western and modern-day philosophy, Wilson nudges the reader towards the idea that anxiety isn’t actually an illness but a natural part of life. And instead of trying to rid ourselves of it, she gives some ideas on how to get comfortable with it – and even use it to our advantage.

Some of the tips are difficult or close to unattainable for certain members of society to achieve. Some privilege has been overlooked when considering people who simply can’t take time out of their lives to attend to themselves.

However there will be many readers who appreciate the fusion of simplified science and philosophy, in a package they can understand compared with their own lives. Wilson is good at this. She is relatable, entertaining and sympathetic. She gets a big preachy, but shares the grittiest details of her own mistakes.

I can understand why the general public find it so hard to relate to the instructions of staunch scientists and government representatives on healthy living, yet leave no room for error. And I understand why people like Sarah Wilson seem far more inviting as they hold out their arms, saying ‘let me help you, I know how you feel’.

I read this book with interesting timing. Within days of me finishing it, Wilson announced she was closing her business I Quit Sugar. Having read this book, I was not at all surprised. She seemed just as stressed by IQS as she described her days of working in magazines and TV (which led her to start IQS).

I genuinely think Sarah Wilson wants to help people. I genuinely think she struggles with anxiety, and if you want to know what it’s like to live with anxiety, this is an excellent window into the mind of life with a brain running in all directions, at full pace. I think she’s a human too, and she struggles with the effects of early trauma and has traits that some people will judge her for. I don’t think she is harming people with her work unlike other wellness entrepreneurs.

I do, however think that she could do a better job of presenting the evidence around mental health and non-pharmaceutical treatments. We are at a stage now where we don’t have to be for or against drugs in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Wilson is well-positioned to become an advocate for the wealth of knowledge available in the fields of philosophy, psychology, dietetics and complementary medicine in increasing the general population’s knowledge on better mental health. What she needs is a hard-talking editor to keep her on track.

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