Red Lipstick & Blue Hair: How My Personal Style Helps Me Fight With Mental Illness

Taking mental health one day (and one outfit) at a time.
Publish date:
October 14, 2015
clothes, mental illness, style

I spent my teenage years fully convinced of two mutually exclusive thoughts: that I was crazy and that I was normal. That the vicious sadness that lived in my chest was normal. That the self-hatred, anxiety and crushing depression were symptoms of teenage girlhood rather than a problem bigger than me.

I have danced the psychiatric medication dance. I go to therapy when I can afford it. I have tried acupuncture, life coaching, and energy work here and there throughout the past several years, after my life-changing decision to do something about the self-doubt, the panic attacks, the fear. Once my 22nd birthday rolled around and I realized that, oh, perhaps these weren’t simply the shared thoughts of a generation, I tried everything that I could make happen, financially.

But here’s a secret: for me, much of healing is in the tiny choices I make to simply live. To keep on keeping on, even when that notion is overwhelmingly terrifying. A good book. Making art that means something. A cup of coffee with cream and sugar. My ridiculously adorable cats. My family and my goofball friends.

And, for instance, personal style.

I understand that this may sound silly to some. But to those I say this: whatever works, right?

To pick out an outfit is a small promise to myself to live through the day. Those thrift store flannels, men’s sweaters, combat boots, feminine dresses, the eyebrow piercing and the unicorn hair colors — these are my shield against the days that are hard. The days that I have to convince myself that it is worth getting out of bed. Days that are often more regular than I would like, because the journey to mental health is not a brief one.

I have battled mental illness (specifically, major depression and social anxiety) my whole life. I'm also a lover of fashion: or, rather, personal style as a form of self expression. The ships do not pass in the night, but rather marry. Growing up, I was so cripplingly shy and painfully modest that I only felt (sorta) comfortable in my 6’4 brother's hand-me-downs. The thought of baring a shoulder didn't scandalize me so much as it terrified me. I was afraid of my skin. Of being judged for imperfections that -- even in fifth grade -- I was sure I had. This was followed by a Broadway (oh god, it was CATS, I can't pretend it wasn't) t-shirt and Tripp bondage pants phase. I actually quite vividly remember the day in high school when I wore an outfit that didn't cover shame, but revealed something I wanted to say about myself. Or perhaps just what I wanted to feel: confidence. Confident.

Of course, that outfit included a blue plaid skirt and blue-and-white leg warmers with saddle shoes ...

Thankfully, no photos exist from this time in my life.

My personal style now is a little bit punk rock librarian, a little burlesque tomboy. I pick clothes in the morning (or, okay, in the afternoon) that make me feel like me, or the me I want to be that day. I have a sublime control over my aesthetic that I do not possess over the chemical cacophony of my brain. My ability to shapeshift, to feel or feign confidence, to express myself, to speak while silent, all to combat an invisible illness. To make a little pinky swear with myself that I will return home from this day unharmed by my own hand.

The feel of certain fabrics against my skin. The way opposing patterns create art when paired together. A slash of red lipstick. Pink hair. Blue hair. A half-shaved head. A middle finger raised high to the mental illness that would claim me, if it could.

I am armed with my own aesthetic choices; armor against the cruelty of my own mind. Of course, I’m not totally pure of heart or intention: a compliment on an outfit from a lady friend makes my day. And I love a good selfie.

Somewhere in the depths of my mother’s house exists a school photo from the second grade, in which I rocked a mushroom cut and a vest embroidered with cats. In my sweet little odd-eyed expression you can see pride. It is that little girl I hold in my heart. It is that little girl who still lives in me somewhere, proud to be wearing that cat-patterned vest. Because, to her, it was the truest expression of herself. The honest truth, in tabby print.

( … and let’s be real: if I still had that vest and it were my size? I would rock the hell out of it.) It is for her and me, and no one else. It’s my gift of five to ten minutes of silent concentration to myself. I’m allowed that and I deserve it. If it’s a blouse with cicada print on it, a peter pan-collared dress with poodles, or a men’s overlarge flannel from the thrift store … and these things make it a little easier to get up in the morning, then it’s worth it.