The First Time I Thought I was Dying
by Sarah Walker
Published August 2021
‘A thing from the outside was inside her,’ writes Sarah Walker, conjuring one of her earliest memories. The thing in question is an enormous piece of bark, protruding from her kindergarten teacher’s outstretched hand, ‘under the elegant slip of her skin’. The image is carefully chosen, foreshadowing this essay collection’s interest in the intersections between our bodies and the world, and the breaching of these thresholds. Throughout The First Time I Thought I Was Dying the outside world gets in and insides are turned out. Walker’s lesson from that playground accident is that ‘constant vigilance is required’. Just a handful of paragraphs later, she tells us the revised lesson her adult self is trying to learn: ‘be not afraid’. This movement from fearfulness and control towards trust and acceptance is one that reverberates through the collection.
Walker’s introduction establishes bodies as out-of-control and suspicious: ‘I do not trust the thing that I inhabit’. The repetition of ‘un-’ suggests a disobedient and disorderly child: bodies have an ‘embarrassing unwillingness to behave’; they are unpredictable and unruly, alternately ‘exploding into unrequested action’ and ‘sinking into untimely torpor’. They ‘refuse to be tidy’. Bodies are to the fore in this collection – not bodies in the abstract, but real bodies. In ‘Yes Yes No’, the author describes her teenage self examining her vulva with a hand mirror, pulling open the ‘covering between her inner and outer self’ and seeing the ‘ribbed wet mystery’ inside. ‘Inside Out’ opens with a memory of how quick she was as a child to ‘jam a cut in my mouth and suck the salt-sweet tang’, then expands into a discussion of self-harm: she tends to her friend Charlotte, who has cut herself so deeply that the ‘yellow fat spilt out of the muscle, viscous and flabby’.
It was 1926 when Virginia Woolf bemoaned literature’s privileging of the mind over the body, as though the latter were a ‘sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear’. Tegan Bennett Daylight, writing close to a century later, echoes this: characters in books seem always to be thinking about their ‘marriages, or the deaths of friends or children or parents, or about war, or money’ and, as a result, literature ignores ‘the narrative of the foot, the ear or the arse’. For Daylight, the strange persistent silences around women’s bodies both on the page and off it (childbirth, and its ramifications, in particular) made her feel as though she ‘was losing control of the narrative of [her] life’. Walker’s writing is part of a broader upsurge among contemporary Australian essayists to redress this silence: to honour the reality that, in Woolf’s words, ‘All day, all night the body intervenes’.
It’s no accident that women – especially sick or disabled women – are leading this movement. In the Covid era (and what more stark reminder of our physical vulnerability) Kylie Maslen has written of her chronic, invisible illness and mental ill-health; Sam Van Zweden of the nexus between food, body, and identity; Katerina Bryant of her episodes of depersonalisation and dissociation, ‘like a cloak taking [her] out of the world’; and Fiona Murphy of her secret deafness and her terror of exposure, such that ‘most days [her] body was visited by a quiet, tedious panic’. Walker includes discussion of her disordered eating, and her anxiety, diagnosed late in the book as generalised anxiety disorder. But the most original and subversive aspect of her work is that which is least original or remarkable about her as a person: namely, her more ‘revolting’ bodily functions and habits: vomiting, pimple-squeezing, queefing, defecating and menstruating. None of this feels gratuitous; rather, Walker is modelling how we might all ultimately learn to ‘delight in the ecosystem of ourselves’.
Each of the essays follows a similar chronology, from Walker’s childhood and adolescence through to her current adult self, and maps a corresponding learning curve. Briohny Doyle, in her examination of millennial adulthood, notes the new ‘elasticity’ of childhood and identifies thirty as a marker of ‘emerging adulthood’. Walker’s coming-of-age appears to fit this template: at the time of publication, Walker is exactly thirty. Looking back on her twenties, she writes: ‘I was young, then. I didn’t know how many things a body can hold.’ On occasion, her hindsight can edge into scorn. Ruing her body’s ‘animal unruliness’, Walker’s younger self attempts to exert control. Repulsed by her expanding twelve-year-old body, she starves herself. She suffers from emetophobia. Vomiting comes to represent the ultimate loss of control, so she becomes hyper-vigilant, using her ‘terrible iron will’ to keep her ‘body in check’. After a panic attack driving over Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge, she avoids bridges for years.
Photography enables Walker to exert maximum control. It is, in fact, her primary discipline and examples of her work are included as part of this collection. Her ‘real’ self may be nauseated and anxious, but online she can ‘slick [herself] into something professional and reliable’. In words that echo Daylight’s, Walker says the camera allowed her to take ‘control over the visual narrative’ since she had ‘lost capacity to control her body in the real world’. This written admission is a fascinating adjunct to her photographic work, especially her self-portraits, which present her as ‘flirtatious, effortless, sexy’. Walker doesn’t ever comment on what writing enables, whether it too might be a means of ordering, controlling and making sense of her world. Ostensibly, it seems she is using the page as a space for truth-telling, for disclosure and exposure of her vulnerability. Writing undoes the camera’s ‘lies’.
Apart from being exhausting, Walker’s interminable attempts to keep her body in check are unsuccessful: ‘the chaos gets out’. This chimes with Van Zweden’s observations – preoccupied with dieting, counting, and weighing, she ‘still can’t seem to disappear right’; her ‘body – monstrous – returns again’. The harder Walker tries to ‘keep it together’, the worse things become, and she decides that the ‘greatest act of control is relinquishing it, on purpose’. In her essay on emetophobia, she briefly surrenders, trusting in her body’s ability ‘to lead itself back home’. In ‘Abject Euphoria’, she encourages ‘wonder at the processes we can’t control’. In ‘Healing Brush’, she learns that she could care for and accept her body even if it is ‘unwieldy’ and ‘imperfect’, and that ‘food made you feel good’. When she eventually seeks therapy, she learns to be kind to herself.
Taken out of context, these lessons may seem platitudinous. Zadie Smith identifies a pattern among younger women novelists, whereby the body is treated ‘like this strange thing you have to drag around’. Something emotional will happen, she notes, and instead of responding vocally, as in a traditional novel, the character will, for example, pinch their skin until it bleeds, ‘as if the body is a dissociated thing’. Truths, which for writers of Smith’s generation would have been first principles, only arrive as conclusions: I have a body. Love is complicated. I might actually want a baby. But Walker’s insights are hard-won and reflect the fractured and complicated relationships so many of us have with our bodies. To learn to speak about our bodies and thereby strip ourselves of shame is, for Walker, a ‘radical act’ and a ‘small revolution’.
In ‘Honeycomb and Waterfall’, Walker explains that when capturing the spray of vomit on camera, a slow shutter speed produces waterfall-like images, while a faster shutter speed captures ‘a sort of wet latticework, like honeycomb’. The intricate structure of honeycomb is a useful way of understanding how she constructs her essays. Each of her paragraphs functions as an individual cell, intact and self-contained, neatly abutting and tessellating with its neighbours. These ‘cells’ can be broadly classified as dealing with either Walker’s personal narrative or with external sources. This combination is a hallmark of much contemporary non-fiction, but in Walker’s writing the cordoning off of one from the other is striking. Walker doesn’t draw heavily from literary or historical sources, instead favouring statistics, occasional interviews with experts, and examples of visual and performance art. After a discussion of her online portfolio, for instance, she tells us that ‘71% of Australians have active social media accounts’. Following an account of her weight loss: ‘A recent US study of women from childhood through to old age found that 91% were dissatisfied with their bodies’.
These sometimes abrupt shifts from the personal to the external make plain that Walker’s struggles are not hers alone, but reflect broader social trends. She may be beholden to her body, but her body is beholden to larger forces and systems. That she found her early sexual experiences unsettling and uncomfortable is the result of not having been given adequate sex education through her high-school curriculum. Her bodily shame is produced in part by consumer capitalism – a hair removal industry, for instance, which equates absence of body hair with ‘cleanliness’. Her and her friends’ struggles with mental health are exacerbated by stigmatising attitudes among health professionals.
At times, the jolting from the narrator’s personal narrative into more objective territory feels unwarranted, as though Walker is worried the reader might not be satisfied with her story alone, might not think it is enough. This tendency raises interesting questions. Does Walker believe the backing-up of her experience with hard data legitimises her experience, or renders it more worthy of our attention? Does an individual’s narrative hold more value when it can be extrapolated into a broader, shared experience? And, conversely, is there less value in stories that sit apart from broader trends, stories that the reader might not find relatable or believable, or that have not been made the subject of scientific study?
A related attempt to universalise her experience is Walker’s regular switches into the second-person – her ‘you’ does not address the reader as confidant, but tries to encompass everyone. ‘Your body is gross’; ‘You are teeming with life’; ‘Sex changes you’. An inclusive ‘we’ is also used liberally, at times generating the tone of a manifesto, or even a self-help text. ‘We can become students of our bodies’; ‘We can learn how to communicate’. This attempt to include the reader can be counterproductive. Statements like ‘We become our own products’ and ‘It serves us to present the tidiest content’ though arguably true, may strike some readers as presumptuous.
There is nothing special or remarkable about her particular experience, Walker seems to want the reader to know. Such an insistence on her own ordinariness is – quite ironically – atypical. Other writers in this space are inclined to focus on their singularity and their associated feelings of loneliness and isolation. Katerina Bryant, for all her meticulous historical research, fails to locate an account that shares much with her own: ‘Perhaps because stories of psychosomatic illness aren’t told, or maybe, I dread to think, no one else’s is quite like mine. My seizures are alive and unique, no matter how much I wish the opposite to be true’. Fiona Wright writes of a longstanding and deep-seated feeling of being ‘aberrant’, though she also comes to realise just how common this feeling is among those with anorexia. Lee Kofman, in Imperfect, describes how her disfiguring scars make her feel ‘not just ugly, but also profoundly different from everyone else, even incomprehensible’. Kofman and Walker alike are interested in imperfection, but in divergent ways. Where Kofman groups those with imperfect bodies (burns victims, people with albinism, dwarfism, Marfan syndrome, self-harm scars) and interrogates how living in such a body might shape one’s sense of self, Walker is adamant that all bodies are, by nature, imperfect.
The First Time I Thought I Was Dying is at its most engaging when Walker lets her specific experiences raise larger, ethically knotty questions and resists the urge to answer them too neatly. ‘Stage Directions’ is remarkable in conveying the metaphysical power of theatre. Walker’s language here mirrors her characterisation of bodies – theatre is unhinged, chaotic, animal; there is a ‘sense that the rushing forces of the universe are gathering around you’. Her direct experience is juxtaposed with the ways in which actors (especially female ones, who don’t want to ‘make waves’ and who are precariously employed in workplaces that are by nature ‘playful’ and ‘tactile’) and audience members alike can be damaged or exploited. Walker asks how we can harness the ‘electricity’ and ‘explosive energies’ of performance while ensuring safety, care and respect. Dealing with a similarly complex landscape, ‘Inside Out’ considers the potential of self-harm to have a positive, self-defining function. ‘Yes Yes No’ interrogates high-school sex education. How to get beyond diagrams and arrows, and teach young people that sex is a powerful form of intimacy? How to provide children good information, without exposing them to content that ‘damages the tender formation of their erotic selves’?
The collection’s final and most powerful essay, ‘Contested Breath’, is written in the wake of her mother’s sudden death. Walker’s loss and grief are set against the backdrop of the pandemic. The personal and the global are woven together with skill, the one seeping into the other: supermarket shelves are ‘exhumed’; her diary turns ‘bone-white’. Remarkable here is the absence of sentimentality. On the drive to see her mother’s body, Walker mentions stopping to use a portaloo: the image is unforgettable for its weird pathos – the kind of detail that makes the narrative ring true, but which is conventionally omitted. Its inclusion is a stark reminder of the inescapability of our physicality, and also, more poignantly, of Walker’s aliveness. Her sentences are stripped and shortened, but contain so very much: ‘We made decisions’; ‘I said the things you say’. In this essay, Walker’s strong moral conscience is evident. She must balance her own desire and need for ceremony against the new risk involved in gathering people together.
In the many vignettes of her personal life and friendships, Walker reveals herself to be deeply caring and compassionate, and when it comes to larger systemic issues, she shows a real concern to do the least harm possible. Despite the darkness of the territory covered in this collection, Walker’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic. From her perspective, society is changing for the better. Sex education is improving. Treatments for illnesses like borderline personality disorder are getting better. Theatre spaces are becoming safer. And she finds immense hope in the new generation, who are very aware, for example, of art’s ‘capacity to wound and re-wound’. She welcomes new measures like intimacy choreographers and content warnings, which allow her to ‘decide what my heart is ready to take’.
As someone who photographs and edits images professionally, Walker is highly sensitive to our increasingly visually-constituted world and to the digital curation of our bodies. In her work as a photographer, she notes an obvious shift among children, who are now keenly ‘attuned to the need to pose’. Editing, once the purview of specialists, can now be done by anyone.
A lesser writer may have drawn a clean line between the digital realm and the embodied world, or regarded one as a shallow substitute for the other. But throughout the collection, Walker insists that technology is inextricable from selfhood and from identity. In pre-publication material for the book, Walker has stated that her essays explore the ‘wobbly edges of our experiences’ and indeed some of the most compelling moments are where she illustrates how technology has bled into offline spaces: spotting pimples on a stranger’s chin, she finds her fingers ‘twitching for a mouse’; looking at old photos of herself, she forgets the alterations she has made, and finds herself ‘longing for a body built on a screen’.
Walker also resists the temptation to posit a hierarchical distinction between the ‘virtual’ world and what we like to call ‘real life’. Rather, the lines between the two are blurred. In her essay ‘Sim Life’, Leslie Jamison concludes that a virtual space isn’t so much a ‘repudiation of the physical world’ as a recognition of the ‘ways that we often feel more plural and less coherent than the world allows us to be’. Walker would appear to agree. She describes photography as a sort of ‘magic’ and ‘sorcery’. These are apt words, implying both malevolent and benevolent powers, and suggesting something practised by an individual, but simultaneously harnessing invisible forces. Walker describes a photoshoot she does for a friend, who has newly come out as non-binary, and for whom the finished images (black velvet, red lipstick, dreamy blue lights) permit them to ‘see themselves anew’.
Walker’s representation of technology is especially interesting in relation to death and bereavement. A passage on her friend Stuart’s suicide closes with the haunting image of Walker scrolling through saved images and dialling his old mobile number (only to have a stranger pick up). In ‘Contested Breath’, she can’t stop refreshing her news feed, the image capturing the enmeshing of technology with our more primal feelings around fear and survival. Her mother’s iPad still pings with notifications; her bank account is still alive; she keeps receiving emails from businesses vowing to ‘keep her safe from Covid-19’. ‘Contested Breath’ was written when the pandemic was still in its early days; in the time that has elapsed, technology has become even more integrated into the fabric of our lives – integral to social connection, to work and study, to ceremony, and to safety. Walker’s observations and anxieties have proven prescient.
Looking at her mother’s hands, normally white from poor circulation, but now ‘plump and pink’, Walker observes: ‘This is how we knew that she was dead’. It’s a resonant place for this collection to conclude. Death: when all our bodies will undergo a ‘series of processes entirely beyond our control’. The beloved no longer present in the flesh, but preserved ‘somewhere as if in amber’ within the words and the bodies of the living.
Reading The First Time I Thought I Was Dying this far into the Covid era, Walker’s themes feel all the more timely. That ‘constant vigilance is required’ is no longer a maladaptive belief of anxious individuals; it has become a public health directive. Feelings of uncertainty, panic, and overwhelm have spread. And we are, all of us, more conscious of our corporeality: covering and containing our physical selves; monitoring the physical distance between our bodies; newly alert to thresholds, borders, and boundaries. Careful of what we risk breathing in, and of what we might breathe out.
Katerina Bryant, Hysteria, NewSouth, 2020.
Tegan Bennett Daylight, The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, Simon & Schuster Australia, 2020.
Briohny Doyle, Adult Fantasy, Scribe, 2017.
Leslie Jamison, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, Granta, 2019.
Lee Kofman, Imperfect, Affirm Press, 2019.
Kylie Maslen, Show Me Where it Hurts, Text Publishing, 2020.
Fiona Murphy, The Shape of Sound, Text Publishing, 2021.
Zadie Smith, On Shame, Rage and Writing, Louisiana Channel, 2017.
Sam Van Zweden, Eating with My Mouth Open, NewSouth, 2021.
Virginia Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’, in The New Criterion, 1926.
Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance, Giramondo, 2015.