I can’t fall asleep. I’m newly 21 and have never had trouble sleeping before—but now, my skin is crawling, my mind considering everything and nothing all at once. I feel sick. Every night, I stay up until 4 AM. To calm myself, I read Roxane Gay’s blog for hours at a time, scrolling through the posts night after night. When I get to the end of the blog, I watch Orphan Black. It doesn’t still my mind, but it gives me something else to focus on until the chatter and the crawling are like background noise, a TV on without the cable running.
I’ve always been a worrier, but it has never felt like a real issue before. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. That is, until my friend who has been diagnosed with anxiety tells me that what I am experiencing sounds like her when she doesn’t take her medication. With that, something clicks—although it takes a while for me to fully give in.
That was in 2014. I tend to sleep a little better these days, but I consider anxiety to be part of my personality. Sometimes I recognize it as unwarranted fear, sometimes I see it as intuition, and rarely do I feel that it’s an insurmountable problem in my life. On a day-to-day basis, for the most part, I know how to calm myself. I meditate and try to write each morning. I attempt to give in to the uncertainties of life, rather than clutching tightly to what I (think I can) control. But I also know that once, I was a girl who couldn’t sleep, and that I could be that girl again. I know that, whether due to anxiety or something else, I am a person who exists deeply in my thoughts. And while I don’t take issue with it, it’s been insinuated by others that this aspect of myself is a beast worth taming.
It’s for that reason that I was drawn to Sarah Wilson’s book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, which was released in early 2018. The title comes from a Chinese proverb that Kay Redfield Jamison wrote about in her memoir, An Unquiet Mind. It goes something like: To conquer a beast, you must first make it beautiful. In Wilson’s book, that beast is her anxiety, and the focus throughout is on her journey of trying to understand where it comes from, what it means, and how to tame it.
According to First, Wilson experiences depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, Hashimoto’s disease, and other conditions that change her experience of life, in addition to anxiety. But she believes her anxiety is at the root of it all. She has spent a lot of time thinking about, researching, and writing about her anxiety. (Outside of that, some may know her by her book I Quit Sugar and all of its diet spin-offs, or her work as an editor at Cosmopolitan Australia.) In First, she lets us into her personal struggles with anxiety like a friend might over brunch. And alongside writing about herself, she also offers anecdotes about the experiences of well-known people who have lived with anxiety, research about anxiety, exercises to cope with anxiety, and words to help partners of people with anxiety better understand.
First definitely didn’t answer all my questions about anxiety, but it did help me validate some of the experiences that I didn’t even think of as being linked to anxiety—like my aversion to flakiness or how I tend to internally spiral as opposed to having a full-blown panic attack. When my experience doesn’t align exactly with representations in popular media or definitions found on Google, it sometimes feels minimized, like it’s not real. Wilson’s book recognizes that standard definitions and diagnoses often fall short of describing our real lives, and scientists haven’t fully figured out how our brains work yet.
Wilson also writes about the changing perceptions of illnesses over time—how the feelings we associate with anxiety weren’t always “anxiety” and those we relate to depression weren’t always “depression;” instead, both were simply considered valid symptoms of living a life. I’ve heard this idea before, but I appreciate its appearance in First because it acknowledges that none of us live in a vacuum; our mental states are shaped and affected by our experiences—whether that’s someone being rude to you on the street, growing up with an abusive parent, or living through the realities of a capitalist, racist, sexist, and homophobic society as a marginalized person. But even if we acknowledge that anxiety and its related conditions are often warranted reactions to living life, they can still be difficult to cope with.
In order to aid with that coping, Wilson offers concrete suggestions like quitting sugar, meditating, establishing a routine, and checking in with your ‘inside people’ (a practice of simply sitting with yourself and asking, “Are we good? Are we comfortable? Is this where we should be? Is this making sense?”).
I don’t think everything Wilson suggests will work for everyone. And many of the things she has done to manage her own anxiety, like going to ashrams and moving to a shed in the woods, aren’t even possible for most people. While Wilson seems to know that her life is different than most, there are times when it feels like she’s making unrealistic prescriptions, rather than offering open suggestions. Even so, there’s so much in this book that everyone can surely take something—as long as they’re looking for possibilities and not conclusive solutions.
Ultimately, what Wilson finds is that overcoming anxiety is most of all about acceptance. She frames anxiety as having both taken things from her, and given things to her. “I think anxiety pushes us,” Wilson writes. “It exists to do so—it helps us friggin’ fire up. Even when it makes us stall with terror, it eventually makes conditions so unbearable that we ricochet off to a new important direction. Eventually.” I know if I were to look closely at my own experiences, I might find the same thing.
Toward the end of the book, Wilson writes that she’s learned she can’t keep running—from love, from life, from experiences: “Wherever I go, there I am.” This sentiment feels like the essence of First. It’s about learning to fully embrace yourself and learning to cope with what you bring to the world. And with that, she’s speaking to those who experience anxiety, but also to those who don’t—who she calls “Life Naturals.” To her, neither is better, they’re just different expressions of the human condition. And she wants us to know that all ways—even those sometimes considered to be beastly—can be beautiful.