Guest Post: Mental Health and Stigma

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By: PAVITT THATCHER

My friend, PAVITT THATCHER wrote this inspirational piece on mental health & how it affects our lives during #BFRBAwarenessWeek.  Pavitt & I met at the 2014 Trichotillomania Learning Center Conference.

Her story is a beautiful analysis of how the mind works. Thank you, Pavitt for allowing me to share it here!

We all have a story. We all have our own personal journey in life and our own hardships to bear. Positive and negative. The good and the bad. Are you a glass half empty person or a glass half full person? I have to admit that my default thought process is a negative one. I wish it was not like that, but hey ho, I am what I am and but I also know there are things I can do to help that thought process move towards a positive one. Someone once told me that it’s not about ‘changing’ the negative thoughts, or stopping them. It’s about ending on a positive one. So here is my contribution to what has been an amazing BFRB awareness week this year. So many inspirational people are speaking out about a very common disorder that no one wants to talk about. Why is that?
Mental health is a subject matter that a lot of people don’t talk about openly. It may be embarrassing for some, or awkward or difficult for others. You never know how the person you are talking to will respond, will they think I am crazy? a freak?, a psycho? That girl needs help! It’s a hard subject matter to casually just bring up in everyday conversation. For example, how does someone bring it up over a cup of coffee in Starbucks or a meal out with friends? I tried to bring up the subject quite recently with a group of friends. ‘I have trichotillomania, I have trichotillomania, tricho-tillo-what?’ Pause. This is usually followed by, oh you’ll just grow out of it, do you still do it now? I know someone that ‘self harms’, oh that’s strange, or ah yes I used to have ocd when I was young’.
It’s hard for some to imagine that mental health affects a huge cross section of our communities, all over the world. Because these days it’s all about exteriors. The media tells us every day what a person ‘should’ look like, and if you don’t conform you are clearly the odd one out. Glossy magazines, tv, facebook, Instagram, the news and fashion and make up industry all have a part to play. Everyone is busy trying to fit the mould of what is acceptable in everyday society. The perfect hair, clothes, eyebrows, the perfect weight and the perfect accessories to match. So what is really going on behind a person’s exterior? And what does it mean to be an individual? Where do people go when they don’t conform?
I have trichotillomania and I can tell you now that I never conformed. Not by choice, but because of the way I looked. I stood out and was punished for what I did. I didn’t know why I was doing it and I had no answers to give. I remained silent because I couldn’t explain my behaviour to all those around me who were asking me. Worse still, I was so unaware of what I was doing that I only really realised when I was shouted at or hit for having a bald patch. So what room is there in society for people like me? Well, if you are around about my age and have a bfrb, I can pretty much guarantee that you would have suffered alone, in silence and hiding for a very long time, years and years. People like me found a way of existing and coping with everyday life whilst going to school, growing up, having friends, doing exams and going to college/university, and trying to maintain friendships with friends and family as best we could. But people like me would have had to keep a deep, dark, terrible secret. A secret they were too afraid to admit to, a secret that would eat them alive, a secret that would lead them to believe they were the only person on this earth that does this crazy thing. You would probably say to yourself that ‘everything is fine’ and believe that you are really coping well in life and that life isn’t so bad. But the sad truth is, that to be unhappy, depressed, alone, isolated and punished has become your normal state of being. And the fact that life doesn’t have to be like that is a totally unthinkable concept.
Trichotillomania is so much more than a hair pulling compulsion. In fact, for me, it’s a lot less about hair than it is about how I feel about myself. I remember a girl once said ‘at the end of the day, hair
is just dead protein’. She was absolutely right. So what’s the big deal? What does hair signify in today’s society? Femininity, beauty, power, self esteem? What does hair mean to a person with trichotillomania? Frustration, anger, self sabotage, maybe even hatred, perfectionism, control, conflict, a war zone. A war zone that is all over you constantly, a war zone that you cannot get away from no matter how hard you try. And so all you can do is deal with it, live with it, manage it. But this war zone can also be your biggest strength, your biggest lesson and your biggest way of personal growth and emotional intelligence. Because to feel pain means you can also learn strength and happiness. Having a bfrb has taught me never to judge others, to be accepting of others and that you never really know what’s going on with someone behind closed doors. It has taught me to be calm and take a step back. Above all, it has lead me to many wonderful, amazing, beautiful friends. Friends who are individuals in their own right, with their own creative personalities and their own personal journeys.
So, to all those who are still suffering and who are still isolated, there is nothing more powerful than realising that you are not alone, you are not the only one – and yes, there are others that do this and there is actually a name for it! Over time medicine changes, psychiatric illnesses become re-classified, we learn more, the stigma breaks down and people are able to reach out for help and not suffer in silence anymore. The stigma of mental illnesses has changed a lot over the years. But it still exists so deeply in society and in all walks of life. We all know cancer, leukaemia, arthritis. These are known causes that we have heard of. The victims of these illnesses are innocent people. They are victims of circumstance and terrible misfortune. We feel for them, we are there for them, we provide support and care as we absolutely should do. But how do we deal with the mentally ill? Or someone with depression, trichotillomania – snap out of it? You’ll grow out of it? It’s your fault because you are doing to yourself, if you really want to stop you would. And all too often once you describe yourself as having a disorder, your friends leave, your family have had enough, your world is falling apart. Very few provide support and care because they’ve just had enough of you and your ways. They are sick and tired of you, of seeing what you are doing to yourself time and time again. They are bored of the same person who pulls their hair out because it’s just not fun anymore. They are fed up of you just not stopping. This is the harsh reality. Life with addictions isn’t clear cut, it affects everything and you cannot separate things out, lines become blurred and before you know it, your entire approach to your whole life is rolled into everything, friends, family, relationships, work – everything has submerged into each other like the titanic and the addiction doesn’t allow you any clarity anymore. You’re a sinking ship and cannot separate these components of life because the addiction has consumed you, taken over, twisted your mind, deceived the reality and friends and family don’t need that in their life. ‘She’s doing to herself so serves her right’. It makes sense to support someone who has a physical ailment because it’s not their fault they got it, but someone who is pulling their own hair out is ‘doing it to themselves’.
And that is why trichotillomania is so much more than just about hair. In fact, it’s hardly about hair at all. And that is why I wrote this article about stigma, because it’s important to break it down. If we support people with a broken leg, we should be supporting people with a broken mind. People with BFRBs are kind, talented, strong and I am proud to be a part of this community. I have learned to love myself and be kind to myself. I like being a non conformist, I like to challenge the world around me. So, next time someone tells you they are struggling with a bfrb illness, what will your response be?