When a sexual assault tore Jessica Morgan's life apart, she found comfort in the simple act of cleansing her face. She describes how skincare became self-care and the products and rituals that brought her back from the brink
I am often asked how and why I got into beauty journalism, and while I'd love to respond with "I just really love applying lipstick" (which I do) the real reason is much closer to home.
I have struggled with my mental health for most of my life; people thought I was erratic and troubled, when in fact I was depressed. My depression was properly triggered and diagnosed, along with anxiety, when I was sexually assaulted seven years ago at the age of 19. Everything about my life changed that day; any confidence I had was wiped out. I was terrified of leaving my home.
I had read about self-care but so many of the suggestions - light a scented candle, take a gong bath (heaven forbid!) were just not me. When you have anxiety, you can't sit still for long periods and think about nothing because, well, you end up thinking about everything – the world blowing up, the ceiling caving in... When you have depression, carrying out the smallest tasks, such as making a cup of Earl Grey can seem nigh on impossible. There were days when I couldn't get out of bed, let alone brush my teeth. Sometimes 24 hours would pass and I'd realised I'd only eaten an apple.
I wouldn't leave the house to buy a pint of milk but oh boy did moisturising my skin feel great
After I'd spent six weeks on the sofa watching one psychological thriller after the next, a former flatmate stopped by with the Liz Earle Cleanse and Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser and said, "Here, give yourself a facial". She also told me to find a bowl, fill it with boiling hot water, add a few droplets of Lola's Apothecary Sweet Lullaby Soothing Bath and Shower Oil (packed full of soothing essential oils) and hover my face over the hot water with a towel over my head. I felt enveloped in an exotic comfort blanket. And that's when I realised how amazing the simple act of cleaning your face could be.
I did this cleansing ritual twice a day – and still do. Even when I felt small and alone, giving myself this treatment felt like giving myself a giant hug. I now had a purpose. My new routine allowed me to distance myself from the inner monologue that told me I'm wasn't enough. Instead, it told that voice "I can".
SaveI could get out of bed. I could have a hot shower and enjoy it. I could style my hair nicely. I invested in Shea Moisture's Raw Shea Butter Deep Treatment Masque to give my hair a special treat, as well as Cantu Shea Butter for Natural Hair Coconut Curling Cream to put life back into my curls (thank goodness for online shopping).
Over the next few weeks, I started to take back control of a life that had gone haywire. I wouldn't leave the house to buy a pint of milk but, oh boy did massaging Kiehl's Midnight Recovery serum into my face feel great. It made me feel normal. It gave me something to talk about with my friends who were obsessed with beauty. My friend, Yvonne, recommended I used The Ordinary's Alpha Arbutin + HA serum to tackle my pigmentation and dark spots that I was hugely insecure about. I used it religiously twice a day and started to see results after three weeks.
I actually left the house to visit the Deciem store to find out more about these magical serums. The first time I went to the Spitalfields store, I came out with £80 worth of products, ranging from the Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 serum to the AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution and the Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% to the Salicylic Acid 2% Solution . Using these products took me back to the science lab at school, playing around with test tubes and experimenting with chemicals, but this time with my skin. I also began to realise that this "stuff" actually worked. It sparked conversations with friends as well as a new network of fellow beauty obsessives on social media. I felt heard for once and less isolated. I finally found my tribe.
But it wasn't just the emotional effects of my skincare routine that helped. I noticed how much my skin had improved, to the point where I finally felt comfortable leaving the house without any makeup on. My self-esteem was improving. Glossier's 'Skin First, Makeup Second' campaign fueled my belief that I should prioritise my skincare. Deciem's The Ordinary encouraged me to delve into ingredient science; I'd spend hours researching the difference between AHAs and BHAs, UVAs and UVBs. I'd head to Foyles or Daunt Books to buy books by dermatologists. The Skincare Bible by Anjali Mahto is a favourite, as well as Dr Lancer's Younger: A Breakthrough Anti-Aging Method for Radiant Skin . I learned about the power of essential oils, taking notes as I quizzed the sales associates in Neal's Yard. This was an obsession, yes, but with health benefits.
It grounded me again when, during a particularly low episode a few years ago, I went public with my illness. I had had enough of keeping it a secret any longer. I wanted to explain to my friends and family why I had suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth and cancelling plans last minute without explanation. I took to social media to speak out about the struggles I had been facing for all those years. I wanted people to know that no matter how alone you felt in this world that it is OK not to be OK. It's OK to cry and it's OK to reach out to people when you need help. I was honoured to become an ambassador for mental health charity Mind in 2014.
Insomnia, however, was an ongoing issue as it is for many people, but again my love of beauty products was my saviour. As a child, my mother would always heat a wheat bag filled with lavender to help me drift off after a long day, and I was immediately drawn to Cowshed’s Knackered Cow Relaxing Room Fragrance (to my despair, now discontinued) which reminded me of that comforting scent. I would fumigate my bedroom with it and keep sleepless nights at bay. My bedtime ritual is a source of amusement among my friends now. I refuse to stay over with them if I don't have my spray and my lavender-filled eye mask and an hour to wind down. Having the time to decompress properly helped to ease my symptoms and helps me drift off after a stressful day.
It took me two years to get my beauty sleep/wake routine down and my energy up. I now wake up full of energy having slept a full eight hours: I eat porridge for breakfast and head to the steam and sauna room in my local gym. I enjoy the way I feel in the heat despite my inner voice sometimes telling me how fat I look in my swimsuit. As the steam caresses my body and the sound of my breath fills a silent room, I felt calm and at peace. I close my eyes and drown out the occasional grunt from the weights room above and focus on the sound of droplets.
As a Pisces, I have always had a spiritual connection to water. There are plenty of studies highlighting the mental health benefits of water therapy. Many religions have cleansing rituals – the mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath used for cleansing, and baptism as well as holy water in Christianity. In the Middle Ages, cold water was used on 'manic' people to calm them down. I'm not about to dunk my head into a well, but I have turned my bathroom into a bathing shrine where I take 30 to 45-minute showers or hour-long hot baths. I dedicate an hour each morning and night to perform a self-care ritual on myself: shower, steam, cleanse, exfoliate, mask, while listening to my skincare routine playlist on Spotify .
In the last two years, I've discovered immense pleasure in researching ingredients and skincare regimes too. I spend my spare hours reading scientific studies, reviews about the latest product launches and sharing my thoughts with friends. I discovered a beauty community on Instagram to fawn over products and encouraged to create content. At first, I thought it was an expensive hobby as I was spending any spare money I had on skincare products and then rushing home to slather it all over my body. But as added these items to my arsenal, built my #shelfie and experimented with creativity, I found myself feeling less anxious.
I am finally able to enjoy a little pocket of peace to reclaim my narrative. I no longer have that negative voice in my head. I'm not bothered about the way I look, only the way I feel. And I feel happier, I feel powerful and I feel enough. I've realised I don't need anyone else's routine, I have a routine that is unique to me. And if that consists of a 12-step routine that gives Korean's a run for their money then so be it. It's my time to look at myself in the mirror and gas myself up. Sometimes I smile, sometimes I grin and shout "yesssssssss b*tch, you're a queen." I have become my own hype man, and why not? It makes me feel on top of the world.
And even better: I'm ready to share my skincare routine with you and if you have any questions, my DMs are always open!
My top 5 beauty self-care picks
The Vintage Cosmetic Company Baby Bunny Twist Make-Up Band, £5.95
Follow me on Instagram at @jessicanoahmorgan and Twitter at @jnoahmorgan.