I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wil­son

re­veals her loves, losses and bat­tle with anx­i­ety

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.”

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY DAMIAN BEN­NETT STYLING MAT­TIE CRO­NAN

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.

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