Everyone’s trichotillomania experience is different. In 2013, I moved to South London to start my illustration degree. I was so excited finally to be able to flex my imagination, grow as an artist and individual, and simply be. In the cultural-melting-pot that is London, I knew I could turn up unapologetically. So, I did, invisible armour abandoned. Sadly, two weeks into my first term, I experienced an enormous trauma that completely obliterated my mental health and sense of self. I was diagnosed with PTSD and withdrew from my degree, my friends and what felt like my life for over six months. The stress of being unable to process the trauma alone caused me to engage in extreme amounts of focussed hair-pulling, which made me loathe myself. In a deep depression and exhausted by the weight of my trich, now exacerbated by my trauma, I decided to shave my head to try to regain the cognitive clarity and control I needed to heal.
I didn’t disclose the true reasoning behind my haircut to many people, as I was still internalising many demons and did not have the strength (or capacity) to educate others or explain myself. I let people draw their own conclusions. I was not prepared for the new attention my short hair and I received. Some people praised me for being ‘so cool’ or would tell me how lucky I was to be able to ‘pull it off,’ whereas others scolded me for cutting my hair off and couldn’t fathom why I would choose to do so. Everyone had an opinion, but no one had any idea of the extent to which I had, for years, tried to hide my trichotillomania.
These comments added another layer of pressure to my secrecy. Here in the West, hair loss is stigmatised. It is considered unattractive, a sign of poor health, malnutrition, illness, or full-blown ‘madness.’ It is quickly and cruelly judged, despite there being much more lived nuance than these horribly limited and negative assumptions. It pains me to see hair loss normalised to banter material and/or a punchline as it so often is. Hair loss is a broad spectrum and can be a highly personal, sensitive, and private process to go through. That privacy, however, is snatched away upon entering the public domain if you cannot hide your hair loss—your lack of hair makes you highly visible and open for scrutiny. We live in a world where so much of our individual value and self-worth is tied up in our hair. Hair is a navigational tool we all use to manoeuvre within and through society; it holds undeniable, albeit socially constructed, power. When it comes to hair loss and the individuals living with it, they/we are already at a disadvantage because they/we lack access to this ‘power.’ I hid my trichotillomania for so long because I was paranoid about what other people would think of me and how I would be judged. I became hypersensitive, terrified by the idea of further scrutiny.
The stigma attached to hair loss, and the lack of positive, authentic, honest representation and information about its intersection with mental health, meant that I buried my condition until it nearly broke me. In February of 2019, I shaved my head for a second time when I found myself once again consumed by my trich and searching for mental peace. But this time around I decided to disclose my condition via Instagram during Mental Health Awareness Week in May. This was not an easy or quick decision for me to make; I spent months talking and thinking it through with my therapist, building myself up to sharing my truth. And I am so glad I did: it remains the bravest and most radical thing I have ever done for myself. In doing so, I discovered the gargantuan power of vulnerability, and I haven’t looked back. That being said, I am still a work in progress. My journey with my hair and mental health has been long and is still ongoing but I am no longer hiding or in denial about who I am and where I’m at.
I’m not suggesting everyone living with trich should shave their head and start shouting publicly about their experience—though it might help—I simply want to use some of my story to help demystify this often misunderstood mental health condition.. We all need non-judgemental empathic conversations about hair loss in of all types, especially involving individuals with lived experience. There are so many people out there living with trichotillomania, quietly grappling with their impulses, isolating themselves and living with shame. To all of you, especially those of mixed-race/Black heritage: I see you, I am proud of you, and I implore you to be kind to yourself. You matter – don’t be afraid to take up space. How progressive it would be to live in a society that cared more about what is going on inside someone’s head, than what is growing (or not) on the outside.