I’ll never forget where I was at the exact moment my grandmother died. I was in Fitzrovia, central London, underground, having a chemical peel which was followed by half an hour of red LED light therapy at a clinic called Pfeffer Sal.
I arrived there a little hungover, slightly more anxious than normal and having slept badly. For weeks and weeks, I had been locked in a battle with the facilities department at my office. Having been relocated to a new area of our building and finding myself sat underneath a large, industrial stainless-steel vent which blows intermittently dry scorching air and freezing cut glass cold, I had been forced to engage in a chain of emails about how this situation, which had given me what I can only describe as adult acne, could be resolved.
A red, raw and itchy rash had spread across my chin and lower cheeks. Bumps would rise up underneath my skin, never quite coming to the surface and burning bright red before drying out and falling off. A process of pain, decay and renewal was occurring all over my face on a daily basis. I was tired, frustrated and self-conscious. The everyday battles we fight make their mark, but this one was clear on the most visible part of my person.
Whether we admit it or not, our faces our more than symbolic representations of who we are. They are, to everyone we meet, who we are. Mine no longer felt like me. My bathroom cabinet was burgeoning with expensive talismans: La Roche Posay Effclar Duo, The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid, Mario Badescu’s Acne Cleanser with Glycolic Acid, Rose Hip Oil. I would mix them together, like you do when you are child making ‘potions’ with your mum’s creams in the bathroom. None of my tinctures were able to ward off the angry, boiling redness.
It is much easier to pinpoint when a particular part of your life begins than it is to realise that something is changing and might not quite ever be the same again. Change is rarely instant, it builds up slowly over time calcifying around events beyond your control as well as decisions within it.
‘I think we’ll do a light peel today’ Chloe, the facialist, said to me as I lay down on the bed wrapped in two layers of warm blankets, underground in a room pumped full with air that had been run through a NASA-grade purification system before it reached my nostrils. ‘I’ve never seen your skin like this so the best thing is going to be to try and reset it by taking off the top layers. It might sting a little’. By stripping away my own skin, I hoped, I would be able to start again. I would also be left raw and exposed.
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When not staring down the large looming metal grate above me at work, I had been sitting in a lilac-hued hospital in Croydon. The air there was also too warm, too dry and too claggy. It stuck in my throat, it dried my eyes and it blocked by nose. Entering the CCU (Coronary Care Unit) I’d breathe deeply, trying hard not to choke on it every time I arrived.
Nan didn’t like the air there, either. She wanted to leave, ideally to go home but if that wasn’t possible, as it quickly became apparent it wouldn’t be, wherever she was supposed to go next. Anywhere but there, where the air smelled of nowhere.
In my handbag, I carry a lavender-scented hand sanitizer everywhere with me. I sprayed it onto my palms and began rubbing it in as I sat next to Nan’s elevated hospital bed. Aspirating, because her heart was failing, she grabbed my hand and tried to take in as much of it as she could.
Lying on the bed, having my face massaged by Chloe on the day she died, the importance of the smells we associated with our routines, with ourselves weighed heavy on me. These are the things that make us who we are. Being able to buy products that help us to resurface the face with which we meet people, selecting and wearing scents that make us feel more likely the people we are trying to be, are more than mere vanity.
Tempting as it is to buy into skin-care-as self-care, it feels too much like a shallow marketing tool which is only intended to encourage us to part with our money by making us feel inadequate and white wash over the problematic machinations of the beauty industry. But, the products we buy form the routines that anchor us. They are symbols of what we want to be able to do for ourselves. I once left someone’s house, mid one night stand and having a panic attack, to go home, wash my face and moisturise because I needed to feel rooted, to feel like myself.
Reeking chemical Oxy Pads defined my early teenage years. I would buy them in Boots and scrubbed my face with them, watching with relief and pleasure as grey dirt came off at the end of each day. Discovering Alpha H's Liquid Gold in my early twenties was a seminal moment which coincided with a bad breakup. My stressed, dull, sleep-deprived and tear-stained skin was salved and made new again.
Life, decay and renewal, it’s a continuous process and we must all play our part. In amongst all of that, a routine can be a familiar thing when everything else becomes unfamiliar. Losing someone you love in the generations above in your family is an exposing experience. You grandparents are the layer above your parents, they insulate you from getting older. When they go, you become aware that one day your parents will go and, whether you like it or not, face the prospect that after that it will be you.
You can’t change that, you can’t really stop ageing or erase the lines life will leave on you but, you can shed dead and damaged skin. You can hit reset. You can stimulate growth or, perhaps more accurately, regrowth. And, you can always do something to make yourself feel better.
I left my facial with new skin and faced nearly 30 missed calls from family, all of whom wanted me to know she had gone at 11am. Does that sound vain? Was I silly for taking that time for myself instead of rushing to the hospital as I had every Saturday for the preceding 4 weeks? Initially I felt guilt that I had been doing something completely selfish at the exact moment she left us, but, once the shock of the inevitable passed, it was obviously both a fitting ending and beginning.
**Follow Vicky on Twitter **@Victoria_Spratt@Victoria_Spratt
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.