Let me preface this review by saying that I‘ve never been medically diagnosed with anxiety. I’ve never even self–diagnosed myself with anxiety. In fact, if I had to rate myself compared to the average person, I’d probably say that my experience with feelings of anxiety is probably average, if not below average.
I‘d like to think that I’m a pretty relaxed person. Pretty laid back. I try to see the positives in every situation and I’ve been described as thick-skinned by others (well, one person, and I’m still not sure whether I agree.)
That being said, I definitely have experienced that tight feeling in my chest, the swirling in the pit of my stomach and the random desire to scream or cry or run away and start a new life that lingers on my nerve endings just long enough to scare me a little bit. This feeling that there’s just too much to do and too little time and that I’m all alone in a sea of people and no one could ever possibly understand. Where, despite everything being fine on the surface, this feeling that “No. It’s Not Going To Be OK.” keeps randomly assaulting my mind throughout the day.
It was when I was going through one of these weird anxious spells, that I decided to finally pick up a copy of “First, We Make The Beast Beautiful”. I’d been following author, Sarah Wilson on Instagram for a while and had seen her posts about the way this book had been making such an impact on her fellow anxiety sufferers. People were highlighting and underlining their favourite lines and sharing them all over Instagram.
I picked this book up at Kmart (on one of those trips where you go in for socks and come out with 3 scented candles and a pot plant), partly because I’d been curious about it for a while and partly because the cover was so damn pretty. As far as the contents of the book, I have mixed opinions.
What I Liked…
The main idea of this book is all about reframing anxiety from its perception as a problem that needs to be solved, or a burden that needs to be shouldered, into something beautiful (hence the title). The author picks up the notion of anxiety and examines it from all angles, unravelling some of the complexity of the anxious experience. It’s described as a lens through which some people are wired to experience the world, in some ways, limiting, in other ways advantageous. Anxiety “sufferers” are reframed, not as victims, but as people with unique challenges and a unique opportunity.
For people who battle with anxiety who have viewed themselves as ‘broken’, ‘sick’ or ‘mentally deficient’ I believe this re-imagining of the anxiety beast can go a long way in rebuilding self-esteem and self-confidence. The author describes how a mental illness is often so all-encompassing that it colours every part of a person’s identity to the point that taking anti-anxiety medication can feel like dulling one’s own self.
Wilson reflects on how her anxiety has been a companion, pushing her towards a life-long journey of questioning, learning and experimenting with various self-improvement techniques. The idea that the ugliness and unpredictability of anxiety (or any negative situation I guess?) can be made beautiful is a concept that I enjoyed weighing up.
To start with the positives, I personally really enjoyed Wilson’s honest writing style. It felt very conversational, almost like a stream-of-consciousness in some parts, a little more logical in others. The actual structure of the book is purposely “meandering”, as she describes it in her own words, designed to reflect the author’s own free-flowing thoughts and overlapping ideas.
Wilson is a writer by trade, and an intellectual at heart. The ideas she explores shift, sometimes effortlessly and sometimes jarringly, between philosophical, (pseudo?)-scientific and physical paradigms. In other words, it’s a bit abstract at times, but grounded in the author’s own personal life experiences.
What I Didn’t Like…
Unrelatable At Times and Just A Little Patronising
Sarah Wilson is an accomplished author, editor, entrepreneur, model, TV host… the list goes on. She wears almost as many hats as barbie herself. One slight problem that I have this this book is that it feels like the author comes from a place of privilege which isn’t fully acknowledged.
The book delves into experiences with expensive therapists and psychologists, yoga classes, meditation retreats, overseas travel as well as extended periods of time out of work. To me, and I’m sure to many others, it’s difficult to relate to being able to lead this kind of lifestyle.
I can understand why many people feel patronised when Wilson dishes out advice such as: getting rid of your car, moving to a ‘slower’ place (out of the city), quitting sugar and taking up meditation. At the same time, however, I personally never got the feeling that any of these suggestions were meant to be straightforward “solutions”. From my point of view, it was just one anxious person trying to share what has worked for her in the hopes that others would benefit, and for me, that’s good enough. For people suffering with severe anxiety without the means to try some of these expensive solutions, the “advice” within this book may not be helpful and possibly add to feelings of frustration and hopelessness.
I know that I’m so guilty of this in my everyday conversations but prefacing any piece of advice with “a study I once read…” isn’t really a good example of due diligence. For me personally, it’s all about the ideas, so I don’t really care where they came from, but if you’re a stickler for facts then maybe this book isn’t for you.
After the book gets over exploring the initial concept (making the beast beautiful), the rest of the book kind of just reads like a really long listicle of anxiety remedies interspersed with personal recounts from Wilson’s childhood, adolescence and adult life.
Wilson’s life experiences are interesting and reflective, but because they are sprinkled in randomly and non-chronologically, her life story becomes hard to follow and seems inconsistent. This is probably one of the reasons why I found it so hard to continue reading. At a certain point, it became a bit confusing. Ideas were repeated with no new insights and about halfway through, I felt like I’d learnt all that could be learned.
For me, this book felt more like a series of blog posts, some of these more interesting and relevant than others. The idea of reframing anxiety as a possibly beautiful thing and finding ways to thrive as an anxious person was refreshing and interesting to consider. I really enjoyed the way Wilson invited us into her head and learned more about the anxious experience.
I believe it might be possible that people who have a first hand experience with anxiety might find more comfort and solace in this book than I (a “life natural” as Wilson describes non-anxious people) did. If that’s you, I’d encourage you to give it a read and let me know what you think.
Do you have any experience with anxiety? Let me know your thoughts below!