Jill Stark talks about ‘Happy Never After’ to Giselle Nguyen

This post is a red-hot sneaky preview of a full interview with Jill Stark that will be published in Issue #7, which will be coming out in September.

Written by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and photographed by Naomi Beveridge.

Content warning for discussion of anxiety and suicide.


Jill Stark has been a journalist for over two decades, from staff reporter at a major paper to freelancing. In that time, she’s seen the industry morph in countless ways, especially with the advent of digital technologies. Jill’s also got anxiety—something that the fast-paced world of journalism, especially now, can exacerbate.

Her first book, High Sobriety, saw her give up booze for a year to investigate our culture’s obsession with drinking. Turning a sharp eye onto societal patterns again, Jill’s new book, Happy Never After, explores the idea of the “happiness fairytale”—the happy ever after—and how it’s actually making things worse, especially for anxiety sufferers. Sharing her story of her own success narrative, eventual breakdown, and road to recovery, Jill mixes research and memoir to paint a picture of how anxiety manifests in the modern day, particularly in the workplace, and what we can do to buck the trend.

As a freelance writer who suffers from anxiety myself, I definitely feel like we’ve got a bit in common. Sitting in a plant-filled warehouse-turned-café in Melbourne’s Brunswick East on a Friday morning, Jill sips on chai as she tells me about how the ideas of success, perfectionism, and anxiety have played out in her career.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen: How does anxiety manifest in a journalism career?

Jill Stark: An editor of mine once said, “There’s two types of journalists: the anxious and the useless.” As journalists, we’re all quite self-critical and there’s a sense of validation you get when your name appears on the front page or you get feedback to a story that went well. Conversely, if the story doesn’t go well you hear about it pretty quickly as well. As a young reporter in Scotland I worked for a tabloid newspaper that was very cutthroat, and it wasn’t a great place for an anxious person. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since I was a teenager, and when I was 19 a psychiatrist said to me that I was going to be very successful in life, but my challenge was whether I could get on top of the anxiety enough to enjoy that. I think that’s the case with a lot of anxious people—we can be very driven, but the benchmark is set so high that we tend to be quite harsh critics of ourselves.

GAN: How has your idea of success changed?

JS: I guess I’ve ticked all the boxes for success, and when my first book came out I really thought that was going to be the end of all of my self-doubt. But there was still a little voice inside me saying, “You’re not enough.” It was a dream come true to have my first book published. At first I was in fantasyland—I loved all the attention and accolades, and feeling like, “This is it, I’ve finally made it.” But there was something not quite right. There was a real emptiness underneath it—hollowness, a sense that something was missing. That morphed into quite a serious breakdown, and I didn’t work for five months. That forced me to re-examine everything I’d been taught about happiness and success, and what it means to live a fulfilled life.

GAN: Do you think these experiences are gendered?

JS: There’s no doubt that women suffer from anxiety far more than men, and you have to look at the wider structural problems to see why that is. We’re probably far harsher on ourselves than men, and it’s a lot to do with the way that we’re taught to be apologetic for the space we take up in the world. I grew up in a very loving, generous family who were never short of telling me that they loved me or that I could be anything I wanted, but when I grew up—in the late 70s and early 80s—the self-esteem movement was becoming a juggernaut and it was all about, “You’re special, you can do anything you want.” That’s not actually a particularly helpful message. You grow up and you realise that when you’re sheltered from life’s realities—when you’re getting medals handed to you for just turning up—it can feel like there’s something wrong with you when things start to go wrong, but really that’s just part of life.

GAN: I really connect with what you’re saying about growing up in a supportive environment, and feeling bad for feeling bad.

JS: There’s a lot of guilt. I was suicidal for quite a long period of time, and on paper I had everything. I had all the things that I was told would make me happy, and I was really unwell. As a straight white woman who was well off, I felt very guilty about it. We need to realise that everyone’s situation is real to them, and there’s no way I could have experienced it any differently. A lot of the problems in the Western world with people who do look on paper like they have it all is very much to do with our culture’s focus on perfectionism and happiness being a default position, which it really isn’t. But we’re taught that you need to strive towards this “happy ever after” sort of moment, and any deviation is an aberration. Whereas if you look at Eastern traditions, they’ve had this figured out a long time ago: life is suffering. That sounds depressing, but it’s actually quite liberating.


Happy Never After is available now from all good bookstores, but if you’re a legend, you’ll support independents like Avid Reader (Brisbane) and Readings (Melbourne) where you can also buy our magazine. We’re also running a giveaway thanks to Jill’s publisher, Scribe, for copies of the book. Just email your name and postal address to giveaways[at]hotchickswithbigbrains.com to enter!

Happy reading ever after. 🙂

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