Sarah Wilson has worn many hats throughout her impressive career. She has worked as a journalist, a TV presenter, and as the editor of Cosmopolitan Australia, as well as being a vehement social justice and health activist. The hat that is now most commonly worn by Wilson is that of “author,” since releasing her debut book I Quit Sugar in 2013, which has since become a bestseller. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety is a new direction for Wilson, venturing into the tumultuous world of mental health and diverting from her usual focus on nutrition-based health.
The cover of this book is visually stunning, adorned with paint droplets and an intricate sketch of an octopus. Although it seems to be an obscure image in relation to the content, Wilson explains the octopus is a creature that becomes more beautiful to people the more they understand them. The same can also be said about mental health.
In the foreword, Wilson reveals she has struggled heavily throughout her life with her mental health. Some readers may be surprised to discover that Wilson, despite her success, has all the while been fighting a serious and silent battle, and this appears to be exactly her intention. She states that high-functioning anxiety can look, on the surface, like everything is “totally fine,” explaining that anxiety can manifest in various ways, with many who suffer from it not even knowing exactly what it is. Of high functioning anxiety, Wilson says, “The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.”
We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety is separated into sections that correlate with the timeline of Wilson’s own mental health journey, including the ways in which she has tackled each obstacle. While Wilson stresses throughout she is by no means a mental health expert, she informs readers that she had three independent mental health professionals read and critique the book before release, ensuring that she avoided any potentially negligent content. As readers travel through the journey with Wilson, they not only learn about various manifestations of anxiety, coping strategies, and resources, but are posed many thought-provoking questions about the inadequacies of the broken mental health system, and the challenges of discussing mental health as a whole.
Wilson peppers the book with light humour, providing a breath of fresh air between chapters and helping it to avoid becoming a heavy read. Almost every chapter has a quote that could be at home on a teenager’s mood board or pinned on Pinterest, but at the same time, Wilson does not make light of the severity of mental health issues and finds balance with a somewhat blurry line. The most surprising thing readers may find about this book is its raw and messy honesty. Being a nutrition and lifestyle author, Wilson is heavily focused on aesthetics and image, but this does not stop her from delving into every ugly corner of depression, anxiety, and everything in between.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story About Anxiety is a refreshing and honest tale of a woman trying to navigate her formative years with a mental illness, and whilst at times jarringly honest, it carries one very important theme, the strongest in the whole book: hope. Wilson’s main message is that mental health journeys are not linear, but there will always be moments of peace and progress.
The book finishes with a message of hope for its readers: “I love that perfect quotes emerge like pink Volkswagen Bugs when you put your mind to a topic. Like this one that I found, again, while wandering around the bookshop in a writing break, stuck on this idea of whether I’m healed or will ever be: ‘Give up on yourself,’ wrote Japanese psychologist Shoma Morita. ‘Begin taking action now while being neurotic or imperfect.’ Yep. Just do it. Now, mostly my joy comes from knowing I can do both. I can be neurotic and imperfect. The camera is still rolling.”