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"It takes him approximately five minutes to find the perfect therapist. He gives me her details, and dispatches me to the cafe." This week Ella Risbridger feels a little better, a little braver, after asking for some help

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By Ella Risbridger on

I’m sitting in a cafe, in Bloomsbury. The Tall Man is in a speech session. The sun is coming in dappled green through the tall café windows. 

In front of me is an open email draft, and it’s blank. 

I am supposed to be working, but instead, I’m working something out. 

I’ve been procrastinating this for a while: I’ve been to the second-hand bookshop, and asked for things so obscure I was sure they wouldn’t have them (and they didn’t). I’ve been to Waitrose and compared unbelievably expensive ready meals. I’ve been to Boots, and bought a lipstick, as usual: you can tell we’re seriously into spring, because I can’t bear the thought of wearing any of my reds or purples or berry colours. I love red lipstick, but somehow, it feels too heavy for this green-and-blue April. It’s a rose-coloured lipstick, and it’s eminently wearable, smooth and light and properly pigmented an unfussy, unfuzzy pink. I’m trying to think about lipstick, instead of the email; I tested too many lipsticks this morning, because I didn’t want to sit down and do this. I am – and I hate admitting it here – scared.

I’m scared of writing this email. I’m scared of what I’m about to do. I’m scared of asking for help. 

I’m a month into my positive thinking challenge, and it has made many things better, and it has made one thing much clearer: I can’t do this alone. I can’t do this without some help. This stuff is too much for one person to carry alone. I don’t want to burden my friends or family; it isn’t fair to tip all this onto the Tall Man, who has problems of his own. 

We’ve had an up-and-down week in the hospital, for complicated reasons that looked bad, and now look OK as I type this, and might look better or worse again by the time you read it. It seems OK now, but it’s been a tricky time, and I have been spiralling a bit into a familiar darkness: the whole kit and caboodle of mental health chaos that I know I need to stop in its tracks. 

I know the thoughts I’m having are illogical. I know they don’t make sense. Nonetheless, I am finding it very hard to shut them up. There is barely a member of staff at the rehab unit on whom I haven’t cried, and barely a doctor I haven’t collared in the corridor to demand reassurance and explanation in excruciating detail. There is not a park in the next mile and a half in which I haven’t had a panic attack. I’ve spent a small fortune on taxis, because I suddenly panic that I need to be at the hospital right now. I keep noticing I have forgotten to eat, or worse, drink water, for hours and days.

The Tall Man is worried about me. He knows, as I do, that none of this is as bad as it gets; that these things are the early warning system for my mad brain to run riot. This is where, usually, he would take care of me. And now I’m on my own, and frightened, and I need to stop this. I thought I could do it with positive thinking, but, as it turned out, thinking positive was just the tip of the iceberg: the positive thinking challenge showed me how often the tap is cold, and how cold the tap could be. I just can’t turn it off as fast as I’d like.

And so, I need some help. I’ve tried Googling for therapists, but there are thousands of results, and it’s utterly overwhelming. I burst into tears, and shut the laptop quick. Word to the wise: if you find yourself crying because there are “too many therapists” and “you’re never going to be able to sort this out”, you probably need a therapist. 

“I wish I could help you,” the Tall Man says, concerned. “If you think of anything I can do, tell me. Tell me!” 

“Actually,” I tell him, slowly, “There is something you could do.”

It takes him approximately five minutes to find the perfect therapist. He gives me her details, and dispatches me to the cafe. I open up the email inbox, and shut it again. Go off, and look at books, or ready meals, or rose-pink lipsticks. Anything so as not to have to ask this stranger to consider helping me out.

Slowly – ever so slowly, and painfully – I type a message I’m OK with, to the potential therapist. And then I hit send. 

Half an hour before I’m due to go back up to the ward, I walk back to the cafe, and open my laptop again. The blank email stares at me accusingly. 

I have had therapy before, but always the kind of therapy that almost presented itself to me as a fait accompli: my GP, or an A&E doctor, or John’s keyworker, telling me who was going to call me and when. This feels different: self-indulgent, almost. This feels – yes – selfish. 

And then, suddenly, I remember that this is how I felt the first time I went swimming again. Selfish – and then, liberated. Free. Happy. I take my notebook, and I make a plan, with rewards:

1. Email the therapist, and you can wear your new lipstick.

2. Finish your work, and you and the Tall Man can go out for toasties.

3. Don’t have a panic attack while you’re seeing the Tall Man, and you can go swimming. 

4. Go swimming, and eat a fish pie, and get an early night. 

This seems like a good plan, and I’m so tired… 

“I’m so tired,” I write in the message box. “I think I need your help.” I delete that one, but at least I’ve broken the blank stare of the empty space.

Slowly – ever so slowly, and painfully – I type a message I’m OK with, to the potential therapist. And then I hit send. 

I apply a new coat of lipstick, because I said I would, and slip on my jacket to go back up and see the Tall Man.

And as I’m walking up the stairs, I feel a little better: a little braver, a little less lost. I have asked someone to help me. And maybe they will say yes. 



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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