I wrote this for Harper’s Bazaar.
Down the street from my cluttered Brooklyn apartment sits a high-end nail salon that helped to save my life. Filled with aspirational pink cushions and soft notes of jasmine, the salon’s manicurists would paint my short, round nails an O.P.I black onyx—or, if it were a cheerier day, a dark purple.
For two years, during 2013 and most of 2014, I was deeply depressed. After experiencing a sexual assault, a breakup, and my parents’ divorce, the structure of my world slowly began to give way. I was held captive by a distinct powerlessness that sucked me into a vortex of dark disappointment; and eventually, the cruelest depression I had ever experienced.
I sought out a psychiatrist and as expected, my blood was soon filled with sex drive-killing antidepressants. Though they helped, I quickly learned that what I really needed at the time, what I actually wanted, was slightly simpler—I wanted someone to take care of me.
It started with the manicurists at my nail salon. I learned that having appointments to show up to (especially those that included a massage while my nails dried) helped to get me out of bed. I dyed my hair an oxblood red that, coincidentally, needed several visits to the hair salon. Gradually, I began to put more effort into my appearance at home: I tried winged eyeliner and I discovered eye cream. Before I knew it I had found a bonafide beauty routine, which, rather than cover up what I was going through (although a YSL red lipstick is a terrific tool for camouflage), became a daily reminder that I was a living, breathing person who was worthy of being considered—worthy of being paid attention to. And apparently, I was onto something.
“Self-care is enormously helpful during depression,” explained Dr. Marlynn Wei, a New York-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist. “Depression often causes isolation and withdrawal from all the things that you normally do to take care of yourself and feelings of low self-worth, so making sure to focus on being kind to yourself to allow yourself to heal is so important during this time,” she continued. “Beauty routines, if done mindfully from a place of self-compassion, can also enhance your mind-body connection.”
In my experience with depression, the enemy is not unwanted thoughts dancing for attention (as with anxiety), or even daggers of self-hatred. What you’re fighting is a nothingness set on sucking your ambition, and in later stages, a will to live. It’s a faceless enemy that fights dirty. For me, the act of self-care was retaliation. It helped me to feel alive. It wasn’t so much about the discovery of night cream—or the lasting power of Kat Von D’s liquid lip liner—it was the “Hey, you! I know you want to die right now, but still you’re beautiful, and worthy of being taken care of.”
Today, in an age where women are shamed for their makeup routines and their want to look beautiful as much as they are for daring to appear disheveled, engaging in vanity was an act of triumph I didn’t know I was capable of. The maintenance required to obtain my red hair and perfectly-manicured hands might not be for everyone (for you it might be long hot showers, a new hairstyle, or wearing high heels again), but somewhere along the way, I began to see glimmers of my old, buried self. What’s more, I wasn’t choosing a beauty routine to please a perspective romantic partner, I was doing it for me.
During this period I moved out of my ex-partner’s apartment and into my own. I dove into writing. And, over manicures, I turned Twitter friendships to new, real-life friendships with fellow writers. Slowly, I got better. Through therapy I dealt with the sexual assault and the pains of the breakup, which faded and eventually morphed into a friendship. Now I live with a new partner who is not scared of my occasional depressive proclivities. And at one point, with the support of my doctor, I simply stopped taking my anti-depressants—and nothing happened. I didn’t need them anymore.
When I look back at the person sitting in that Brooklyn nail salon, I hardly recognize her. But I do thank her for teaching me how to properly apply a red lipstick and the value of a night cream. And while I still haven’t learned to do my own nails (I lack the dexterity), I finally found the important person I needed to take care of me: myself.