The First Time I Thought I was Dying by Sarah Walker reviewed by Sophie Staughton
The first pages of Sarah Walker’s book of essays gripped me with its foray into personal and social preoccupations with the body. There was some sad reassurance in the knowledge that one of the preoccupations I live with daily is so widely felt by most women. I have known this on a few levels for a while, from observations of family and friends, to the hurry of congratulations received whenever I lose weight.
Walker’s first essay about losing weight as a teenager parallels the journey that a girl takes towards being a woman in our modern society; the first awareness of self in a society obsessed with how it looks and seemingly determined to suppress how it feels.
What Sarah Walker’s book does offer, over the course of each essay, is some light. With each topic she explores, from weight, to anxiety, to sex and desire, to self harm, she opens a door into the possibilities of change. Change in the body that comes in slowly, but only arrives with the vessel also holding compassion and care for self.
Change that is met with small actions, and the knowledge that what drives your negative self will still stay with you. While you will not suddenly transform, you can be better.
Walker tells the story through her own lens. Literally running out the door to push past an anxiety attack, wheezing from asthma, but better. Starting a weights program from a misguided focus on fitspo, and ending up just the same, but better. With her friend in crisis, experiencing the worst the mental health system has to offer, but the public pain finally shifting her friend out of the lonely inner world she inhabited.
This book offers insight through the slow passage of years, the building of friendships, the opening up and speaking without shame of the pain we all hold within us. It speaks to a truth I hold dear, namely that when the inside is out, we all breathe a sigh of relief to know we are not alone. That we can do something by just tending wounds with compassion and bearing witness. That the brave act of laying bare is where slow steps to a better place can start.
The essays in this book will speak to you in different ways than it did to me, depending on your story of the body. While it goes to dark spaces within the reader, its effervescence of hope is what stays with you at the end.