At times unsettling but decidedly open and honest, Sarah Walker’s collection of essays The First Time I Thought I Was Dying explores the often-taboo aspects of life and living. Told from her perspective as an actor and photographer, the collection examines the awkwardness, the disgustingness and the discomfort of our bodies and minds in a search for more open and honest discussion about our lives. In the process, she also explores the role of the arts in shaping these discussions and looks at how we present these issues in public spaces.
Walker’s essays tip into the realm of body horror, sometimes delving into details that make you shudder. The way she writes about a splinter under her teacher’s skin, or popping pimples, or vomiting, in excruciating detail (there is literally a whole essay devoted to the act of vomiting) can leave you feeling uneasy; even though you know this is something you’ve experienced countless times before.
The underlying question at all times is ‘why does this make me feel so uncomfortable?’. Nothing Walker talks about is particularly taboo on its own—weight, sex, drugs, STI’s, self-harm—and yet there’s something about the detail that makes it feel ‘wrong’. But it’s the detail that is most important. It is the detail that is missing from general discourse that would normalise these conversations, to make people feel less like they are doing something wrong, or that there is no help for them.
Perhaps strangely, it is Walker’s essays on mental health that feel most comfortable. Anxiety, grief and depression all feature in the collection, along with the difficulty in recognising the signs ourselves. Walker relates how easily she could encourage her friends to find professional help for their mental health but seemed convinced that she didn’t need it herself. She also relates the pain of losing someone and only seeing the signs after the fact.
For all the discomfort though, Walker has some beautiful insights to share and while reading. I found myself quoting parts of her essays in various discussions with different groups of people. One night at dinner with my family, I related her lesson from “Healing Brush” for trying on clothes: “I closed my eyes, forcing myself to judge how they felt before I peered into the mirror”. In another conversation in an online forum where there was a discussion about the portrayal of sexual assault in the arts, I quoted from “Stage Directions”: “To simply put it onstage accomplishes nothing we don’t already know. The question becomes: is it worth it? Is it worth what it will do to the actors, and the techs, and the audience? The answer is slippery as water. If we place these things on stage, what do we do with them?”
There is more, so much more to say about the takeaways from this collection. As a photographer myself, I identified with so much of her discussion of photography and the role it plays in how we see ourselves. As someone who also lives with anxiety, I could see the similarities in my own feeble attempts to have control over myself, my body and my mind. As personal as Walker’s essays are, they are so honest and open that there seems always to be something to identify with, some ‘oh I know’ moment, or some similar emotion, not exactly the same but close enough to make you understand.
This is not a comfortable book, but then it’s not intended to be. It is intended to be thoughtful, and heartfelt, and in that it certainly succeeds.