How I Pull Myself Together

sliced cake loaf

A dear friend, lets call her B, has just suffered a bereavement. We agree to meet for a coffee and a shared piece of cake (let’s not push the boat out too far) at one of our favourite places. If you have read me before you’ll know that I’m wrestling with a chronic illness which leaves me exhausted and often at times struggling to make the simplest of decisions – for example, jeans or Zara striped pants? Today I’m in the jeans which are clean and a sweater which is un-pilled cashmere, so I’m ahead of the game.

Especially since I’m expecting B, who is the most exquisitely turned out person I know, to be somewhat diminished in appearance, given her trauma. When she walks into the café I barely recognise her, so entirely soigne does she appear. The details: a new haircut (thanks to the inimitable Joel at Nicola Clarke, John Frieda) great hair colour – Nicola Clarke herself, a fabulous new pair of shoes (Celine) and a beautifully crafted Yves Saint Laurent spring coat.

‘Christ’ I say, after we have embraced, ‘I expected you to be looking terrible’. B fixes me with an eyelash curled beam, ‘I decided’ she says, ‘that under the circumstances one has to pull oneself together’. And then we laugh, roll our eyes and say in unison ‘whatever the hell that means’.

I mentioned the last time I wrote, that my grandmother had inspired me to think like B in the face of my debilitating autoimmune disease and ‘not let the side down’. I’m working on it, but I haven’t gone Postal like B. But then as we both agree over our lemon and pistachio cake, her style is to leap in, grab the situation by the scruff of the neck and stare it in the eye until it rolls over. Mine is to poke it with my big toe for a while and stare at it aimlessly before I start to take it seriously.

Bev’s issue is bereavement, mine is illness – it doesn’t really matter what it is – divorce, childcare, job loss, job ennui, horrible boss, horrible partner, depression, disability…the list is endless, what matters is that we feel that we are taking action – any action, no matter how small, to begin to get on top of the problem. Exerting control, no matter how small, over pretty much any part our lives can have a calming, soothing effect – so long as we don’t get crazily obsessive.

Without wishing to come over all Oprah (though actually I can think of few better people to emulate) change does often start with us. I’ll leave the big stuff to others who know what they are talking about. What I’m qualified to talk about is lifestyle, so here in no particular order are my suggestions for ‘pulling yourself together’ on the personal appearance front.

The big chuck
Take everything you wear when you are feeling really down (and by this I mean stuff you may have been ritually turning to for years when you feel rubbish) and THROW IT AWAY. You need new ‘feeling bad kit’. If you keep wearing the same ‘comfort kit’ it’s always going to drag you down with its negative association and connotations. And by the way, your bathrobe is not exempt from ‘the chuck’. It should be at the front of the line, unless you really want to continue to look like a character from a Mike Lee film?

Get a trim
It doesn’t have to be radical but just the idea of a snip around the edges can be liberating and empowering. At my worst, I was doing it myself, but I still felt better afterwards, the jagged fringe notwithstanding.

Dye your damned hair (but only if you need to)
I say this with a grimace as I sit here with a grey stripe running defiantly through my parting. As Nora Ephron once said ‘Hair dye has changed everything, but it almost never gets the credit. It’s the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture (sic). I’m not saying we all want to look as though we are in our twenties and there’s nothing wrong with grey hair, but when you are feeling down, upping your game with some highlights or colour is a really simple way to add some polish. I often do it myself because I can’t stand the lengthy process (

There are few things cheerier and more grounding, during moments of extreme sadness or stress,than cherry red nail polish (thank you Chanel). A war correspondent tells me that painting her toe nails was the only beauty ritual she allowed herself when working in a war zone. And, news flash… doing your own mani/pedi is much easier than you think. If I can do it – you can too. Rules: use cuticle remover and cuticle oil, cut them short and opt for light pink on your nails not burgundy – it doesn’t show the mistakes.

I favour the late great George Michael or Queen Bey. But whoever you like on the music front, put them on, crank it up and dance like a demon for as long as you can (I can only manage a few minutes thanks to my gammy legs, but oxygenating your brain and body once a day like this will help anything and everything). Do this EVERY day for at least two tracks and build up to five or six. Come back to me after a month and tell me that it hasn’t made a difference.

It’s a fact that smells are closely linked to our emotions (and vice versa). Buy a new fragrance, better still buy an old fragrance that reminds you of something (a good time?) or someone (your mum, gran, and old boyfriend – male fragrance is wonderful on females). And wear it religiously. I’ve just rediscovered the original Agent Provocateur which has caused some raised eyebrows. But each to their own.

Learn something… anything…
If you stretch your mind you will feel better, not least because it will distract it from mulling over what is making you feel so terrible. Think iPlayer or Netflix documentaries and audio books.

… Or whatever it is that you really like. Have some. Not too much. But have some for god’s sake. Life is short. Don’t deprive yourself. I do not include alcohol or drugs on this list for obvious reasons.

House plants
I’m an outdoor gardening fiend. But I’ve just discovered the joy of indoor plants. Uplifting and not expensive.

When we are down, finances are the first thing to go. Nominate a finance day. Go through everything. Write lists, make notes, pay bills. Do this monthly. Without financial control all is lost.

Just concealer, eye pencil and blusher if that’s all you can manage. Catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and thinking ‘I look halfway decent’, is an uplift in itself. This from the school of ‘fake it til you make it’ of which I am a PhD graduate.

This is very important because actually readers, it’s not about the tea, it’s about the ritual of the tea. When in doubt, sit down, take a deep breath, reflect and drink your tea…be it PG, Darjeeling or Japanese Twig. A cuppa is after all, the British version of meditation.