Keeping your Vanity when you’ve lost your Sanity

Sanity, for some people, is a given. They sail through life’s storms with relative grace, able to keep an eye on the horizon, and their ship upright. For some of us, it’s not so simple. We oscillate between drowning in icy waters and coming up long enough to take a life saving breath. Our ship is long gone, and those who draw near risk being pulled in by the inertia of our chaos.

If you or someone you love has struggled with mental illness, this story may sound familiar. In the grand scheme of things, beauty can seem inconsequential and even shallow when every day is a struggle to stay afloat. This is where I must whole-heartedly disagree.

It’s no secret that when we don’t feel well, it’s hard to attend to our appearance. When you have the flu, you don’t bother with makeup (or getting out of bed), and everyone understands. But when mental illness shows up, it can be harder to see.

I recently spent several days at a psychiatric inpatient treatment center where I met a woman named Diane*. Diane was friendly, talkative, and caring. She also had about 15 stitches on her wrist from a suicide attempt ten days earlier. One afternoon, I was putting on my makeup, while she watched and we talked. She looked at my cosmetic bag wistfully and said, “You know, I used to wear makeup every day. I probably haven’t done my makeup in 10 years.” That loss of self-care was a sign of her decline in to a deep depression. I can’t even imagine what a little makeover would have done for her sense of self.

Another woman, Charlene*, transformed before my eyes during her stay. When we met, she was barefaced, with textured hair that went every which way. After a few days, I noticed an attractive woman with sparkling bronze eye shadow and hair pulled in to short pigtails. It took me a few moments to realize that this was the same Charlene I’d had breakfast with the morning before. As her condition improved, so did her appearance. One morning, I saw her with bright blue eye shadow. She explained that it made her feel good to wear bright colors when her clothes were plain. Trends be damned, she did what made her feel pretty.

And then there was me. Hospitalized for a reaction to Prozac, I was sleepless, full of energy, and refused to give up my makeup during check-in. Even in the haze of mania, I knew that my eyebrow pencil makes me feel like, me. When my life was like a hurricane at sea, I clung to cosmetics like a sailor looks to the North Star. As long as I kept my eye on looking like me, I knew I had kept my identity and all could not be lost. For me, giving up my makeup would be a sure sign of insanity, and I wasn’t willing to sink that far down.

In the end, we all survived and were able to leave the hospital, our ships afloat, although arguably a little worse for wear. But I can’t help but wonder what will become of my fellow patients. Will Diane find her way back to her cosmetic bag? Would feeling pretty keep Charlene above water?

As for me, I left with a full face of makeup, a bipolar diagnosis, and a lifelong plan for wellness. But you can be damn sure it includes all kinds of brow pencils, mascara, blush, and lipstick. Some days, I’ll need waterproof formulas, but as long as I can see the shining lights of Sephora from under the ocean, I know I’ll be OK.

*Names have been changed.

Wondering how to stay fabulous during a hospital stay? Check out Feeling Pretty When…You’re in the Psych Ward. 

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