By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
It’s not unusual for 18-year-old Sarah Pennington, of Upper Pottsgrove, to use makeup to fill in her thinning eyebrows, put on fake eyelashes to replace the ones she doesn’t have or wear wigs to cover the bald patches on her head. Since the age of 11, she has been on a journey of self-acceptance after learning she has the hair-pulling disorder trichotillomania.
Trichotillomania is a compulsive behavior that can include pulling out eyelashes, head hair and basically any hair on the body. The continuous action leads to bald patches. Pennington said she’s not even conscious of doing the action until it’s over.
“I’m not intentionally hurting myself. It’s something that I’ve developed as a way to bring down anxiety or something to do if I’m bored,” she said.
Pennington has always struggled with anxiety, mostly in social situations and with school. In 5th grade, she started plucking out her eyebrows. Her mom researched the behavior and learned it was a disorder that several others had. About two in 50 people engage in the hair-pulling behavior during their lifetime.
“I was lucky because there are so many people who have it and don’t realize they’re not the only person in the world that does this,” Pennington said.
It was quite a journey for Pennington before she was able to be comfortable with herself and her disorder. She started to compete in pageants during 6th grade but quit around the age of 13 when her disorder progressed into pulling out the hair on her head as well as her eyebrows. At the age of 14, she attended her first mental health conference in New Jersey. The conference was through the Trichotillomania Learning Center Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. Body-focused repetitive behaviors include nail biting, picking at skin and of course hair pulling.
“That was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to me at that time,” Pennington said.
She said the conference was overwhelming at first because she was meeting so many people with repetitive mental health behaviors. It surprised her that the older individuals with the behaviors were so comfortable with themselves and okay with being bald from hair pulling.
Last year, Pennington was having a hard time with her trichotillomania as well as with depression and social anxiety. She wasn’t able to focus on her school work because she was always pulling her hair. The depression made it difficult for her to function in other daily tasks. Her therapy didn’t seem to be making a big difference with her mental health so she went to a hospital in Wisconsin to receive residential treatment for three months.
“You don’t normally think that you’re going to go to a psychiatric hospital at one point in your life but the people that I met there surprised me in that they changed my perception of mental illness completely,” Pennington said.
Even though Pennington had a mental health disorder of her own, she was still prejudiced against those with self-harm behaviors. At the psychiatric hospital in Wisconsin, she had a roommate with an eating disorder and realized they had similar issues they both struggled with.
“It kind of hit me that … this is something that could happen to anyone,” she said.
After her stay at the hospital, Pennington became really passionate about mental health awareness and wanted to help others understand what such illnesses were actually all about, beyond the stigmas. She took that passion and started creating videos on YouTube about her journey with trichotillomania. In her first video, she took off her hat and showed the bald patches on her head stating “this is me.” After that courageous moment, Pennington decided to go without her hat at school and said she got a really positive response and a lot of supporters.
“I’m at the point where I can say if I didn’t have trichotillomania, I would be a completely different person and I love who I am right now,” Pennington said.
After gaining more self-confidence, Pennington returned to competing in pageants. Last year, she competed and won in her first pageant since her hiatus from the scholarship program. She is now the reigning Miss Freedom Forge’s Outstanding Teen and her platform is mental health. She’s using her crown to spread the message that it’s okay to be yourself and that you don’t have to be a certain “type” to compete in pageants.
“This is a huge step for not just me but for the mental health community,” Pennington said.
This summer, Pennington went to the White House in Washington D.C. for Hill Day. The day was all about pushing for different bill concerning various mental health issues. While there, Pennington was able to discuss the issues she’s advocating for with Rep. Ryan Costello, R-6th Dist.
“He’s really pushing for mental health bills,” she said.
Pennington is working on getting more insurance companies to cover mental health therapies and providers. She said a lot of the providers are out of network and even the ones that are covered by insurance have a long waiting list. If Pennington’s family insurance hadn’t covered her stay at the psychiatric hospital in Wisconsin then it would have cost $30,000.
Pennington is also helping to spread awareness about mental health through her “Show Your Hero Project.”
“It’s basically an organization that I created to show people that it’s okay to struggle with things and they’re heroes for surviving the many struggles that we go through,” she said.
Pennington said she knows everyone has those days where they don’t want to get out bed because of obstacles in their life and she wants to recognize those that persist to overcome their difficulties. Although the project is mainly focused on mental health, the overall message can apply to anyone. Pennington now has a website for the project with information on mental health and where people can get help.
“It’s such a prevalent topic in today’s society and it’s so important,” she said.
The Show Your Hero Project started last fall when Pennington began bringing care packages to children receiving mental health care locally. She raises money to purchase supplies for the children. Pennington is also continuing to use videos to spread her messages about mental health. She made a 10-minute documentary about what it’s like to live with a mental health illness which was screened at the Pottstown Film Festival this summer.
In addition to film making, Pennington also has a passion for music. Singing was her talent when she competed in the Miss Pennsylvania’s Outstanding Teen pageant in Pittsburgh this past June. This was a huge achievement for her especially since Pennington has struggled with performing in front of others because of her social anxiety.
“Singing is just kind of being free and just letting everything out of me,” she said adding that it’s another way for her to share her story with others.
Whenever Pennington hears music, she starts to create a story in her head. She’s able to combine her passions for music and filmmaking in order to get her message out there in a powerful way. Pennington said sharing her journey with trichotillomania through video has inspired others struggling with their own disorders.
“It’s such a big deal to them but no one talks about it,” she said.
Pennington will continue pursuing filmmaking after she graduates from Pottsgrove High School this year. As a college freshman, she plans to continue to change the stigmas about mental health illnesses by sharing her own story and the story of others.
“I’m breaking the cycle by talking about my disorder and not being afraid to go out in public to say I’m bald but I’m okay with that. I really want to make sure people know that there’s a community out there willing to help them with whatever struggles they’re going through, whether it be a mental health disorder or not,” she said.
To find out more about Sarah Pennington and her journey with trichotillomania, visit her YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/channel/UCCx0UO5Eutz9ydkMrEOZCQA and her Show Your Hero Project website at showyourhero.weebly.com.