As I rode in the ambulance from the Mass General emergency room to McLean, watching out the back window Cambridge, Somerville, and eventually Belmont pass by, I thought about how I needed to wash my face. It was about six in the morning according to the EMT, meaning I had been wearing the same makeup for about twenty-one hours. My mascara had clumped to such a degree that my eyelashes were now only three large lashes above each bloodshot eye. I felt two zits welling underneath grimy, dry skin. I spent the majority of my thirty minute ambulance ride not thinking about where I was headed or what had led me here, but rather thinking about how long I had been wearing my contacts and makeup. Maybe I was distracting myself from big, scary thoughts—something I usually did well, until I didn’t, hence the trip to the emergency room the previous night.
When you’re admitted to a mental hospital, you leave all illusions and fronts at the door. You forfeit secrecy along with your “sharps,” i.e. items with which you could potentially harm yourself. There’s no room for façades. When a mental health specialist or a nurse asks, “How are you?” You’re not obligated to say, “Good, how are you?” You can say, “Well, pretty shitty actually.” Lying about how you’re doing will prevent you from receiving the help you need. Dishonesty will get you nowhere.
Makeup, among many other things, had been one of my fronts. It was harder to tell from the outside that I was suffering when I looked put together. If I looked fine on the outside, then I couldn’t possibly hold a shitstorm of emotions on the inside. Depressed people look like messes, right? Sweatpants, unbrushed hair—definitely no makeup. Depression often does affect people’s effort in their appearance, but if anything, I put more effort into mine.
I’ve loved makeup since I was a little girl. As a child I’d sneak into my parents’ bathroom and pillage my mom’s makeup door, using my tiny fingers to rub mauve Clinique blush onto my cheeks. When I was thirteen my mom let me pick out my first eyeshadow from MAC. Being thirteen, I chose “Aquadisiac,” a shimmery, impractical turquoise. Through high school I watched thousands of YouTube tutorials, cultivating my passion and skill for makeup. But when does makeup stop being a creative outlet and become simply a crutch?
As a teenager, insecurity racked me like a shawl I couldn’t take off. In high school, I would wake up at 5:15 (forty-five minutes earlier than I needed to) to apply a full face of makeup. Struggling to keep my eyes open, I’d apply foundation, concealer, blush, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, brow powder, and lipstick. I certainly didn’t enjoy losing an extra forty-five minutes of sleep, but god forbid my classmates saw me barefaced.
During the past three years in college my self esteem had somewhat improved, but feelings of worthlessness followed me from my native Arizona to Boston. Emerson is a more accepting, less vain environment than my private high school was. Yet I still struggled with low self-esteem, especially when I wasn’t wearing makeup or I hadn’t done my hair.
When I looked someone in the face while not wearing makeup, I was hyper aware of my face. Did they notice the hormonal breakouts on my chin, the dark purple semi-circles permanently under my eyes no matter how well rested I was? Then I would feel guilty for focusing on myself and not paying attention to what the other person is saying, which in effect made me feel worse.
The first few days at McLean, I had to get used to my naked face. Obviously, I hadn’t worn makeup all the time, like when I worked out or when I went to bed. But not wearing makeup around other people was new territory. I had to get used to what I saw in the mirror. I looked so young, so plain. I suppose I could have had my mom bring me some of my makeup, but that seemed superfluous. No one there cared about my undereye circles or uneven complexion, they had their own shit to deal with.
I was the base model version of myself—no smoke and mirrors. I wasn’t Megan the student, Megan the partier, Megan the server, I was just Megan—depressed, anxious, scared Megan.
Over the course of ten days, I adjusted to not wearing makeup. I could eventually look people in the eyes and not even think about what my face looked like. Plus, since I didn’t do my makeup or hair getting ready took me less than ten minutes. The breakouts from my overnight stay in the emergency room faded, and my skin looked better than it had in ages.
This isn’t to say that ten days without wearing makeup resolved my insecurities. Ten days won’t do that. I wore makeup my first day back to classes, and have worn makeup most days since being home. But I’m more conscious about why I do it. Do I actually want to wear makeup today, or do I just feel like I have to? I still struggle with coming up with an answer. But I’m working on it.
Illustration by Becca Chairin.