To the outside world, entrepreneur Sarah Wilson seems to have it all: she’s beautiful, smart and successful, best known as the creator of her multi-million dollar “I Quit Sugar” empire.
But few know Wilson has battled an avalanche of mental illnesses throughout her life including bulimia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar. In her new book, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful she wraps them all into one simple – and yet so very complicated – diagnosis: anxiety. In this exclusive Marie Claire extract, she explains what anxiety looks like at its most frightening, but also how she has learned to channel it into her rich life journey.
How it feels to fall into an anxious spiral
In a hotel room, 30,000 words into writing the first draft of my book, I had an anxious spiral. You know, to keep me in the real-time, authentic grit and grime of it all. I’d just begun seeing a guy and we were in Hawaii. We were both travelling in different parts of the world and decided to meet up for an adventure. It was early days in the relationship and we were going to share a bed for the first time. Until this moment, I’d been able to avoid this fairly fundamental step in the courtship process. It’s all highly awkward, especially talking about it here.
Despite years of work to destigmatise my fear of not falling asleep, I still rigidly control my sleeping arrangements with a white-knuckled grip. I feel I have to, to ensure I sleep, to ensure my autoimmune disease doesn’t flare, to ensure I can function and run a business and handle other humans and be a passable girlfriend. I wear earplugs, an eye mask and even tape my lips shut with surgical tape (a very cheap tip from my dentist to stop teeth-grinding). In hotels, I check for rattling windows and humming fuse boxes and bar fridges. I turn them off at the power point at night. Ditto LED alarm clocks next to the bed. Checking out the next day entails a detailed reconnection job.
I have to shower before bed every single night. This is entirely non-negotiable. Like, 100 per cent. Since, as long as I remember (at least since I was a small child) I’ve not gone without a shower before bed, not once. When I camp I have to carry in extra bathing water. My friends and brothers know this and factor it in to the bag pack allocating. I’ve previously bathed n rivers with ice floating in them, in the snow in the Andes, in a dank, slime-filled swimming pool in Mexico.
On a hiking trip in Kakadu once, I bathed in a gorge while my friends shone their head torches on the freshwater crocodiles on the opposite bank, watching their little red eyes for any movement. The mere presence of another human lying next to me, their heart beating, their pheromones emanating, will keep me on high alert for seven hours. All of which is tricky to explain to someone early in a relationship. I’m ashamed to say I tend to work very hard to avoid having to address it.
But here we were, in Hawaii, late at night, with one double bed and two of us, and nowhere to dart to at midnight with a kiss to the cheek. And everything was up in the air.
My head desperately tried to solve the situation as a storm raged outside, rattling the plantation shutters. I juggled 387,462 possibilities in my head. I hadn’t slept for several days. What if I can’t be a nice girlfriend tomorrow? What if my inflammation flares and I have to retreat to a dark room for the day and ruin plans? I rang downstairs to see if there was another room I could move into. It was $700. Is a night’s sleep worth $700? What’s the right answer? I tried to weigh the pros and cons, back and forth. I grasped at The Life Natural [Wilson's partner]. I pecked at him for the answers, reassurances, watertight guarantees. This was all new to him. He balked at my first rejection of his, 'She’ll be right, there’s nothing to worry about’ efforts. He was not certain enough for this spiral he was witnessing and left me to stay with a friend.
I grasped at my stomach, clawing. I often clutch at my stomach when I’m in a spiral, digging my fingernails in and scraping away. (I ran a knife across my middle once, hoping the graphic splitting of flesh would render things more real and stop the thoughts. It’s all I want – the thoughts to stop. But it only served to add more thoughts to the situation. What will I tell others about this scar down the track? Where does this fit into the polemic on self-harming women?)
I continued to freefall.
This metaphor works when I’ve used it to explain things: I’m Coyote who’s chased Roadrunner over the cliff edge and I’m frantically treading thin air, trying to grasp at something solid to hang on to. But there’s nothing there. Just the abyss. And the more I grasped outwards, the more frantic I get. And down I go.
I also grasp at out-clauses. Here in Hawaii I clock the balcony, four flights up, several times. It’s an option. When I’m alone in an anxious spiral, it’s easier to find a way to slow down the spiral. But when there’s the added fuel of another person’s needs and confused face and defensive pushback (or even just the beating of their heart), the panic often worsens. I guess my base self (which is what I’ve descended to) perceives them as a threat. And my flight or fight mechanisms goes into deranged hyper-drive. I’m so stuck, there are no more options I can grasp onto, that the only out is to…get out. To flee.
To. Stop. The. Thoughts.
Nothing else matters. In such moments, I’ve run 10 kilometres down a mountain in the dark with no shoes and no bra during my first anxious spiral in the presence of my first boyfriend George. I ran through Florence at 2am another time, with no idea where I was heading. Where and why was simply not something I cared about in these desperate moments, I had to get out.
Loved ones try to understand it through their unspiralling lens. They can easily conclude that such ‘episodes’ are either an attack on them (when their efforts to calm you have failed) or a cry for attention (also an attack on them – they mustn’t be giving you enough attention). But it’s not. I promise it’s not.
After Hawaii, I had several episodes like this with The Life Natural. I tried to jump from a car on a highway. I tried to jump out of a window in an Airbnb in France during a trip that appeared outwardly so Instagram-perfect. We’d been arguing in such a way that there was no end-point and we were bringing out the worst in each other. We were holding mirrors up to each other’s fears, mostly of abandonment if we’re to get all Marianne Williamson about it. We’d descended too far, wanting the other to come up to the rescue. And I could no longer navigate it and get us back onto dry ground. There were too many thoughts. I had to stop the thoughts. I had to flee.
Each time, it left him entirely bewildered and angry and demanding an explanation. The shame and regret I felt afterwards, and today, is indescribable. In part because the only answer I had then, and now with you, is that I don’t know. It’s all a big, bloody ‘I don’t know’. I don’t know myself in those moments. I don’t know why I can’t stop the spiral. I’m smart enough to know better. It’s almost like a short-circuit occurs. Something very primal switches into gear. Everything tells me I. Must. Stop. The. Thoughts. And only something dramatic and powerful will do it.
When I’m anxious, every part of me wants to extract myself from other humans. I don’t show up to things. I move to remote areas, away from everyone I know. I pack up and leave states, continents and relationships. I want to save them from the drama that is ‘me’.
Why high functioning anxiety doesn’t always look like anxiety
Many of us with anxiety don’t look like we’ve got a problem because outwardly we function ludicrously well. Or so the merry story goes. Our anxiety sees us make industrious lists and plans, run purposefully from one thing to the next, and move fast up stairs and across traffic intersections. We are a picture of efficiency and energy, always on the move, always doing.
The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.
Anxiety. It’s befuddling and clusterfucky for everyone involved.
For the full extract read this month's issue of Marie Claire, on sale now.