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The Mental Illness I Can't Talk About

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with a body-focused repetitive behavior, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.

I have always been a firm believer that talking about your mental illnesses reduces stigma, and therefore living with mental health issues is easier to deal with and talk about. I haven’t always been open about my experiences with depression, social anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, but as I grew up I started to open up more about them. I have opened up to my family, friends and partner, and online through social media, talking about how they affect me and how to better help and understand. Talking about it has always been a positive experience for me. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been to keep quiet about it and not tell anyone.

I choose to be open about them because I see them as any other illness, and I believe they should be treated with the same transparency and candor that we talk about physical illness. I believe the only way to do that is by talking about them. It encourages people to be open about their own struggles, it helps people feel less alone, and people are more likely to seek help if they feel they can speak freely about them.

But I have never treated my trichotillomania in the same way.

I feel comfortable letting my partner know when I’m feeling anxious or had a bad day because my depression is acting up, but not when I stayed up past midnight because I couldn’t stop pulling my hair out.

I feel comfortable telling someone I couldn’t get much work done because my depression saps all my concentration, but not if it was due to me spending more time pulling my hair out at my desk than doing my actual work.

I feel comfortable acknowledging the physical symptoms that depression and anxiety can have on me sometimes: sweaty palms, trembling, eye bags from no sleep, unkempt appearance. But I desperately try to hide the thinning hair that is a result of trichotillomania, the uncontrollable compulsion to pull ones hair out.

It’s not a secret; people have caught me red-handed pulling my hair out, and still I have vehemently denied doing it. It is something I have been so ashamed of that I have only told two people in my whole life about it. I haven’t even told my therapist (or any therapist) about it. I didn’t tell my partner about it until we had been together for over a year. The other person I told was my older sister, and even then I rarely, if ever, bring it up with either of them because it’s so uncomfortable for me to talk about.

Yet it is a condition I have had since primary school, and can completely take over my life at times. It becomes uncontrollable to the point where I have had to put band-aids over my fingers to stop myself from pulling. There were months were I would avoid ever having my hair down to hide the thinning hair. I would go through stages where I would completely stop pulling, and other times it would be hours every day spent plucking and pulling until my arms hurt.

Trichotillomania is not well-known or understood, but there are many of us… more than people realize. It is a lonely illness to have, and many people never tell anyone about it. People misunderstand and think we can choose to stop pulling, but the compulsion to pull is overwhelming. If there was more information out there about trichotillomania, maybe I — and many other people living with it — would feel more comfortable talking about it and seeking help.

I hope, by writing this, people will know they aren’t alone and don’t need to be ashamed. It’s not something we can control, but we can find ways to support each other and make it easier to deal with. I am slowly trying to bring myself to be more open about it in my real life, and I hope, in time, it’s as openly talked about as other mental health issues.

Photo by Aricka Lewis on Unsplash

Originally published: September 20, 2018
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