Guest Post: Written By Sophie Blackwell of Pretty & Polished
Since I was 3 years old, I’ve suffered from a mental health disorder called trichotillomania. Living with and coming to terms with a disorder that no-one has any real understanding of is a difficult process, and one which poses challenges every day. It’s an incredibly complex disorder, and presents so many twists and turns when learning about it, which means trying to raise awareness is evermore important. I'm now 21 and still discovering more about the disorder everyday. I’ve managed to find an outlet through writing, and hope that open discussions, like this, about trichotillomania and mental health in general will bring a sense of peace to both sufferers and their friends and family. So what is trichotillomania, how does it effect people and why is it the most common disorder you've never heard of?
Whilst anyone can develop it at any age, the most common age to see it appearing is during teenage years. Many put experiencing the disorder down to a period of extreme stress, change or emotional unbalance, which push sufferers into hair-pulling as a coping mechanism. Mine’s started at an incredibly young age (so young I can’t even remember why I might have started!), but it wasn’t due to any kind of traumatic experience; I had a happy childhood, and no-one has ever really known why I developed it. Sometimes, it just happens, but it’s always worth talking through when you started with someone - sometimes finding the trigger can help you retain control over the disorder.
How Does It Affect People?
This is where the real complexities start to kick in. Like with most illnesses, the experience of the disorder is not universal; each person will have a different story to tell. Common effects of trichotillomania however are the physical baldness (or patchiness), thin/weak hair, shame, guilt, loneliness, self-loathing and hopelessness, to name a few. While the physical effects are difficult to deal with, it is the emotional impact which causes most distress for sufferers. To have impulses which cause you to physically harm yourself (sometimes without you knowing), yet being unable to stop yourself can be a devastating and frightening experience. We don’t want to hurt ourselves, just like a Tourettes sufferer doesn’t want their tick, but it happens anyway - no matter how hard you try to resist. Because of the physical damage done, many sufferers experience bullying if they are of school age, purely due to the fact that they are considered weird or different from their peers. It has been labelled as attention-seeking, disgusting, ugly, abnormal… You name it, we’ve probably heard it. Because of these labels it's difficult to avoid having quite low self-esteem. The emotional maze which trichotillomania creates within a sufferer’s mind can often lead to other mental health disorders such as depression, other forms of self-harm, ‘sister’ disorders like dermotillomania (skin-picking), OCDs or eating disorders.
How Can You Cure It?
Unfortunately, trichotillomania has no cure. There are methods you can adopt to help control the urges, boost self-esteem and come to terms with the disorder, but there is no magic wand that can be waved and get rid of the illness for good. Some success stories have come from different types of therapy; CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), counselling and hypnotherapy are all highly recommended by both sufferers and professionals alike. They try to alter your mental dependence on the hair-pulling, and teach you other methods of coping. Another option is medication. Just like you would be prescribed medicine for depression or anxiety, some pills have been attributed to helping these anxiety-related impulse disorders. While it’s not a long-term solution, temporarily easing your anxiety can aid recovery when taken alongside therapies. Homemade solutions can also help; whether it be wearing gloves to bed, putting Vaseline on your lashes, having a stress toy to keep your mind focused, or making changes to your diet, they're all worth giving a go.
What Can I Do?
Friends and family can also do a lot to help. Be there for them, listen, be open to discussions about the disorder, and most importantly, be patient. It may be extremely difficult if you are a parent watching a child go through this, but getting angry and frustrated will only make things worse. Letting the sufferer know that they are not alone through their struggle and that they always have someone (who won’t judge) to talk to is key. Be supportive. Being open about the disorder, rather than trying to hide it through shame is also so important and can help you come to terms with the disorder, although admittedly it is difficult to do. People will be understanding, just give them a chance! Boosting self-confidence can be achieved cosmetically - I have a huge array of make-up tips on my blog for anyone wanting to know how to cover baldness like a pro! You’re not alone, you’re not ugly, and you can stop.
I hope this goes some way in opening up a discussion about this incredibly common condition, and helping those suffering to feel like they're not alone.
Written by Sophie Blackwell