Clinique Crayola Chubby Stick in Wild Strawberry

"I think the only way to survive this – if we can survive it – is through hard work, and a willingness to look for, and actively seek out joy." Life is challenging on a personal and global scale, but now, more than ever we need to focus on the things that bring us comfort says Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

A woman in a maroon tunic has my boyfriend's feet in her lap. 

They are both panting. 

I am in the corner, colouring in a picture of a turtle on the iPad. I have never been much of a one for colouring in, but something about the tap-tap nature of this app is unbelievably soothing. 

"And...up!" says the woman in the maroon tunic.

"Christ alive," says my boyfriend. 

I colour the turtle's feet a deep, thoughtful purple. 

'One more!' she says. 

"Good grief," says my boyfriend. 

I colour each of the turtle's toenails a vivid pink. Who knew turtles had toenails? 

When the Tall Man was first ill, so many people gave me colouring books. I bought a pack of bright pens, and gave it a go. I did not get it. I did not get it at all. Why not just draw something yourself? How could colouring in count as being creative?

The answer, of course, is when you're too tired to draw something yourself. I did not know this; I have never been this tired before in all my life. And so, here I am: carefully choosing a shade of palest sky blue from the spinning palette on the side of the screen, and tapping "fill" on an intricate mandala on the back of a digital turtle. It's very soothing. 

I have come to this colouring in in a roundabout method, through a game I downloaded for the Tall Man. It's a brain training game, and a rather good one: it isn't patronising, it isn't boring, and it keeps track of your progress in a pleasing graphic chart. And it has this colouring feature, which – the Tall Man refusing to get involved – I have claimed as my own. I feel that the Tall Man has enough going on without me making him do colouring in. 

He has a tough, long road ahead of him if he wants to get well: he has to learn again to speak clearly, to walk independently, even to stand up. He has to learn all the things we take for granted; he has to learn to find the right words, to find the right letters, to find the right numbers. He has to learn to put the world back in order again. It is, of course, extraordinary news that we're starting to think about the Tall Man getting well. He's been doing brilliantly, and they might – they might! – have found out what's wrong with him. Better yet, they might have found a treatment that works.

The thing about this, though, is that diagnosis and medical treatment form only one part of the puzzle. You think of hospitals as the domains of doctors, but it's not exactly true: doctors are one cog in a vast and brilliant machine. 

The doctors are looking for the medical element: the diagnosis, and correct treatment for that diagnosis. This isn't to say they don't care – I have been staggered all over again by how deeply all the many doctors here care for him and for us – but simply that it's in the nature of hospitals to invoke dozens, if not hundreds, of people for each complex case. 

There's the nurses, and then there's the student nurses. The healthcare assistants, and the housekeeper, and the man who cleans the bedrooms and the lady who cleans the bathrooms. The security guards and the porters and the paramedics. The ambulance drivers. And then there's the therapists, the people who are building the Tall Man back up again, giving him back speech and movement and mind: speech and language therapists, massage therapists, occupational therapists, psychotherapists, art therapists, and the physiotherapists in their maroon tunics. 

 I think the only way to survive this – if we can survive it – is through hard work, and a willingness to listen, and a willingness to try, and a willingness to be a small cog in a large machine, and a willingness to look for, and actively seek out – yes – joy

Hospitals are collaborative efforts, and the NHS in particular depends on the collaboration, support, extraordinary goodwill and dedication of all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. 

The physiotherapist stretches the Tall Man's feet out until they touch the floor. "Let's shuffle," she tells him, and he shakes his head dismissively. 

"Never going to happen."

"Yes, it is."


She laughs, and she and her colleague manouevre John into a position where he might – if it were possible – be able to move himself: to lift himself a little way off the bed, and shift under his own steam. I look up from my colouring, and hold my breath. 

"Not happening," he tells them. The physio shakes her head, and for a moment nothing happens. And then, impossibly: the Tall Man moves himself. Just a fraction. Not much. Nothing you'd even notice, if you weren't in here. But we are in here, and he's been in bed for six weeks, and today, he managed to move. All by himself. The physios and I spontaneously burst into applause. 

I feel like I might cry. 

This tiny movement is the cumulation of all this hard work, by so many people. The exercises I have been making him do, daily, against his protests. The daily – sometimes twice daily! – visits from the physiotherapists. The nurses, who try to make him do as much as possible for himself. The doctors, who have tried so hard to find out what's going on, and how to fix it. And the Tall Man himself, who has put in more effort to this than I knew he was capable of: who every single day, despite unbearable fatigue, carries out the things he knows might get him well. 

He is trying so hard, in fact, that he even concedes on the art therapy thing. 

"You must have SOME feelings about this," I say, and he shrugs. 

"I'm pissed off. Wouldn't you be?" 

There's no real answer to that: of course I would be. Anyone would be. But, nonetheless, I persuade him to see the art therapist. 

I have never met an art therapist before, and I am pleased to report she is exactly as I'd hope one would be – regulation black poloneck, bag full of crayons and paint. And what she tells John is something that sticks with me: that art therapy is not about what you do, but about doing something. About doing anything at all.

That it's about making a space for yourself, and a space to express yourself, and a space to experiment. That it's closer, really, to play therapy than "art" as we know it. That it's about making a space for playfulness, and silliness, and creativity, in order to better cope with the world around you. 

And I think about this a lot – and the patient way, too, she listens to the Tall Man talk – as I slip outside, and sit in the courtyard, and swatch colours on the back of my hand. I have ordered, off the back of this conversation, a new set of lipsticks, mostly because they make me laugh: Crayola have done a collaboration with Clinique.

This is, in many ways, my dream lipstick: easy to apply, deeply moisturising, properly wearable. The shades are lovely, and something about the kitschy playfulness of the Crayola logo on the reliable Clinique Chubby Stick really appeals to me. I can only hope that this is just the beginning: I want a Granny Smith Apple green, an Outer Space blue, a richly pigmented Jazzberry Jam purple. But this is a fabulous start. 

I pick Wild Strawberry – one of the more matte colours in the set – and sweep it on. Upstairs, the Tall Man is finishing up with the art therapist, and soon we'll go through his speech exercises for the day. He's tired, and so am I – I'm colouring in, remember? That's how tired I am –  but we'll do it all the same. What else can we do? It's about doing something, rather than nothing, no matter how small. It's about doing whatever you can do, even if that's just picking colours from a pre-selected digital palette, or ordering a new and frivolous lipstick, or conceding to see a therapist even while you're sceptical of the results. Ten minutes of speech therapy. Ten minutes of listening to someone who needs you to listen. Ten minutes of trying. 

And there will be results. They might not look much to other people, but you'll know, and the people around you will know, that they are everything: a word said more clearly than yesterday, a few centimetres moved independently after six weeks of stillness, a moment of calm.  

The world is terrifying, right now, on our tiny level, and on a global, political level too. I don't feel qualified to talk about the global politics, but I do, maybe, want to tell you this:  

I saw a video, this morning, of a group of activists throwing a "Queer Dance Party" outside Mike Pence's home. It was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever seen: hundreds of people asserting their right not only to be, but to be joyful. Not only their right to exist, but their right to exist vibrantly and vigorously and to the best of their ability. And they held signs as they danced, and the signs must have taken hours to make, and the protest must have taken weeks to organise, and the end result of this hard work and collaboration was all this exuberance and resilience and resistance. 

"What is the point of this," tweeted some egg, furiously, and the person who uploaded the video shot back at once, a single word: "Joy." 

Listen: I don't know how we're going to get through this. Not the little, me-and-the-Tall-Man level, and especially not the global political level. I don't know, but I am willing to hazard a guess: I think the only way to survive this – if we can survive it – is through hard work, and a willingness to listen, and a willingness to try, and a willingness to be a small cog in a large machine, and a willingness to look for, and actively seek out – yes – joy.



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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