While I am managing depression (with anxiety) and Sarah Wilson is managing anxiety (with depression) I still saw a lot of similarities and felt comfort in reading her experiences. This book is for anyone and everyone because even if you aren’t struggling with a mental illness, someone around you is.
In a snapshot...
Author? Sarah Wilson
Premise? A look into Sarah Wilson’s personal experience navigating the highs and lows of her mental health and the studies surrounding anxiety and depression. It also encourages all of us to reframe how we perceive mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
Should I buy or borrow? BUY!
My key takeaways from First, We Make The Beast Beautiful
Meditation is not an option.
I could try and make a long paragraph explaining the reasons behind this but I think Sarah puts it so simply:
“I’ll say it dead straight, because this is how it was presented to me: When you’re an anxious type, meditation is non-negotiable.” - Sarah Wilson
The Dalai Lama can’t even turn his mind off, so I need to stop putting so much pressure on my own brain.
You know it is a f***ing good book when it is only the second page when the Dalai Lama makes a surprise cameo and you are furiously taking notes. I was gobsmacked to learn that not even the Dalai Lama can stop the fretty chatter and continuous stream of thoughts in his mind. When Sarah Wilson asked him about how to turn the noise off he giggled (the Dalai Lama GIGGLED) and said:
‘There’s no use. Silly! Impossible to achieve! If you can do it, great. If not, big waste of time.” - Dalai Lama
There you go folks, you heard it from the Dalai Lama!
If I want to get off the antidepressants, beer and pizza is not the answer. Sad, I know.
I know what you are thinking. Carly, when are you going to stop talking about the Dalai Lama and discuss my microbiome influence on the nervous system. Calm down! I am getting to it.
In the book, Sarah Wilson discusses mental health in 360 degrees and she misses nothing! She dives into the studies being conducted on the link between gut health, inflammation and anxiety. And it may not sound like it to you, but I was fascinated! Seriously! Don’t get me wrong, I knew that gut health contributes to a long list of things BUT reading in black and white that “recent research suggests that these microbes may influence emotional behaviour, pain perception and how we respond to stress,” well... that really got my attention.
Whatever us ‘mentally ill’ folk go through, we will be better for it.
“According to the results of more than 300 studies over the past twenty years or so, up to 70 percent of people who went through the anxious ringer report positive psychological growth at the other end. We’re talking a greater appreciation for life, a richer spiritual life and a connection to something greater than oneself, and a sense of personal strength. You could call it character.” - Sarah Wilson
My feelings about taking antidepressants (and my mental ‘disorder’) are felt but others and I am not alone!
This was a MASSIVE moment for me. I am not comfortable taking antidepressants for a wealth of reasons but right now, for me, it is the lesser of two evils - I actually chronicled my feelings and experiences about antidepressants on here. Reading Sarah’s experience and her friends’ experiences with antidepressants and anxiety and knowing that I was not the only one that felt this way made me feel less alone in my struggles. I cannot overemphasize the significance of that.
I love this part from the book, not because it is romantic or idyllic, but because it resonates with me so so deeply:
“Am I really mentally ill? Disordered? Defective? Or am I just weak of character or just not trying hard enough?” - Sarah Wilson
Sarah also posed questions in the book like:
- Does taking medication alter who I am?
- Am I less authentic for it?
- Is it unnatural?
These are questions I ask myself every single day around 7/8pm when I go to take my trusty little pill and I have no doubt hundreds, if not thousands of others feel the same.
She also told a story of her friend, Joseph, and how he came off Lexapro when he realised that his anxiety was triggered by a larger problem. In his words, as told in the book, “the stress and the anxiety were warning signals from my brain and body, like the pain that makes you move your hand back from a fire. They were doing what they were supposed to do: telling me that something was wrong [in Joseph’s case, that he was pushing his work life too far, to the detriment of his wife and two sons], that I needed to change something. The meds were switching off the alarm.”
I do not want to encourage anyone to go off their medication without their GPs advice or management BUT it does raise very valid questions that I have asked myself over and over again - Is my depression trying to tell me something? Have I not dealt with something in my life properly and now it is rearing its ugly head? Should I go back, deal with it and lay this whole thing to bed?
Vulnerability is powerful
As someone that struggles with vulnerability, this was a pretty eye-opening thing for me to read. Heck, I tell you guys more than I tell my own mother, best friends or even boyfriend. Why? Because vulnerability and intimacy are TERRIFYING. But I don’t know... this quote made me rethink vulnerability and made it seem like a really cool and safe place to want to go.
"Being vulnerable is saying ‘I love you’ first, it’s doing something where there are no guarantees. It’s being willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. And it’s staying to tell your truth. When you do, it provides a glorious space for a loved one - or a potential loved one - to step in and be their best person." - Sarah Wilson
The anxious and depressed play a pretty essential role in societies
I am not using hyperbolic language when I say that this book discusses a wide variety of studies. After Sarah Wilson was done taking a look at the studies on guts and digestive systems she even took a look at the work of Dian Fossey.
Side note: Dian Fossey was a pretty kick-ass woman that dedicated her life to the preservation and the study of chimps in the 60s, 70s, and 80s until her murder.
Anyway, I am getting distracted… back to the study. Dian Fossey followed a tribe of chimps of several years. In every ‘Chimp Colony’ there is a certain percentage that is anxious and depressed, sound familiar? These anxious and depressed chimps often retreat to the outskirts of the colony and are not all that socially engaged. Dian Fossey removed these chimps to see what would happen. Well, the rest of the colony did not survive six months leading to the suggestion that anxious chimps were pivotal for survival because day or night #insomnia they were the first to ring the alarm bells. Pretty cool, right?
Habits are life-changing, literally
Okay, jokes on you, I am already a hardcore advocate of habits and routine but Sarah Wilson’s story about her sessions with her Russian-Chinese hypnotist further solidified my love for habits. It is late and I have already had two glasses of wine writing this blog so I will let Sarah and Eugene explain how to train yo’ brain:
"This is a habit, a series of thoughts. They clump together to form a neural pathway and the more thoughts you add to this the thicker it gets…. You don’t delete a bad habit, you build a new, better one. You feed this new habit, over and over.’ … The new thoughts clump, layer by layer, and eventually create a habit that is stronger than the old one. You build habits that trigger the comfort system, instead of the threat system.” - Sarah Wilson & Eugene Veshner
I could go on and on about how much I learned from this book. Without a word of a lie, I have 8 pages on Google Docs worth of notes.
Side note: I am genuinely kicking myself that I didn’t take a picture of my book with all the PostIt notes in there - it was glorious.
Rather than me sharing all the things I learned, please add this to your ‘Must Read’ list, pronto! I would love to compare notes with you when you get the end. I have no doubt your notes will be different to mine because different parts of Sarah’s experiences will resonate with you.
Her story is truly magical and has inspired people to see the beauty in their mental health journeys. She really did make me feel like my beast could be seen as beautiful (sometimes).
I will leave you with this quote from philosopher Alain de Botton’s Book of Life that Sarah shared in her book:
“We must suffer alone. But we can at least hold out our arm to our similarly tortured, fractured, and above all else, anxious neighbours, as if to say, in the kindest way possible: “I know…”
Want to get to know more about me? Sign up for newsletter: