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Makeup helps me cope as a disabled person

For Kelley O’Brien, makeup became a therapeutic part of her morning routine after becoming disabled. (Photo: Sylvere Azoulai/Trunk Archive)

At 19, my entire life changed. While working the grill at my campus job, I broke out in a cold sweat and started to get dizzy. Just as I began stepping away, I lost consciousness. Luckily, my boss was standing nearby and was able to grab me before I hit the ground. An ambulance came and carted me to the emergency room. A doctor told me that I was probably dehydrated, gave me fluids, and sent me on my way. The problem is that, less than a week later, I fainted at work again.

This time, the emergency room doctor wrote me a referral for a cardiologist, who ran a half dozen tests on me and diagnosed me with something called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. Known as POTS for short, it is a disorder of the autonomic system that causes an unusually large increase in heart rate when a person stands up. While some difference is normal, when someone has POTS, the increase in heart rate is so large that is can cause dizziness, fainting, brain fog, body pain, weakness, and a number of other symptoms. POTS is often a comorbid condition, meaning that someone has two or more chronic conditions.

After my diagnosis, things in my life began making a lot of sense. I’d experienced vertigo for most of my life, especially when I stood up or was on my feet too long. Once as a teenager, I even fainted for no apparent reason, waking up on the bathroom floor at school. My weekends were often spent lounging around because I was exhausted and achy from the school week.

Not long after my diagnosis, my symptoms began getting worse. I started fainting more often, sometimes more than once on a given day. My fatigue only increased as time went on, leaving me exhausted just waking up in the morning. Blood started pooling in my legs and making it difficult for me to walk across campus to class and, before too long, my joints began to hurt. My short-term memory started getting worse, causing me to forget things if I didn’t write them down. I didn’t go out much before my diagnosis, but did even less after that due to my symptoms.

By my mid-20s, I became chronically ill to the point of disability. I started to use a cane to steady myself when I’d get vertigo and for the fatigue and pain. I’ve since been diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, and my doctor thinks I also have an autoimmune disorder, likely rheumatoid arthritis.

After getting sick, I found solace in my love of makeup and used it as a coping mechanism. I often missed class and could no longer work like everyone else, and fainting spells ruled my life. But with makeup, I could still control how I looked. Control over how I looked became increasingly important to me because of how much control I’d lost in my life after becoming disabled. Maybe I couldn’t exercise without getting severe vertigo and had never-ending doctors appointments, but I could at least look good if I wanted to.

On the days I felt especially lousy, I could swipe on gold eyeshadow and a vibrant lipstick and feel confident that, for as miserable as I felt, at least I wouldn’t look miserable. Makeup became a therapeutic part of my morning routine, something normal compared with the half dozen pills I take each morning or the the way I have to stretch all my limbs before I can even get out of bed so I don’t hurt myself.

With concealer, I could hide the bags under my eyes that showed how little sleep I got. Eyeliner and eyeshadow distracted how puffy and red my eyes got from crying either from pain or frustration. Sometimes my lips became pale due to any number of reasons, and lipstick hid that, while foundation and powder covered up the pimples and red spots I was prone to. My hands often shook as I put on makeup, making liquid eyeliner nearly impossible for me to perfect. Hand cramps from holding an eyeshadow brush or eyeliner stick became common. I made a lot of mistakes I’d have to go back and fix, but that was OK because I learned to work with my disability rather than against it. If my hands were particularly achy that day, I’d hold a makeup brush more loosely and take my time applying it.

Kelly O’Brien’s cosmetics case full of lipsticks. (Photo: Kelley O’Brien)

Makeup hasn’t cured me by any means, but it has boosted my self-esteem and given me more confidence. The confidence boost was extremely helpful because also around this time, I figured out I was a lesbian and began dating women for the first time. When I met new people, I didn’t want them to automatically wonder why I looked like I slept six hours a week or why my skin was so sallow. I didn’t want to be automatically thought of as the sick or disabled girl like I was in every other aspect of my life. I wanted people to get to know me first. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being disabled either — I never have been — it’s just important to me that people see me as more than just my illness and disability, because there is so much more than that.

Wearing makeup and looking put-together most of the time has also come with a few downsides. More than once, I’ve had people believe that I’m lying about being disabled to get attention. Some of them have been people who knew me when I was younger and still healthy. A former friend saw me at a store when I was visiting my hometown and, despite reading Facebook posts about my struggles with POTS, told me I didn’t look like I could be that sick. I once had to reschedule a meeting with a classmate to work on a project because I wasn’t feeling well and, when I saw them in class later that day, they joked that I must be cured simply because I forced myself to attend class nine hours later. I never knew how to respond to comments like that, especially when I first got sick. I would change the subject or pretend I hadn’t heard them.

A strange thing happens whenever I don’t wear makeup. People that know me will often assume that I’m feeling much worse than I actually am. Of course, there are times when I don’t have the energy to put makeup on and do feel pretty bad, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes I just don’t have time to put makeup on before I leave the house, or I just don’t feel like wearing it that day. Whether it is well-meaning or more malicious, comments on my looks are often ableist and make me feel uncomfortable.

I know we live in a society where much of the population has a very black-and-white understanding of disability and that ableism is an innate part of being disabled, but it is still frustrating when people comment on my looks. It really makes me think about my use of makeup some days and whether I should keep using it. I reached the conclusion that, at some point, makeup stopped being a coping mechanism and simply became a part of my identity. Both putting on and wearing makeup on my own terms made me happy.

Sometimes I smile to myself when I catch a glimpse of my reflection, knowing that wearing makeup makes me feel like myself — artsy, creative, and vibrant. Makeup becomes common ground for me with people who also wear and enjoy it. They might not know much about illness and disability and feel uncomfortable talking about it, but complimenting someone’s winged eyeliner is an easy conversation starter.

A lot about my illness and disability is upsetting. However, finding happiness in my daily life by doing something so normal like applying my favorite shade of lipstick, Cheers by ColourPop, can feel healing to an ill or disabled person. That return to normalcy makes me feel alive, like I’m more than just my disability, and maybe other people will see that too. Sure, wearing makeup sometimes comes with experiences with ableism I wouldn’t have if I didn’t wear it, but it still makes me happy. As long as it continues to do so, I’ll keep wearing it and hope that eventually society will learn to adapt to me and other disabled people.

Kelly O’Brien applying her favorite shade of lipstick. (Photo: Kelley O’Brien)

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