Tell me about yourself.
I’m Gabby! I’m a rising junior at Rutgers University in the School of Nursing with a minor in Criminology. Mental illness has always been close to my heart, as I grew up with my uncle who has paranoid schizophrenia. I suffer from trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder characterized by the pulling out of one’s hair – I, personally, pull exclusively from my scalp. Aside from trichotillomania I have anxiety and go through bouts of depression.
What types of reactions are not easy for you to hear?
Many of the difficult reactions I hear are unintentional. For example, when I open up to someone about trichotillomania, it is hard to hear them tell me to “just stop pulling, they’re there for me” or that if they see me pulling they’ll tell me to stop, so that they can help me. Although it is nice to hear people offer to help, it is upsetting that nothing they can offer to do will actually help me overcome this disorder. Another reaction that is hard to hear is when I am out wearing my wig (which I always do) and people are asking me “How do you always have your hair so nicely done?” “How long does it take you to do your hair every day?” “It doesn’t even frizz in the rain?!” Little do they know, I despise my wig, and am utterly ashamed of my real hair, which in some places are simply bald patches.
Early on, why didn’t you share your diagnosis with others?
I didn’t even understand trichotillomania, so I assumed nobody else would either. It turns out, I was pretty much right. Aside from a few select individuals, nobody really seems to understand the disorder, and that I cannot just stop picking my hair – sometimes, I can’t even stop for five minutes if I am in a pulling spree.
What reactions do you appreciate when you share with someone that you live with a mental illness?
The best types of reactions are when someone shares their own experiences with mental illness with me. It is nice to hear about what others have gone through in order to feel less alone. Of course, sometimes I still feel shockingly alone, but it helps to know that I am not. It’s nice when people can reassure my appearance when I am feeling particularly self-conscious, and I am lucky to have friends and family who think that I am beautiful despite my lack of hair. I hope one day I can view myself the way they do – but sometimes, I just feel like they don’t mean what they say and are just trying to make me feel a little better- with trichotillomania, as much as it is about physical appearance, it’s so much more about what is going on inside my head at all times.
What do you feel are some of the misperceptions around mental illness?
A huge misperception is that we are doing this to ourselves, and if we wanted to, we have the power to just stop the actions that come along with mental illness. Another common misperception is that people with mental illness are just being manipulative to get what we want, and that we are needy people who cannot live life in a “normal” fashion. In my opinion, there is no such thing as normal – and we have to work with what we have to create a life that is as easy to live as possible- because sometimes, life seems absolutely unbearable.
Early on, why didn’t you seek help?
For me, trichotillomania started as just picking my split ends, and I did not think this was a mental illness, or anything that warranted attention. I was a young high schooler, and I felt that it was absolutely normal to pick your split ends. In fact, many of the girls I knew would pick their split ends from time to time. I just thought that I was particularly anal about it, but I wasn’t worried because I have always had a fairly obsessive personality.
When did you realize that what you were experiencing wasn’t normal?
After I had picked all of my split ends, and parts of my hair were looking shorter than others, I started to pick at my hair in order to create more and more split ends that I could tear apart. It became so prominent in my life that it started to distract me from my obligations, I was having difficulty focusing in my classes, and my hair was slowly but surely diminishing- that’s when I knew something was wrong – but I did not know the word trichotillomania. I went to a therapist to discuss my anxieties, and I brought up hair pulling and she gave me a name for it and showed me that it was something many people go through, although it is not common knowledge in our society.