I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wil­son: ‘I was king of the kids’


THE BEST-SELL­ING FOUNDER OF THE I QUIT SUGAR BRAND TELLS CATHERINE MCCORMACK ABOUT GROW­ING UP THE EL­DEST OF SIX ON A BUSH BLOCK IN SOUTH­ERN NSW. EARLY IN HER NEW book about liv­ing with anx­i­ety, New York Times best­selling author and founder of the I Quit Sugar brand Sarah Wil­son shares a funny child­hood anec­dote about her mother buy­ing cheap, day-old bread. “The bread was re­served for pig farm­ers,” Sarah writes in First, We Make the Beast Beau­ti­ful (Pan Macmil­lan, $34.99). “We didn’t have pigs, but Mum felt jus­ti­fi­fied in the de­ceit. ‘I’m not ly­ing. You lot are pigs!’ she would say.” It was the early 1980s and Sarah, the el­dest of six sib­lings to par­ents Michael and Clare, was liv­ing on the fam­ily’s eight-hectare bush block in Wam­boin, NSW, about 30 kilo­me­tres north-east of Can­berra. It was a semi-self-suf­fi­cient prop­erty, with goats, ducks, a vegetable gar­den and or­chard for food, and so­lar pan­els and a pot belly stove for heat. There was no rub­bish col­lec­tion and drought was a con­stant threat. “Peo­ple have said to me, ‘Oh, you grew up on a farm’, but I lit­er­ally grew up in the bush,” Sarah says to­day, on the line from her of­fice in in­ner-city Syd­ney. “There’s no point ro­man­ti­cis­ing it, that’s for sure.” Now 44, Sarah has built a stel­lar ca­reer from this un­flinch­ing ap­proach to her own life and top­ics that of­ten chal­lenge the ac­cepted norm. Trained as a news­pa­per jour­nal­ist, she had her own weekly col­umn with the Her­ald Sun aged 25 be­fore tak­ing up the po­si­tion as edi­tor of Cos­mopoli­tan from 2005–2008. Along­side other tele­vi­sion shows, she hosted the fi­first-ever sea­son of Masterchef Aus­tralia and turned a pop­u­lar blog post on giv­ing up re­fined sugar into the best­selling I Quit Sugar book in 2011. Since then, Sarah has built the brand into a thriv­ing busi­ness, with more than 20 staff. In June this year, she went to Europe to launch I Quit Sugar’s su­per­mar­ket prod­ucts into Sains­bury’s in the UK. The en­tire time, she has strug­gled with anx­i­ety, a con­di­tion Sarah traces back to early mem­o­ries in Wam­boin and, later, as a teenager, liv­ing in a share house in Can­berra. Her book — for which she con­sulted all four of Aus­tralia’s ma­jor men­tal health as­so­ci­a­tions — weaves the ac­cepted sci­ence around anx­i­ety to­gether with her own ex­pe­ri­ence of di­ag­no­sis, med­i­ca­tion, healthy liv­ing, the highs and lows, in­clud­ing the two oc­ca­sions she’s con­tem­plated sui­cide. Sarah says the book was some­thing she felt like she re­ally needed to do. “I had an aching need to be less lonely. I wanted to have real con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple about what I felt re­ally mat­tered. The last thing I wanted was my life story out there, but I had a story to tell and my pub­lisher was will­ing to take a risk on a book most pub­lish­ers wouldn’t nor­mally go for. So there was also a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she says. In­deed, anx­i­ety, Sarah ar­gues, can be a mo­ti­va­tor; a driv­ing force that can help suf­fer­ers strive and achieve, and live a rich life. “My fa­ther has al­ways said to me — be­fore I even knew the mean­ing of the word — that I was very tena­cious,” she says. “I sup­pose he would also say it’s been my my Achilles heel. I can’t say any of it has been easy. It has been en­rich­ing and re­ward­ing, and life-en­hanc­ing, yes, and so my mes­sage is that you can be anx­ious and have a chat­tery, loud mind and also have an in­cred­i­ble life.” For more in­for­ma­tion, visit sarah­wil­son.com or iq­uit­sugar.com

would scrub all our feet and our knees and clip our toe­nails. It was al­ways a very de­press­ing time of the week. Both my par­ents grew up in Can­berra and all my grand­par­ents lived in town. Dad was a pub­lic ser­vant — and had been one since he was 17 — and Mum was at home. We moved to Wam­boin when I was seven years old and ev­ery­thing out there was re­cy­cled and reused. There was no rub­bish col­lec­tion so ev­ery­thing was kept and used again. I think the words we use now are ‘self-sub­sis­tent liv­ing’, so we had an­i­mals for meat and eggs, a vegie patch and or­chard, and so­lar pan­els and a pot belly stove for heat­ing our wa­ter. Our house was a kit home that Dad had lit­er­ally got offff the back of a truck. It had been de­vel­oped by some per­son in the wake of Cy­clone Tracy and it was never fifin­ished. We had con­crete flfloor­ing, we never had cur­tains, it was never painted — it was lit­er­ally the bare bones of a house. We all shared rooms with difff­fer­ent sib­lings at difff­fer­ent stages, but by the time I was 12 I got my own room. My youngest brother was born when I was 17, af­ter I’d moved out of home. There was only one car and Mum would do one trip into town each week to do the shop­ping and see the grand­par­ents and do other bits and pieces. Ev­ery­thing was done on that one day. Then we’d all drive into town for church on Sun­days. We went to a small coun­try pri­mary school and then I used to com­mute to high school in Can­berra. There were a few other kids around in the area, but they had difff­fer­ent life­styles to us. They were in pony clubs and we just weren’t in that crew. If I wasn’t with my sib­lings I was sewing and do­ing craft. I had my fi­first busi­ness aged 12. I used to make li­brary bags and sell them in toy shops and a gallery in Can­berra. Later on I worked for Lin­craft and Home Yardage — I used to sew ev­ery­thing and my clothes were all hand­made. I’d love to say I still do it, but it isn’t the most ef­fif­fi­cient way to get cloth­ing onto your back I as­sure you. I moved out of home to a share house in Can­berra at 16. Mum and Dad moved into town soon af­ter that — there was a drought and they just could no longer af­ford to live in the bush. The ul­ti­mate irony was that we were liv­ing

“My brother Ben and I would take offff and build cubby houses and BMX tracks.”

this self-sub­sis­tent life, yet they had to buy wa­ter and just couldn’t af­ford it. That’s what drove them to sell. I didn’t love where we lived when I was grow­ing up at all — at all. But it’s ob­vi­ously in me be­cause I’m con­stantly need­ing to ‘go bush’. I get out for a hike at least once a fort­night and that’s some­thing I just have to do. Syd­ney is my base now although I travel quite reg­u­larly. My life­style is very no­madic; I’ve lived tem­po­rar­ily in Airbnbs for years. I pre­fer not to talk about my fam­ily in the con­text of my new book and that anx­ious jour­ney. I’m very re­spect­ful of them, they’re very pri­vate and don’t fol­low me on so­cial me­dia, which isn’t a bad thing. My par­ents have read the book but I don’t think any of my sib­lings have and that’s ab­so­lutely fine by me. We’re all still very close; we do things to­gether and go on hol­i­days to­gether. Re­cently I went to Western Aus­tralia and did the Cape to Cape walk with one of my broth­ers and my sis­ter. None of us can find any­one else to come! Do we talk about the ‘old days’? Con­stantly, it’s te­dious. It’s all we talk about! Bodily func­tions and ‘re­mem­ber the time when...’

FROM LEFT On a fam­ily hol­i­day in Broulee on the NSW South Coast, aged seven; at home in Wam­boin. “There are very few pho­tos where I haven’t got sib­lings in my care.”

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