Freelance journalist Grace Howard, 22, was diagnosed with depression during her first year at university, but after a chance birthday gift, found an unexpected comfort in make-up and beauty products.
Here. she discusses how realising the value of self-care helps her manage her mental health.
Around this time two years ago, I was sitting in a lecture theatre, my eyes fixated on the Powerpoint in front of me, desperately willing myself to feel something about its contents. I was 20 years old and in my first year at university. My mind was messy.
Before heading off to uni, I had some idea of what to expect. For example, I was aware I’d be living in a huge, modern flat with a balcony – I just never expected that I would consider throwing myself off it.
I also never expected that I was going to hate studying fashion journalism, the subject I’d always felt I was destined for, and I certainly never expected that I’d end up dropping out because I felt uninspired, lonely and devoid of purpose, despite achieving excellent grades and surrounding myself with lovely friends.
But that’s the thing about depression: it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t care how good your life looks on paper.
Before I found the courage to go to my GP for help, I self-medicated with alcohol, aka my go-to method of avoiding my feelings (or lack thereof). Depression has a funny way of changing you though, and my body started serving me hangovers with a side dose of anxiety and panic.
I cut back on boozing and turned to books. For my 21st, my mum bought me Sali Hughes’s Pretty Honest, a pastel-hued tome celebrating all things beauty-related. I picked it up one rainy day in search of something frothy enough for my lethargic brain to process. Instead, I found something distinctly un-frothy, delightfully warm, celebratory and self-indulgent. I devoured it in one sitting.
There’s an enlightening chapter in Pretty Honest about women turning to beauty in times of ill health. “During the darkest times, beauty takes on an extra significance and, for many, can become one of our most effective coping mechanisms,” Hughes writes.
Reading this was revelatory for me. I chucked some things in a bag, drove back to my parents’ house, ran a bath, stuck on a face mask and lit some candles. After months of sharing a shower with five other girls, this was exactly what I needed; for the first time in forever, I felt calm in my solitude.
I wanted to drop out of uni as soon as I started feeling sad, but I forced myself to finish the academic year by being kind to myself. Everything felt out of my hands, but it was comforting to know some things hadn’t changed, namely the complex skincare routine I’ve had since I was 13 (thanks to the joys of teenage acne) and the make-up look I’ve stuck to since I became patient enough to use black eyeliner.
Mornings became easier when I stopped seeing them as a battle and, instead, a time to glug coffee and channel my nervous energy into my eyebrows. Sleep became less anxiety-inducing when I realised I could massage scented oils into my skin until I felt relaxed enough to switch off.
Interested to hear a medical expert’s opinion of beautification’s effect on mental health, I contacted Dr Eerum Afzal, a Wiltshire-based GP who runs the skincare blog Skinformed. Dr Afzal emphasises that seeking medical advice is the first thing you should do if you have concerns about your mental welfare, however, she acknowledges that ritualistic beauty can provide comfort during dark times.
“Some mental health patients could find that maintaining a personal beauty ritual is a useful way to boost self-esteem and demonstrate compassion for themselves at a time when other areas of life may be more challenging to control,” she tells me, adding that her own personal skincare routine is “almost therapeutic”, giving her “a precious few moments” to herself.
For me, setting aside those moments – OK, more like hours – to myself has been a huge help. I used to be a high achiever with big hopes for my future, so having to leave uni and move back home at 21 was demoralising. But, by concentrating on self-care and speaking to a counsellor, I’m slowly getting better by focusing on myself and realising that health is infinitely more important than academic or professional achievement.
I’m finishing my degree with the Open University while working in a job I enjoy, and I’ll graduate at the same time I would have done had I stayed on my journalism course, so the year I thought I’d lost to depression turned out to just be a change in direction.
Pampering has by no means cured my depression, but it’s certainly helped me to regain a semblance of control and self-love.
I've been seeing a brilliant counsellor and, for now, this combination is working for me, though I'm aware that many people find antidepressants are the right choice for them. She has introduced me to mindfulness exercises, which I can also turn to when my mood dips, and tells me I have perfectionist tendencies – I beat myself up a lot and often feel like I don’t deserve nice things because I’m a bad person.
She regularly encourages me to be selfish and look after myself, so I will occasionally buy that Chanel lipstick and push myself into my overdraft; I will also occasionally lock my long-suffering boyfriend out of the bathroom for hours because I want to have a bath and then dye my hair and then slap on a face mask afterwards.
Without trying to sound like a self-help manual, when you feel you’ve lost yourself, it could help to remove yourself from the situation. Sometimes it could be as simple as painting your nails to perfection, slathering on the moisturiser or dousing yourself in a scent that takes you back to your childhood – whatever makes you feel ‘normal.’
If all else fails, I like to remember that a bottle of Radox costs £1 and you can always find 30 spare minutes in your day to have a bath. It’s not selfish or vacuous: for me, it’s essential.
Images: Grace Howard / iStock