Look. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: no. You’re going to be sceptical, and you’re going to think this isn’t for you, and you’re going to read this like a kind of anthropological experiment: what kind of idiot clown woman wears blue lipstick?
Well, listen: this kind of idiot clown woman, and I swear to you, you have no idea. You have no idea about how utterly, life-shakingly amazing it feels to wear blue lipstick. Nor did I, before last week. I would have sworn that I was not going to enjoy wearing blue lipstick. I stick to the normal colours – maybe a dark plum once in a while, with trepidation – but, frankly, I blanch at hot pink. Or I used to. Blue was not even on my radar.
It’s been a bit of a ghastly week, for no reason more exciting than this: GvHD is a constantly evolving condition, which needs to be treated reactively. This means that they see a symptom, and treat it: they can’t stop the symptoms emerging in the first place, and nor can they work out what treatment will work until they’ve tried it. Trial and error: they need to find a balance, they keep saying.
Some things work, and some things don’t work as well as they hoped, and the end result of it all is that I have spent the last ten days, more or less, sitting in the same hard plastic chair in which I wrote last week’s column. No weekends off. Never a predictable home time. Never a predictable routine: not even the same doses of the same drugs two days running. Always something new, always some small but undeniably unsettling tweak. This drug, not that drug. This dose, not that dose. See a doctor. Ask another nurse.
Some days there are extra injections. Some days there are extra IV bags, sprung just as we thought we might make our escape. Some days the nurse decides that the Tall Man probably ought to see a doctor before he can go, but it’s the weekend, so there’s only one doctor with the right level of seniority to see him, and she’s two floors down dealing with someone in real trouble, so could we just sit and wait a bit?
And then, when the doctor does come, she decides that she’d rather talk to a consultant, actually, and just sit and wait there for a bit for the consultant to give her opinion, and then when the consultant is found she wants to know, is the Tall Man taking this drug already? What dose? Why not? Because if he isn't, maybe we should – you guessed it – sit and wait a bit longer. By this time, of course, we’ve been up here for nine hours, and it’s genuinely getting dark outside, and I just know that when we get home I’ve got to tackle a mountain of laundry and run the Tall Man a bath and do all the washing up and somehow make a dinner that’s both nutritionally complete and not entirely unappetising and so on, until I collapse into a heap and cry and cry and cry. We are living, chiefly, on cheese on toast. Sometimes with a slice of ham. The flat is in chaos.
I think, actually, this might be the most exhausting thing I have ever done: the sitting and waiting. Just sitting up here, looking over London, the Tall Man beside me. Waiting. Hoping. Every day. It’s the hoping that’s really exhausting: maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow things will take a turn for the better. I am so tired. I was tired before all this started. I’m more tired now.
And unexpectedly into this chaos came something good, and the something good was blue lipstick.
A friend sung its praises, and another friend posted it to me: three NYX Liquid Suede cream lipsticks, in three shades of blue. The third was almost purple, and I put it into the drawer where I keep the purples (I know, I know). But the first two were real, honest-to-God blue. Jet Set was a bright, almost royal, navy; Little Denim Dress was a proper sky blue.
And we got home, one evening, in the dark, and I thought: it’s now or never. I don’t know what came over me. I dumped my bag on the sofa, changed into pyjamas, and painted my mouth blue. Just like that. How can I explain to you the extraordinary power of blue lipstick?
It was something to do with how quickly and easily it went on; how utterly ludicrously simple it was to transform myself. It took perhaps thirty seconds to become a person with blue lips. It took perhaps thirty seconds to escape the usual rules of being, by which I mean something like the usual rules of prettiness and attractiveness and make-up in general. It’s supposed to make you prettier, make-up, isn’t it? It’s supposed to make you look younger or more attractive. This didn’t, not really. This was bold and it was silly and it absolutely gave no fucks for anyone else’s opinion. And I loved it.
The Tall Man hated it– “I just think maybe a nice pink might look prettier” – which made me love it all the more. The thing about being a carer – of any kind, really – is that you sort of subsume your life into theirs. You put your book on hold. You put your holiday on hold. You put everything, like I wrote last week, on hold for however long it is they need you. You are an accessory; the worst thing that ever happened to you is happening to someone else, and you’ve just got to make the best of it. You’re not important, not really, except for how you can be useful to somebody else. You don’t matter. Your life doesn’t really matter. Oh, I know this isn’t what I’m supposed to say: I’m supposed to say that I know I matter. But the truth is, I just don’t. Not as much. And not right now. In other ways, and other times, I do. I’m sure I do. But now? Nope. Everything I was doing, and everything I am, is on hold, because what matters is getting the Tall Man’s liver sorted out. What matters is curing his cancer, and treating his illness. What matters is him, and how he feels, and how he is.
My mental health, my physical health, my mind, my body, my energy, my time, my work, my hobbies, my nice clean flat full of flowers: I give up pretty much all of them to get us through “just this next bit”. It’s always "just this next bit”: I am always borrowing against tomorrow in order to support the Tall Man as best as I possibly can. I don’t resent this – I would do it all again in a heartbeat, and will carry on until I drop – it’s just how it is. I get up, put my lipstick on, do as much work as possible while sitting with the Tall Man and hearing a half a dozen new bits of medical information from half a dozen medical professionals, and I cope. I’m coping less well than before, but I’m still doing it: I’m still coping. I’ve given up pretty much everything I had to give, but I’m still coping.
But I think this goes some way to explaining why, when the blue lipstick was there, I put it on, and why it felt so transformative: I was reclaiming something that had once been mine. My body, my own. My face. Nothing there to make a doctor think I was coping; nothing there to make the Tall Man think I was pretty. You might remember that those were the two reasons I started wearing lipstick, and this felt different. This felt new. This wasn’t for anybody else: this was just for me. It was completely silly and it was utterly beautiful, in an unlikely kind of way, and it was mine.
I painted sky blue dots on top of the navy, and felt even better. Even the Tall Man had to concede that there was something about it. “You look…happy,” he said, cautiously. “You just look really happy.” I felt it. I couldn’t stop grinning at myself every time I passed the mirror. I took, conservatively, some hundred-odd selfies. Every selfie I took I felt better about myself.
I was, in the six hours and twenty minutes in which my lips were blue, perfectly content: content with my own body, content with my own face, and my place in the world. I felt invincible. I felt extraordinary. I felt like I could fly. This isn’t an exaggeration: this is absolutely true. It made me feel amazing. (I have spoken to my two friends who recommended the blue lipstick: they, too, report similar effects.)
And so I urge you to try it. I swear to you: it goes on like a dream, has real staying power, isn’t scented, isn’t drying, and makes you feel like a superhero. It’s not expensive, this lipstick, even if you buy both of the ones I use: cheap enough I think that you don’t have to worry about not wearing it outside. I haven’t worn it outside, yet. Not brave enough. And I’m worried about scaring the doctors. (“They’re probably more used to blue lips as a symptom,” the Tall Man said, tentatively.)
But I’m carrying it in my handbag, ready. Just in case. Because one day, I will: one day, I will have my body back, and my time back, and my mind back. One day I’ll get to finish my book, and do my work in the café where I love to work, and I’ll walk in the autumn leaves (or the winter, or the spring), and I’ll wear blue lipstick all the time. I’ll be me again. Ella the person, not Ella the carer. I’ll be me again. I have – as unlikely as a blue lipstick – faith.
Worse, I have hope. Which makes all this waiting – all this endless waiting – sort of bearable.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS...
I’d never been much of a make-up person before last year, but strange things happen on the cancer ward. When my partner, the Tall Man, was suddenly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I found myself reaching for a battered tube of Mac Ruby Woo – part armour, part warpaint, all crimson defiance. This is a column about lipstick, and about caring, and about cancer, but most of all it’s my lifeline and it’s proof – for me, at least – that putting on a brave face is half the fight. Read my story so far here.