I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wilson
reveals her loves, losses and battle with anxiety
Sarah Wilson, the I Quit Sugar queen who helped to establish a worldwide shift away from sugar consumption, cannot remember a day in her life when she did not suffer from some kind of anxiety. Even as a little girl, growing up on a rural property outside Canberra, Australia, Sarah worried obsessively about almost every aspect of her young life.
“When I was a teen, my anxieties came out in obsessive behaviours and for me it was mostly about showering and going to the toilet,” says Sarah, sitting in her favourite inner-city café and calmly recounting one of the most difficult periods of her life.
“I would shower and shower and shower, and then I would wash my hands and then wash them again and then again. Then I’d check that the doors were locked before I went to bed and then get up and do it all again. It was a constant, repetitive cycle, a repetitive
nightmare. Counting was a big part of it. There is a calm certainty in numbers – there is always a right answer – while life is full of ambiguity.”
From the outside, most people look at Sarah, now 43, and see the smiling visage of a happy, successful woman apparently in control of her life and its direction. Beneath that veneer is another woman, the one who struggles with her identity, direction and purpose, a woman who, even now, can spend sleepless nights lost in a downward spiral of fear, doubt and worry about the vagaries of life.
In an intimate and exclusive interview, Sarah breaks her silence about her lifelong battle with anxiety, the irresistible urges of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), her contemplation of suicide and the tragic details of a recent miscarriage that ultimately tore apart a relationship and left her alone to face the world.
“This is something I have never spoken about publicly before,” says Sarah, who also suffers from bipolar disorder. Her I Quit Sugar books and online programme have made her one of the country’s most successful small-business impresarios, generating estimated revenue of more than $4 million a year and employing 23 staff. “I’ve kept this private all my life, a secret from almost everyone, even members of my family and those closest to me,” she says. “There are only four or five people who have ever seen me inhabit the spaces that I am describing and there are perhaps fewer than 10 people who I’ve told about it.
“However, I feel now is the time to speak out about it because anxiety is an affliction that distresses so many. Millions of people out there are just like me. They live with this every day and know what it is to struggle every day.
“The difference is that, over many years and after many missteps, I have learned to live with my anxiety and, rather than fighting against it, I’ve managed to use it to empower myself and to channel my energy and focus into a positive force. I hope that perhaps others may benefit from hearing that story.”
Sarah’s startling revelations come as she releases her new book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful – part memoir, part guidebook – examining her personal journey with anxiety alongside the accepted theories and therapies for the condition.
Sarah grew up in a family that never
had much money. “My grandad used to sort second-hand clothes for a charity and he’d set aside some for us. That is what we wore. Mum used to buy day-old bread from the baker for $1.
“But that’s just the way it was for us and I certainly don’t blame my parents for that.”
Sarah believes that her anxieties stemmed from some kind of genetic predisposition, but concedes that the reasons are as much a mystery to her as they are to science generally.
“I grew up knowing I was anxious,” Sarah says. “I was aware of it and I was aware of being different from quite a young age. I was aware of my parents struggling to understand me from around eight or nine years of age. Then from 11 or 12, the complexity started, a complex need to figure out what life is really about.”
That anxious need manifested itself in a teenage search for spiritual meaning. Aged 12, she insisted that her parents help her explore religion – everything from traditional Christian theology to Hare Krishna and even, for a time, Scientology.
“When other parents were driving their kids around to weekend sport, I had my parents taking me to religious meetings all around Canberra,” says Sarah. “The Scientologists welcomed me with open arms, but none of those things gave me what I was looking for and it took age and experience and maturity before I even came to know what it actually was that I was looking for.”
After high school, Sarah studied philosophy, then professional writing, before drifting into journalism. By the age of 25, she had a regular newspaper column. In 2004, she became editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, but her inner complexities were beginning to swamp her.
More and more, she felt like she was swimming against a tide, knowing that she wasn’t heading in the right direction, but also not knowing which direction was the right one for her, all of which fed into her increasingly anxious mental state.
It was during this period that Sarah participated in a series of fertility tests for an article for the magazine, only to be told that she was infertile. “Hearing that you will never have children when you’re in your early
30s is a big shock,” says Sarah.
“I was grief-stricken, but at the same time, it was something I wasn’t prepared to deal with properly. I had so many other problems worrying me that I kind of put it on a shelf and thought, ‘I’ll deal with it later.’”
What Sarah didn’t know then – and only discovered later – was that she was suffering from Hashimoto’s disease (HD), a precursor to hypothyroidism, which leads to weight gain, fatigue and heavy menstrual cycles. The tests that diagnosed her HD confirmed that she would not be able to have children. All of this took an immense mental toll and fed into Sarah’s escalating anxiety and increasingly parlous mental state.
Sarah gained 14kg and her hormone levels were widely erratic. At the same time, she felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole. Everyone around her expected that she would fit right in at Cosmopolitan, but she knew in her heart that something was desperately wrong.
“I had never worn make-up when I took on that job,” she says. “It was like walking into a glittery pink bonanza and it simply wasn’t my world. I was drinking a bottle of red wine each night to come down and then coffee and sugar in the morning to come back up. I struggled and struggled, and eventually it became intolerable.”
Sarah cast about for something else and found MasterChef Australia. She jumped at the chance, but landed in another world of pain. For a woman who was seeking a sense of purpose, acting as a superfluous TV cooking show host in a push-up bra was ultimately a catastrophic choice.
Sarah’s anxiety swoops in mostly at night when she has time on her hands and the opportunity to think and overthink everything in her life. The anxiety heightens, but her moods spiral down to what Sarah calls the “clusterf**k” moment when everything seems to implode. These are excruciating flashes of existential angst which leave Sarah screaming silently in her head, times when she has even wondered if life is actually worth living.
It was during one of these moments that Sarah realised she didn’t want to continue any more. “More than ever, I was ready to die,” she says.
“Luckily, I didn’t have the means to make that happen. But it’s not too dramatic to say that if I’d been walking in the street at that moment I would have been happy to walk under a bus. It was that turning point where I really literally did go, ‘What’s life about?’”
I struggled and struggled, and eventually it became intolerable.”
Sarah walked away from her media career and went into what she describes as a “protracted mid-30s meltdown”. Even the ping of an email’s arrival could send her spiralling out of control. Unsure what she was doing or where she was going, she retreated to the hinterland outside Byron Bay in northern NSW, where she hid herself away in an old tin-clad army shed, managing to support herself with a weekly newspaper column. It was, as she describes it, a dark night of the soul, when she became introspective and bordered on breakdown.
Yet, while it was isolating, it was perhaps what she needed most as she sorted out her priorities. It was there that she wrote about her decision to quit sugar and set herself on the path to a new future.
She threw herself into developing the idea, establishing an online publishing business that flowered into a website, an online programme that has now helped more than 1.2 million people worldwide and a series of I Quit
Sugar books which are bestsellers across the globe.
Even so, anxiety dogged Sarah, popping up in the middle of the night. She has lost count of the number of sleepless nights she has wrestled with her demons. Often, she would silently scream into her bathroom mirror, letting out her frustrations in the only way she knew, or end up sitting naked on the dining room floor waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon.
“It is such an all-consuming feeling,” she says. “It’s a sense of utter despair that comes right from the deepest part of you. It’s a visceral anguish.
It’s both physical and emotional. It is primordial; it feels like it does come from the primordial soup. It’s this roaring desire for connection, roaring desire for love, roaring desire for something more than you have.”
Beneath this desperation, Sarah’s life continued with all its outward success. Yet the material world has only ever had the dimmest allure for Sarah. Money isn’t what she craves, it’s fulfilment. Everything she owns fits into two suitcases.
What she has craved is a lasting relationship, someone with whom to share her life. Yet her anxieties have always stood in the way, making her sometimes difficult and sometimes distant to men who might otherwise have fallen madly in love with her.
Last year was a momentous time for Sarah. She’d met a man and they’d been seeing each for eight months. She was in love. Then she became pregnant.
“I’d spent decades building my life around the idea that I’d be childless,” Sarah says. “Then, suddenly, I was pregnant – at 42. It was traumatic, just coming to terms with that prospect, just getting my head around it.”
Her anxiety began to dissipate. She found her feelings smoothing out. The constant fear evaporated and dissonant background noise she’d known all her life quietened to a whisper.
Then it all came crashing down. At 10 weeks, Sarah miscarried. “It was traumatic,” she says. “As much for my partner as it was for me, perhaps even more so. The lovely centred fullness had gone one morning and the brittle, noisy hollowness returned.”
The relationship didn’t survive either. The loss tore them apart. It was devastating. Yet Sarah didn’t shy away from that. Instead of looking out, she looked in to examine herself.
“I was writing the book,” she explains. “And it helped keep me on track. Looking in helped me far more than all the outward reaching I’d done in the past. And that’s what the book is about – the answer to living with anxiety is not external but within, that you can use it to propel you to other things.”
Sharing her story, though, comes with its own set of apprehensions, says Sarah. “I know people are going to be weighing up my outward persona when they read this story,” she says. “It’s difficult for me. I’m having to adjust to that, but I think the good thing is I can use it. I can turn that around and use that apprehension to look at myself even more closely.
“That’s one of the lessons I have learned. It’s like the rough surface of a running track. It gives you traction – that hard, gnarly thing. If you fall, it will scrape the daylights out of you, but it’s also the thing that gives you lift and oomph.
“I wake up every day petrified about what is going to happen, or not happen, but that anxiety is also the thing that gets me fired up.
“Anxious people often, at the very moment when they need other people’s help, push them away. But because I know and understand that about myself, I have found a kind of peace with it because it’s now helping me to help other people.”
That anxiety is the thing that gets me fired up.”
Sarah – ill with Hashimoto’s – as co-host of MasterChef. “My anxiety didn’t so much scream in my ear as explode,” says Sarah of her job as co-host of the first MasterChef Australia series in 2009. In her new book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, she explains how she was choked with anxiety throughout the eight months of filming the show and felt “shackled by the confines apportioned to women in Australian TV”. After the finale, for which she was dressed in “a Jessica Rabbit corseted dress that saw my sugary carb-boosted bust billow voluminously”, she quit and moved to a tiny shed in the bush. There, Sarah learnt to use her anxiety as a source of motivation and began to change her life.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, Macmillan. If you or someone you know needs emotional support, phone Lifeline, 0800 543 354.