And then there were the wigs: exercises in risk-taking, rejections of my boring and shame-consumed past self.
“Can I see the blonde one? With bangs?”
It had been a month since I left the mental hospital. I was standing at the check-out counter in Ricky’s with an armful of sugar soap, staring at the rows of wigs high over the cashier’s head.
It wasn’t a good wig, but that didn’t matter. I took it home, put it on in front of the bathroom mirror, and started chuckling. The wig was a departure from my long brown hair, but it didn’t feel as alien as I had expected. I surprised myself later that week when I wore it to dinner with friends, paired with a fringed flapper dress.
“You look totally different!” My friend gasped with glee, reaching out and touching the synthetic, itchy hair.
I’m usually a T-shirt and jeans kind of girl. I feel most comfortable and most like myself when I’m hanging out in ripped denim and comfy cardigan sweaters. I’ve had the same haircut for ten years. When I’m feeling brave, I dab on berry lip stain.
But after I was hospitalized, I started wearing wigs regularly: Louise Brooks bobs, electric blue corkscrews, and long, crimson waves. I vaulted out of my comfort zone and dressed like Lady Gaga, Betty Draper, and Bettie Page—sometimes all three at once. I wore latex bodysuits, sequined jackets, ruffled skirts, wiggle dresses, and platform shoes encrusted with metallic studs. I had already been institutionalized, so wearing flashy clothes, which I had always secretly wanted to do, didn’t feel like too much of a risk anymore. After a lifetime of trying to fit in and avoid making mistakes, I finally felt like I could fuck up and survive.
My then-boyfriend, now-husband’s boss commented one night, “Trish is so interesting!” This was when I cooked a Sicilian dinner of spaghetti puttanesca for him and his wife while wearing a long, black wig with butterscotch highlights.
How easy it was to become interesting just by donning some fake hair. I went from sick, boring, invisible Trish who wore sweaters every day to something much more glamorous. Even though it was a costume, it didn’t feel like one—like when you dress up for Halloween as a witch or a slutty fire hydrant and feel more seen, more real than in your everyday existence. For a few glorious months, I made Halloween every day. I got to choose who I wanted to be, as opposed to cramming myself into the stifling versions of myself I’d performed for so long while trying to keep my tenuous grip on my mental health.
In graduate school, I worked as an administrative assistant in a psychology office while I was slogging through a deep depression. None of the mental health professionals I worked with sensed I was in danger, so brilliant was my pantomime of a functioning girl. I was triumphant but also distraught. If an office full of psychologists couldn’t tell—for an entire year—that they were working with a barely functioning person, who was going to see that I needed help?
Fashion and makeup can conceal brokenness. We can spackle a fragmented psyche with Nars, draw a smile on with YSL Rouge Eclat, fake some sparkle with Bobbi Brown bronzer. We can dress up a hurting body in a new blouse and Frye boots and make it look strong and confident. I was used to thinking about fashion this way, as a costume to mask decay, as a performance, as aspirational.
Growing up, I was surrounded by images of beautiful but disturbed women. They stared at me from large, glossy coffee table tomes strewn all over our house, were constantly performing passionate soliloquies in black and white on the Turner Classic Movies channel. There was wide-eyed Natalie Wood, crying; Vivien Leigh stomping across Gone with the Wind; and who could forget Veronica Lake, beautifully shot by George Hurrell, her peek-a-boo bang framing her face just so?
“She had a very troubled life,” Mom would say admiringly about any number of Golden Age movie stars. “But you’d never guess it! God, look at how tiny her waist is!”
None of the mental health professionals I worked with sensed I was in danger, so brilliant was my pantomime of a functioning girl.
From these classic film actresses and from the women in my family, I learned there was power in passing, currency in appearances of strength and performances of health. No matter how messy a situation got, you should never let it show. To look impeccable was to maintain control, I intuited, but it was also to avoid inconveniencing others. It was to acclimate.
“Makeup can fix anything,” my favorite aunt used to say. As a child, I’d sit on the toilet with my knees hugged up to my chin and watch her apply coat after coat of mascara. She had long mahogany hair and bore more than a passing resemblance to Cher. In her closet were at least sixty pairs of high-heel shoes; on her dresser, a postcard of Bette Davis that said, “Old Age Ain’t No Place For Sissies.”
At my wedding, when she was one month away from dying of cancer, she smiled through her pain. Her makeup was meticulous, her pewter dress stunning, her colostomy bag only barely visibly outlined against her thigh. Throughout the night, she would quietly sneak away to be sick in the bathroom, and no one knew.
This was how I was raised to use fashion—as a disguise of normalcy. Going to a mental hospital meant dropping the disguise completely. No more hiding behind a functional facade punctuated by periodic meltdowns. No more white-knuckling it through daily anxiety attacks. No more lying in bed for hours, wracked by morbid obsessions. I had to let the world see that I was drowning, not waving.
When I was admitted to the hospital, I was suffering from severe insomnia, anxiety, obsessive -compulsive disorder, and depression. I hadn’t slept for more than a few hours over the course of weeks and was taking any sedative I could get my hands on in order to find relief. I was unable to make basic choices, fearing that an imperfect action would cause a catastrophe. I was suicidal. My hair and skin were greasy. My nails were ragged, cuticles bloody. I smelled feral. My un-brushed teeth felt furry.
“I’m going to die,” I whispered to my boyfriend as he picked me up and gently put me in the bathtub.
“Do you want me to call your parents? Should we go to the hospital?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m so tired. I don’t know.” These were the only words I could say.
We went to the hospital. Under the fluorescent lights, I was asked whether I had thoughts of harming myself or others. I answered politely, like a talking doll. I felt like a doll, people posing my arm to take blood pressure, cramming a thermometer in my open mouth, directing my body up and down the hallway.
After a twenty-four-hour observation period in which no one observed me, I was discharged with a follow-up appointment scheduled for the next day to assess my improvement. I went to my parents’ house that night, picked listlessly at a home-cooked meal, and tried to rest. All I could do was stare at the canopied ceiling in my pink childhood bedroom and think about death.
“She’s looking much better,” one of the administrators said to my father, smiling, as we walked into the office the following day. A hopeful look crossed his face.
But I wasn’t better. I had slipped on the mask of health and compliance without even realizing. I was ready to tell everyone I was fine.
“You need to cry,” my boyfriend said, noticing my placid face. “If you don’t cry, they won’t help you. I know it’s stupid, but please. Cry. You need to be hospitalized for longer.”
I crept into the office, feeling like an actress performing for her life, like this was my Indiana Jones-esque leap of faith.
“I’m not okay,” I said. And I started to weep.
Back in the psych ward, the next few days were surreal. There was the blood-taking, the endless meetings with doctors, the strange characters who floated in and out of the rec room. There was never complete quiet—the phone ringing from the hallway bank, the sound of paper shuffling, muffled conversations behind doors, shouts about any number of things, mostly banal.
“They won’t let me have Proactiv!”
“I need my eyeliner!”
“I want to shave!”
A mental hospital does not seem like a place to think about fashion and beauty, but we were all obsessed. We would pounce on Vogue or In Style if they turned up, no matter how many seasons old. Maybe because it was easily digestible; maybe because it took the edge off; maybe because we all felt naked.
During one of her visits, my mother gingerly presented me with a new pair of dark denim flares from Abercrombie and Fitch.
“I think you’ll feel better in some real clothes,” she said. At that moment—maybe because I felt vulnerable in the flimsy gown and gray sweatpants the nurse had cut the elastic out of for safety—I understood it was the only way she knew how to cope with mental illness. Admitting she could have done something earlier to help but hadn’t would kill her; it would be years later that she tightly confessed she honestly thought “it would pass.” But she could provide me with gifts that might bring comfort, clothing that would help me look better so that maybe I’d feel better, too.
My mother was trying to gird me in the kind of armor against pain that had worked for her. But armor is a costume, too.
My mother was trying to gird me in the kind of armor against pain that had worked for her. But armor is a costume, too. There are many kinds of armor and many reasons to wear it. There was my Kurt Cobain T-shirt in seventh grade, telling people not to fuck with me. There was my Tiffany tag bracelet in eleventh grade, telling people I could fit right in. In college, I draped myself in my boyfriend’s soccer gear, bragging that a hot guy was fucking me. There was my teacher drag—black blazers over gray dresses, a statement necklace with brightly colored beads—saying I was trendy but also serious.
And then there were the wigs: exercises in risk-taking, rejections of my boring and shame-consumed past self.
“Does this look stupid?” I asked, fussing with the blonde bob. I was getting ready for dinner out in Brooklyn with friends, nervously popping in and out of our tiny bathroom, pulling the wig on and off, straightening the flesh-colored mesh wig cap.
“It looks like a wig?” my boyfriend said, uncertain of how to answer.
It had been two months since I left the hospital. I took the summer off from work, I put my doctoral exams on hold, I moved in with my boyfriend, and I went shopping.
For so long, I was used to the idea of fashion as a Band-Aid, as a way to conceal brokenness. But the day I put on that cheap, blonde bob, I was free—free from hiding my mental illness, free from maddening perfectionistic tendencies, free to take risks, free to have fun.
I don’t wear wigs anymore. I don’t need to. Now, you’ll find me sporting a never-ending rotation of black Madewell T-shirts covered in baby spit. But for a few months, after I left the hospital, it felt like I was being born again. Wearing wigs allowed me to feel seen and to be seen on my own terms.
Trish Grisafi, PhD, is a New York City-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Narratively, Salon, Vice, Self, The Rumpus, Bustle, Ravishly, and elsewhere.