At the worst point of my Body Dysmorphic Disorder, my first year at Oxford University, I thought that I was the ugliest person in the world, in fact the ugliest person who had ever existed. I thought the Elephant Man was Helen of Troy compared to me. No ships would be setting sail because of my face. They’d stay in port until they rusted away and were scrapped. I also decided the sun was my “enemy” as if I went out in daylight it would show everyone how ugly I was. Consequently I was rarely seen before 6pm. I was very active at 4am in the morning, when no one was around, and would sprint up and down the empty library practising for the Olympics 100m hurdle.
The BDD had started in my early teens because my father started to say I was ugly. The first time I remember him saying I was ugly was when I was 7 or 8. My mother said, of my cousin Miranda my father’s niece, “Miranda is very plain.” He looked straight at me and said: “well at least she’s only plain.” When I confronted my father about this in family therapy in 2015 he said he had been saying my mother was ugly. But I looked much more like my mother than him, if she was ugly so was I.
Then a disaster happened with my self-esteem when my father left my short black Jamaican mother, when I was 12, to live with a tall blonde blue eyed Swedish woman who looked like a movie star. I had been much closer to my father, who had been my main carer, than my mother who had been out of the house 6 days a week and who I had a very difficult relationship with. I had always prayed that I would never be left alone with my mother. But that was exactly what happened and it was worse than I could possibly have imagined.
After his departure my father started to rubbish my academic achievements saying it was “boring” that I had come top of the class at secondary school. He would also sit around with his white girlfriend taking the piss out of Jamaicans and saying it was important to realise that black people were different as they had a “different pelvis shape.” He began to say that I was out of proportion, that my head was too big and my legs too short. I felt totally rejected. When I got into Oxford University at the age of 16 he said “that’s all very well but why don’t you just grow.” This precipitated a crisis where I became obsessed with having an operation to extend my legs, suitable only for dwarfs, which would have meant I would have been unable to walk for a year and could have had my legs amputated. This was after my father had carted me round various doctors who could make me grow who all I said I was too old to be prescribed growth hormones. This was lucky as many people who were prescribed growth hormones in the 1980s, which had been taken from the pituitary glands of corpses, went on to develop the horrendous and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of Mad Cow Disease.
My mother was incredibly abusive to me after my father left home, telling me quite calmly that she was going to put a contract out on him and that I was “just like him” and wasn’t even her daughter. She called me a “selfish bitch” when I was 13 and asked why I didn’t go and live with my father. I asked him if I could go and live with him but he said no. She kept trying to throw me out of the house, because I was untidy, taking me to a solicitors office to evict me at the age of 15. The solicitor said that I could not be evicted at that age but the threat of being thrown out on the street was ever present. All this influenced the Body Dysmorphic Disorder as, with such a terrible relationship with her, I probably didn’t want to look anything like her. I became obsessed with having multiple operations to change my face as well as my body. Every time I saw my face in the mirror I wanted to scream. I started fantasising about being a different, less ugly person, who could do my dream job working as a television presenter. I began getting lost in a negative fantasy world.
My parents took me to see a psychiatrist at the age of 16 who said it was their fault that I was in that state. Consequently they rarely took me to see him again.
The society I grew up in in the 1980’s also had a profound effect on the Body Dysmorphic Disorder. The ideal of beauty in the UK in the 1980’s was blonde, 5 foot 10 inch Princess Diana, who looked like my step mother but nothing like me. The only “black” mainstream beauty icon that I can remember from the 1980’s was Jennifer Beals who starred in Flashdance and looked practically white. If Rihanna had been around in the 1980’s I don’t think I would have felt so ugly.
Also I grew up in a very Sloaney upper class/upper middle class society in which all the men had fixed tastes in women. They either liked women who were blonde or women who were tall and brunette. I was neither so none of them fancied me. My best friend Susanna was blonde, perfect, with waist length hair. All the Sloane men in Chelsea we were hanging out with fancied her, none of them fancied me. My father didn’t help telling me I “would never be as pretty as Susanna.” When I went inter-railing with Susanna when I was 17 there were hordes of men pursuing her and their only interest in me, with my fluent French, was to work as a free interpreter.
When I was 18 I went abroad to Spain and Bolivia and had a remarkable recovery from the BDD. I travelled around Spain and, unlike in England, a lot of men fancied me and would give me compliments on the street. I felt attractive for the first time. When I asked the psychiatrist whether he thought I would be OK in Bolivia, where I was volunteering to work for Save the Children he said “you’ll be 6,000 miles away from your parents I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.” In Bolivia I was ecstatic, as apart from the fact that I was in beautiful natural surroundings, I was also, for the first time in my life, relatively tall. I was so happy in Bolivia and didn’t want to come back to the UK at all.
The BDD got worse in my first year at Oxford as I was back in Sloanedom where you were only attractive if you were blonde or tall. There were an alarming number of very tall blonde girls at my college in Oxford and my best friend was a 6 foot 1 Dutch Baroness, cousin of the Queen of Holland, whose father had a castle in the Netherlands. Her life was like a movie, her 18th birthday party in Paris, attended by various Royals and celebrities had been heavily featured in French Vogue. I realised I would have to do something very drastic to compete. So became, in my fantasy, an incredibly talented and beautiful member of the British Royal Family, blonde and very tall, who was married to the King of Spain. I was locked in this fantasy world not wanting to speak to people for days on end and obviously this made my dissatisfaction with my real appearance even worse.
In my second year at Oxford the Body Dysmorphic Disorder calmed down. I was no longer mixing exclusively with a crowd of Etonians and Upper class people. I had started to do a lot of acting so was with a more creative crowd. They didn’t have the same prejudices and I felt more attractive. But my confidence was knocked again when I realised I was in love with my old Etonian best friend who said he could not go out with me as my legs were too short. I renewed my efforts to have the operation to extend my legs. But I abandoned the idea after my mother refused to look after me for the year I would have to spend in bed and the doctor said if the operation didn’t work I would have to have my legs amputated.
My mother left the UK for Jamaica when I was 19, leaving me homeless, after writing me curious letter. “You have always been selfish,” she said. “When you were 3 I asked you to bring me a cup of tea and it was cold. You were selfish then and you’ve been selfish ever since, that’s why we don’t get on.” The fact that she’d been out of the house 6 days a week, working or at the hairdresser, didn’t register on her consciousness at all.
A lot of my problems with Body Dysmorphic disorder were because of my mixed ethnicity. I didn’t want to look black, like my mother and was always trying to look more white which I also felt was more acceptable to society. I had dyed my hair red in my late teenage years. My father had had red hair, my mother had black Afro hair this was probably another effort to distance myself from her. I also started saying at Oxford that I was partly Cuban again to distance myself from my black Jamaican roots. I was extremely happy when people would say I “did not look Jamaican” and that I looked Hispanic or Arabic instead.
After my old Etonian best friend said I was too fat in my early 20s I started doing high impact cardio Step Aerobic workouts at the gym. I had another disappointment with a man I fancied who only liked tall girls but was just getting used to my height. The aerobics made me feel better about my body and I had my first proper boyfriend, one I actually had sex with, when I was almost 24.
As I was then presented with a series of men who fancied me, the body dysmorphic disorder went into some kind of recovery. I was incredibly pleased when I went to New York at the age of 26 and everyone thought I was Hispanic. But a side effect of not looking black was that white people would make racist comments about black people in front of me, unaware of my heritage.
When I started working in television news at the BBC the Body Dysmorphic Disorder flared up again. I was back in an environment where it was important to be tall and a lot of presenters were blonde. All the news presenters were much taller than me but I started doing showbiz reporting instead. My flat mate, an unemployed actress, suddenly got a leading part in top TV soap Eastenders and her face was plastered on the cover of every TV magazine. I thought I had fallen in love with her as she kept mirroring what I did and said and was devastated when she said she couldn’t date me as I was too short. I started wanting to have all sorts of operations to change my face again. But I settled on a solution I had found at Oxford, I started wearing green contact lenses again and got waist length red hair extensions. This worked. I met now disgraced PR guru Max Clifford and he said “when are we going to see you on TV?”
I continued throughout my late 20s and early thirties with the red hair extensions and green contact lenses, obviously trying to look more white. My step mother helpfully said I looked “like Michael Jackson.” I even had an entire relationship with a Latin American man where I never took out my green contact lenses pretending I had green eyes.
After my cocaine addiction, alcoholism and bulimia spiralled out of control I ended up in residential rehab for a year in 2005. In my second rehab, a hard core outfit on a council estate in South London bristling with ex cons, I developed a very close relationship with the head of the rehab Ama, who was my counsellor. I told her about my battles with BDD and she said I needed to try an experiment to improve it. This was to take out the green contact lenses, ditch my high heels and designer clothes and wear a Ruritanian potato farmer’s shirt and some baggy tracksuit bottoms that belonged to a lesbian. Amazingly, every one who had fancied me when I was dolled up to the nines still fancied me now I looked like a lesbian potato farmer. The BDD was much improved and I started walking around with a positive skip in my step. Also, when I moved back to another rehab near my house in Notting Hill, I found all the addict men, even the very posh ones, thought I was very attractive. I was even eyed up by Russel Brand at a meeting! I started to feel much better about myself and after returning to the green contact lenses in Notting Hill ditched them in favour of my real black eyes. But I still had the hair extensions.
The fact that I was considered to be very attractive by all the men in Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous considerably helped my Body Dysmorphic disorder. I was also in a serious relationship with a blonde blue eyed cockney who thought my black eyes were perfect. My hair extensions were now reddish brown instead of red but I still didn’t want to look black.
This changed when I had a nervous breakdown at the end of 2013 because of a financial crisis and the fact that my ex-boyfriend, who I was still very close to, was having a baby with someone else. I developed severe OCD checking 10 hours a day so bad it made me want to cut my throat. I abandoned the hairdresser and the gym letting my hair go natural instead and not bothering to do my nails. I just didn’t give a shit about what I looked like. I didn’t have to exercise as I got very thin during the nervous breakdown, down to just over a hundred pounds. This changed when I recovered from the nervous breakdown and I returned to the gym.
My high impact cardio workouts at the gym have been absolutely key to my recovery from body dysmorphic disorder. After I came off the pill in 2012 I lost quite a lot of weight and became very slim. When I see my slim athletic body in the mirror at the gym I love what I see and do not feel that I look either too short or out of proportion. My head does not look big at all it is perfectly in keeping with the rest of my body, although my father still thinks it is too big. Although I would have loved to have been taller as then I think I could have pursued my passion of acting, I do not really want to change my body anymore.
After I started writing my blog in May 2015 and had to post multiple pictures of myself online to promote the blog I started to have a wobble with the Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I had had hair extensions but they had been the same length as my hair, really just there for volume. I suddenly decided I needed longer hair extensions for the photographs and that I wanted to go back to the green contact lenses. I didn’t want to look as white as I had before as I started using fake tan to darken my skin, but I still wasn’t letting my hair go back to its natural state. In fact I don’t wear the green contact lenses in the photographs for the blog as my profile pictures for all my social media sites have me with black eyes. But I do wear the green contact lenses and now waist length extensions all the rest of the time. Now my appearance is such an important marketing point for my blog I feel like I am back in television and need to enhance my appearance. I have even had twinges of compulsion to change my face. And in fact I do intend to set up a You Tube channel about addiction and mental health later in the year.
I have recovered from the extremes of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder but I still don’t think I look OK exactly as I am and think that I need enhancement. This is not ideal but then a lot of women dye their hair which makes them look dramatically different. I feel OK with my height, skin colour, age and that is a big improvement. Maybe I’m just a little bit vain now, rather than suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
Next week: My life changing recovery from decades of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder where I thought serial killers who could shrink to the size of a packet of Bird’s Eye peas were going to kill me.