How I Managed To Find Something Beautiful In My Anxiety

Photo by Devlyn Shelnutt
Throughout her 20s, author Sarah Wilson was plagued with anxiety. Tired of the stigma attached to the disease, she made it her mission to change the outlook on anxiety and envisage it as something beautiful. She was fed up of seeing endless solutions suggesting medication as a way to battle her issues and wanted to find her own route to help herself and eventually others.
In the following extract, entitled 'Make The Beast Beautiful', we join Wilson on her journey to find positive coping mechanisms while working as a waitress. Documenting useful passages and advice from fellow sufferers, philosophers, her hypnotist Eugene and mental health organisations, she gives us a glimpse into a world where you can not only cope with anxiety, but thrive.
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The following is an extract from First, We Make The Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
Following an episode in my early twenties it took about a year to build myself back up again. I couldn’t study or hold down a full-time job. I worked on building mental muscle with Eugene, reading up on my illness (with real books, researched crudely, not via internet searches), and I waitressed. Waitressing is good for such occasions. It’s bustling and distracting. You’re in service, so a blissful eight hours can pass in which you don’t think about yourself. And you can flee if you need to. You dump the coffee politely, then dash to the next order before your awkwardness freaks anyone out.
During this time, a guy I served coffee to gave me a book about obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’d asked about the red-raw rash on his hands and he’d told me he had a disorder that saw him wash himself over and over. I’ve never been one to hide stuff when prompted, particularly when I’m confided in; I presume I let him know I got his drift and he brought the book in the next day.

I absolutely believe it helps to see anxiety as having a meta-purpose beyond the arbitrary torture of our little souls. Pain is lessened when there is a point to it. We know this.

The book was called Nine, Ten Do it Again. I remember stabbing at it with my finger, 'Oh my God! Counting things is a thing! A thing that other people do!' So is doing it over and over.
I recall reading that many OCD sufferers work to a counting rhythm of three, four and five. Electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla was a three man – before entering a building he would have to walk around the block three times and he would wash his hands three times. I, too, washed mine in sets of three. One, two, three. One two three. One two three. And then repeat, twenty-one times. Or ninety-six times. Or more. Unless I’d entered a four phase. I wonder now if it has something to do with the natural tempo of music, thus the seemingly lulling effect of counting for folk like me.
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Anyway. The book exposed me to a few other factoids. Such as that OCD exists in the same numbers – about 1.2 per cent of any given population – around the world, even in the depths of the Kalahari. The book also postulated (and I’ve picked up on this notion a number of times since) that far from being ostracised in ancient cultures, obsessive-compulsives were elevated to important leadership positions in communities. Their hyper-attendance to safety and hygiene – and all OCD symptoms cluster (in various, not always logical, guises) around these two themes – was a boon in days gone by. Shaman were likely OCD, goes some evolutionary theory. I liked this.
About twenty years ago there was a documentary made about the work of Dian Fossey who followed a tribe of chimps for several years. It gets cited in various guises around the interweb by people interested in the role of mental illness in society. The gist is that in all chimp troops, there always exists a small number that are anxious/depressed and that tend to retreat to the outskirts of the troop, often socially disengaged. Fossey decided to remove these agitated chimps to see what would happen. Six months later the entire community was dead. It was suggested that the anxious chimps were pivotal for survival. Outsiders, they were the ones who were sleeping in the trees on the edge, on the border, on the boundary of the community. Hyper-sensitive and vigilant, the smallest noise freaked them out and disturbed them so they were awake much of the night anyway. We label such symptoms anxiety, but back when we were in trees, they were the early warning system for the troop. They were the first to scream, 'Look out! Look out!'
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In A First-Rate Madness, Dr Nassir Ghaemi argues that the best crisis leaders in history have had anxiety. 'When our world is in tumult, mentally ill leaders function best,' he writes. It’s a bold claim, but he goes on: 'In the storm of crisis, complete sanity can steer us astray, while some insanity brings us to port.
'The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal [he points to Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Gandhi]; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.' He says eminently sane men like Neville Chamberlain and George W. Bush made poor leaders. A lifetime without the cyclical torment of mood disorders, Ghaemi explains, left them ill-equipped to endure dire straits. In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, some commentators have even suggested that the main cause was politicians and financiers who were either stupid or insufficiently anxious or both. I absolutely believe it helps to see anxiety as having a meta-purpose beyond the arbitrary torture of our little souls. Pain is lessened when there is a point to it. We know this.
Women wouldn’t go through childbirth and men wouldn’t fight wars if this weren’t true. For the anxious, this is possibly amplified by the fact that we tend to be very A-type, purpose-orientated kids who find the seemingly all-consuming, cruelly ironic, palpable pointlessness of anxiety unbearable.
During this same period in my early twenties, I also read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s era-defining Prozac Nation. In it she wrote, of her depression in her case, 'That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.'
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As Nietzsche said, ‘He who has a why can endure any how.’Our ‘why’ today might just be the very important task of crying out, ‘Look out, look out . . . we’re doing life wrong.’ We, the highly strung, are the advance party who flag to the troops that consumerism is hurting our hearts, that the toxins we’re being fed via Big Pharma and Big Food are making us fat and sick and that . . . hang on guys! There’s no triumphant finish line in this mad, frantic race. So perhaps we could, um, back off. It’s we, the highly strung, who become meditation instructors, activists and online ranters.
New York Times bestseller and former addict Glennon Doyle Melton describes in a post how she was able to step out of the world of addiction by stepping ‘into worlds of purpose’. ‘Yes, I’ve got these conditions—anxiety, depression, addiction — and they almost killed me. But they are also my superpowers. I'm the canary in the mine and you need my sensitivity because I can smell toxins in the air that you can't smell, see trouble you don't see and sense danger you don't feel. My sensitivity could save us all. And so instead of letting me fall silent and die - why don't we work together to clear some of this poison from the air?'
I have often said the same - that we're proverbial canaries reporting back. Glennon adds this: 'Help us manage our fire, yes, but don't try to extinguish us.'
First, We Make The Beast Beautiful: A New Conversation About Anxiety by Sarah Wilson, available now from Bantam Press, £12.99.
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