The best-selling author and entrepreneur lifts the lid on her personal struggle with mental illness.
And she's just released a new book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, which is a brutally honest and moving account of her battle with anxiety, as well as an illuminating investigation into the triggers and treatments of this common affliction.
Among her insights, Sarah unravels the paradox that is anxiety - a crippling and painful condition, but also a "beautiful" gift and source of motivation that has enriched her life.
What follows is an exclusive extract from Chapter One, when Sarah talks candidly about the complex array of diagnoses and treatments she's received over the past 30 years.
"My beautiful brother Ben recently asked me over the phone, ‘Remember that time you got stuck on the bus because of that woman’s perfume?’
Nope. But if Ben, the family elephant, said it happened, it did. Ben’s sixteen months younger than me and I realise just now that he’s been my ballast over the years with his gruff, ‘Sarah, just don’t worry about it’ sturdiness. The Mindy to my Mork.
Apparently I was so distressed by the stench from the lady sitting next to me I’d covered my face and missed several busstops. Perfume has always made me anxious. I was six. I’ve been anxious for a long, long time. I don’t know when or how it kicked in, but I don’t remember a time without it.
I was diagnosed with childhood anxiety and insomnia at twelve, then bulimia in my late teens, then obsessive-compulsive disorder shortly thereafter, then depression and hypomania and then, in my early twenties, manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s now called.
I’ve seen about three dozen psychiatrists and psychotherapists and spiritual healers, generally twice a week for years at a time. I was medicated from seventeen until I was twenty-eight with anti-epileptic, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic drugs. I’ve waded through CBT, NLP, hypnotherapy, Freudian analysis, spiritual coaching and sand play. For long, lonely slabs I’ve had to step out of the slipstream of life, missing school, dropping out of university twice, quitting jobs and unable to leave the house for up to a year at a time. Also twice.
I can now tell you it was all anxiety. All of it. Just different flavours.
But at twenty-seven I decided to go my own way. I was living in Melbourne, writing restaurant reviews and celebrity features for the Sunday paper. I also wrote a weekly opinion column. I’d write it Thursday night and had the most marvellous time, under the pump, with an outlet for my thoughts on homeless people, feminism and the reasons why men always power-walk in pairs. I’d recently split from my first boyfriend and was living with a fun artist in a South Yarra terrace that was to be demolished in coming months. We wrote on the walls, ivy grew through the kitchen, we cooked stew. And I was on a conscious mission to explore sex. I came to sex late and had only had one sexual partner. I was ready to play; it was a fun experiment and one not based on pain or compromise.
Things felt aligned and touched by some rippin’ flow. And so I broke up with the psychiatrist who was my last for a very long time. I presented her with a dot-pointed rationale of why I had to go my own way. ‘I am ready,’ I told her. ‘This is the real thing, now. Life ain’t no run-up, a dress rehearsal,’ I said. ‘I’m ready for the work. It’s just hard work, right? I can do hard work. It’s a matter of firing the f*ck up.’ She shook my hand as I left her dimly lit office overlooking Melbourne’s Albert Park. I appreciate, now, that I was probably riding a slightly manic upswing.
Six months later I had used up the last of my medications. They’d run out, one by one. And I’d simply chosen not to repeat the prescriptions.
Despite appearances, this was not a monumental fork-in-the- road-never-turn-back moment. That’s the thing with my important life moments, they always seem to emerge slowly, like a Polaroid picture. I suspect few people have instant-capture aha moments. Especially those of us ensconced in the nebulous realm of anxiety where discernible lines between normal and neurotic cease, at some point, to exist.
That said, I think my adult journey, the one I’m sharing in this book you’re holding, began as I left my psychiatrist’s office on that late autumn morning. I remember the soft light. I remember doing a fist-pump as I walked to the tram stop. I was making up my own rules for managing what everyone insisted on calling an illness and I knew I was ready to live them out. I get asked how I did this. I can only say that I chose. I made the decision and then I committed, motivated predominantly by the fact that, frankly, nothing else had worked. I’ve spoken to a lot of functioning neurotics over the years and they tell me the same. You choose. You might not even know why, but you do. You commit. Then you do the work.
Oh, yeah. Then you falter. And fuck up. And go back to the beginning.
In my mid-thirties my mania flared again. And my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve wrestled with OCD since I was eleven or twelve. I have to tap things and check things, and wash my hands, to a count of three. It’s a nighttime ritual only. I tap light switches and doors and bathroom taps after everyone has gone to bed and I check – to a count of three, in multiples of three – for things under my bed. As a kid I counted pretty much everything in threes – cracks, drips, turnings of my pillow to the cool side when I couldn’t sleep.I know when I’m getting worse. My counting goes from sets of threes to sets of fours and fives.
At thirty-five I was also suicidal for the second time in my life. I was unable to leave the house or to work for nine months. Everything unravelled again.
I’ve since gone back to therapists. I’ve gone back to medication. And then gone off it again. I have anxiety attacks in batches throughout the year. I keep Valium in my bathroom. Just in case.
But this journey is what I do now. I bump along, in fits and starts, on a perpetual path to finding better ways for me and my mate, Anxiety, to get around.
It's everything I do."
This is an extract from First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety, by Sarah Wilson, Pan Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99.
For more inspiring stories, visit our International Women's Day hub