When We Choose To Stay Silent

It’s no secret that this society doesn’t cater to (or sometimes even accommodate) people with mental illnesses. It is, however, a secret just how much has to be done by some people with mental illnesses to make themselves feel as comfortable as possible (which sometimes, still isn’t comfortable) in their day-to-day lives.

If you’ve read any of my other posts on LetsEraseTheStigma.com, it’s no secret that I suffer from trichotillomania. But, if you’re not familiar with my story or my posts,  trichotillomania is characterized as a Body Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB), but to me it is so much more than that. It influences every single aspect of my life – including my academics.

Some days, I feel more uncomfortable in my skin than other days. Although I wear a wig every day, sometimes it seems less noticeable than other times. When I feel like it is particularly obvious that I’m wearing a wig, or I feel like my real hair may be sticking out in certain places, I get uncomfortable, because I don’t know what kinds of conversations people will try to have about it. Thus, I’ve created a way to feel a little better about it on those days – wearing a backwards hat. I have cute patterned hats, and when worn backwards over my wig, they manage to disguise a lot of what makes me insecure about the wig. Most of my friends have no idea there’s a literal reason why I wear the hats, but there certainly is, and they’ve become a sort of life-vest for me (mainly when it’s cold out though, because wigs are hot enough without a hat over them in the Summer).

As a nursing student, I have a lot of responsibilities throughout the school year, and although I am not proud of much in life, I am proud of my academic success. Usually, the only things about trichotillomania that interfere with my studies is the fact that sometimes I can’t stop pulling my hair during class, thus I miss some of what the professors are saying and when I study I often get distracted by hair pulling. However, one particular day during my sophomore year stands out to me because on that day, trichotillomania made my life a little more difficult than it usually does.

It was a Tuesday night and I was taking an exam in a class where we had a substitute professor instead of our usual one. It was the second exam for the class, and I was wearing a backwards hat (it was one of my more insecure days).  I wore the same hat for the first exam in that class (and many other exams in different classes), and there was no problem, so I didn’t think anything of wearing a hat to Exam 2. After about five minutes of taking the exam, the substitute professor said, in front of the whole class, “take your hat off during the exam.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. If it’s inappropriate to wear a hat in a situation, I just won’t wear one. I understand that sometimes, having on a hat isn’t appropriate. Maybe, having a hat on during the exam wasn’t appropriate either, but since I’d done it before I didn’t think there was going to be an issue. I understand that no one knows WHY I was wearing a hat, and that it must have been customary for that professor to tell students to take hats off during the exam, so it was nothing against me. However, that does not take away the pain I felt when I knew I had to take off the hat while the entire class was looking at me (side note: my wig looks worse than usual after pulling a hat off).

Of course, when she told me to take the hat off, I obliged and finished the test as fast as I could, without really even reading the questions, and got out of there. I called Stefanie (the founder/CEO of Project LETS & also my best friend) crying because the one thing that made me comfortable that day was stripped from me in front of all my peers and none of them had any idea.

I don’t always tell my professors about trichotillomania. Sometimes, I do, depending on how I think they’ll react, but if I think I will get a negative response, I turn away from discussing what I’m going through because I already beat myself up about it enough that I don’t want/need to hear negative responses from others. Additionally, I do acknowledge that I am extremely sensitive about trichotillomania and that no matter how someone responds, I may still feel uncomfortable. However, I actually did discuss trichotillomania with the professor for that class where the substitute made me take my hat off. I know, for a fact, that my professor would have never made me do that, because she knew the hat made me comfortable, it was backwards so it couldn’t encourage cheating (and she let everyone wear hats if they wanted). I know that I could not have ever expected the substitute to know about my disorder, or even let me leave the hat on if it was her rule that no one could wear hats during exams. But, it still upset me. And that’s okay.

I hope that my story about having to take my hat off during an exam is a little spark that can ignite the willpower to help erase the persistent stigma surrounding mental illnesses. The stigma is real, the stigma is crippling, and the stigma can be seen when someone like myself chooses not to discuss their mental illness because it’s just so much easier to stay silent than to discuss it.

We need to cultivate a society where talking about mental illness is a comfortable situation- where you don’t have to worry that every word you say will trigger a negative response, but instead a response of understanding, encouragement, and at least acceptance.

I am learning not to be afraid to use my voice. I am learning to just come forward with my struggles. But, it is hard, especially on the bad days where I feel even more uncomfortable than I usually do. One of my flaws is my silence- my inability and/or unwillingness (depending on the situation) to open up to people about what I’m going through.

If I could give a piece of advice to someone going through a similar struggle, it would be to open up. Use your voice. Tell people what you’re facing. Get yourself the accommodations you need and deserve. I know it’s hard, trust me, I do. It’s a lot easier to give advice than to take it.

When it gets really hard for you, think of what you would tell someone you love if they were going through exactly what you’re going through. Imagine your best friend or your little sibling telling you what they’re dealing with – now imagine what you would say to them. Try to take your own advice. You know what to do, it’s just especially difficult when you’re trying to help yourself. Speak up. Find your voice. Do not hide the way I do underneath my backwards hat. I am working on taking my advice, and that’s the best thing I can do right now – so I am proud of that. Like I said earlier, I’m not proud of much, but as I write this blog post, I am proud that I am getting ready to open up to more people, to vocalize my struggles and to wear hats because I want to – not because I feel I need to. In my opinion, more and more open conversation is the pathway to erasing the stigma.

Gabrielle Hickey is a 20-year-old declared genius (by loved ones) from Long Island, New York. She studies nursing at Rutgers University. Gabby lives with Trichotillomania, and is a pro at: anxiety, existential crises, art therapy, alternative medicine, writing, and helping friends in need.