Tom Ford Soleil Lip Foil in Spanish Flame

"I had to let the O.T. in. I didn’t have a choice, not really: if I wanted the Tall Man to have a shot at ever coming home, I had to let someone assess it."  This week Ella Risbridger learnt – physically and emotionally – to let people in 

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By Ella Risbridger on

I have never been very good at letting people in. 

I don’t trust people easily, and I like to hide; I always assume the worst of everybody, and that nobody likes me, and that I don’t like anybody much. The Tall Man always says that I go through the world expecting to be attacked. I know why I do this (complicated, redacted reasons), but it doesn’t make it any easier. 

I like to have a safe place to retreat: I like to have the Tiny Flat, small and cluttered and exactly how I like it, with three big locks on the door and plenty of places to hide. I like the Tiny Flat with everything hospital tidied away, and nothing except the Tall Man’s absence to show that our lives are different now. 

I like it to feel as it always has, since the first moment we arrived to find bedbugs in every crevice, half the carpet taken by the previous occupants, and the wardrobe inexplicably built of copper pipes and MDF: like home. Safe, and normal, and not at all touched by sickness. This feels like good self-care: to have somewhere that isn’t scary to retreat to. 

Which is why, I think, this week has been so hard. 

The Tall Man’s Occupational Therapist needed to come to assess our house, to see if it would ever be possible for the Tall Man to return there. We had known that this would need to take place since the first day the Tall Man arrived in rehab: it’s standard procedure, and it is (in almost every way) my nightmare scenario.

A stranger coming to assess my house? In person? To get through my locks and defences, and analyse our home to see if our life could ever return to any kind of normal? To analyse my things? My furniture? Me? 

“You don’t need to do anything at all,” the O.T. said, cheerfully. “I’m only interested in bricks and mortar.” 

“In my house,” I said, near tears. “My bricks. My mortar.” 

“I’m afraid so,” he said. He was very nice about it, as he always is. “Just a recce to see what we need to do. Measuring things, and so on. Don’t worry about anything.”

This should, of course, have been where I employed my new skill of not worrying: this is not what happened. Instead I worried like anything: up ’til two worrying, up ’til three and four and five thinking about bleaching the bathroom and wondering whether I ought to scrub out the kitchen cupboards. I worried that they would laugh at the Tiny Flat, or, worse, dismiss it out of hand. I worried that having someone I didn’t really know in the Tiny Flat would give me a panic attack. I worried to myself, and to my mother, and to the Tall Man on the phone.

It’s a don’t-mess-with-me lipstick. It’s a pretending-to-be-rich lipstick. It’s a springtime-in-the-city capable-adult-woman lipstick, and I was a capable adult woman, and letting a stranger into my safe place because it was the right thing to do

I’ll be honest with you. I have not found either of my challenges easy this week. I was trying to see the best in the world, and in myself: I have felt resolutely potato-faced, and the world has seemed full of monsters and flashing neon HAZARD signs. 

Still, I have tried: the colour of my eyes, the four freckles on the right side of my nose, my feet neat in brown moccasins. And I have tried, too, when the fear came over me, to do things nonetheless. 

To pick up the metaphor from a couple of weeks ago: I have not been able to turn off the cold tap, but I have been able to acknowledge that the tap is cold. I have not tried to pretend that my fears are rational, or that they are likely, and I have tried (where possible) to do the thing regardless. This feels like a good compromise: I have, for example, been swimming, and if I spend my first few lengths thinking “oh God, oh God, what if?” I am at least getting the pool time in. Even if I had to get out before I reached my target, I was doing it anyway. I was doing something. 

Because, of course, I had to let the O.T. in. I didn’t have a choice, not really: if I wanted the Tall Man to have a shot at ever coming home, I had to let someone assess it. Hiding was not an option. Hiding was not self-care; hiding would be self-sabotage. Worse still, it would be Tall-Man-sabotage. 

It didn’t matter how frightened I was; how cold the tap seemed. I would have to do it anyway. And so I cleaned; and I poured all of my panic into polishing the table with beeswax, and buying an armful of yellow roses, and baking a lemon cake. I wanted the O.T. to see our flat as I see it: not as little and cramped and untidy on a main road, but as the small warm home it is to us. I wanted him, I think, to understand; I think I thought that he might understand the Tall Man more if he saw the place he came from, if he could set the Tall Man in context. 

And I think, you know, that he did. 

He was late, and I (having cleaned everything that could be cleaned, and reorganised everything that could be organised) plaited and replaited my hair; and put on metallic lipstick for bravery. Not for the O.T., obviously – but for me. I’ve been leaning on lipstick for almost two years now, and it didn’t seem like a day to skip it. 

(It’s a very nice lipstick – hugely expensive for what it is, but very nice all the same: a shimmery metallic one, like I say, that feels like an easier version of that bright gold I wore a few weeks back. Everything else about it, as you would expect for the price, is pretty perfect: the pigment, the application, the wear. It’s a bravery lipstick. It’s a don’t-mess-with-me lipstick. It’s a pretending-to-be-rich lipstick. It’s a springtime-in-the-city capable-adult-woman lipstick, and I was a capable adult woman, and letting a stranger into my safe place because it was the right thing to do. It’s the kind of lipstick, I think, that you could file taxes in, or sign a contract: it’s not really very pretty, but it’s fierce, and foil-flecked, and sometimes that’s what you need. And I liked my lips in it: I really did. I couldn’t take a selfie, because I still hated everything else about my face, but that was the deal: one good thing, every time I look in the mirror. Just one.)

And then the bell rang, and it was the O.T.  I was surprised, bizarrely, to see him: like seeing a teacher in the supermarket, it left me with the uneasy thrill of a dog in the playground, or a pigeon on the Tube. 

“Hallo!” he said, cheerfully. “Come to do some measuring.” 

I breathed in and out, counting as I did. I could feel a panic rising. 

“Come in,” I said, and opened the door wide to let him in.

And it was fine. It was completely, utterly fine. He did his measuring. He admired my cookbook collection and the Tall Man’s drinks cabinet. He said “I think we can work with this; I have some ideas of things that will make it easier for him to come back here, but I think we can work with this.” He was unbelievably nice about it, and the whole thing was fine. 

The lesson here, if there is one, is that you can do things even if you’re afraid: that even if you can’t turn the panic off, you can acknowledge the panic, and keep going. That sometimes, you just have to let people in. I needed to learn this lesson, I think. I needed to realise that panic doesn’t mean I can’t; that not being able to turn off the cold tap doesn’t mean I have to stop completely. This morning I went swimming, and I felt (in my first few lengths) the panic rising within me. I wanted, desperately, to get out. I wanted to check my phone, and call the Tall Man. And I didn’t: I made myself swim until I hit my target. And it was fine, of course, and I needed to learn this lesson, too: that the panic will not drown me. That the panic will not stop me. That I am stronger than it is, and I will last longer than it will, and that I can, I can, I can. 



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.


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