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Painting Through Change and Coping Through Color

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Hair was always a way for me to escape. I started cutting my dolls’ hair when I was four years old, then moved on to myself and my sister. Since I was 13, I’ve used hair as self expression. Coloring and cutting was both creative and a way to escape my thoughts and make me feel like a different person. I didn’t realize the big impact hair had on my life or its relation to my mental health until years later. 

When I was 19, I was diagnosed bipolar. At the time, I was in college studying journalism. However, I was majorly depressed, having psychotic episodes and losing interest in school.

As someone who is bipolar, I always felt different. I had extreme anxiety and was always trying to find ways to escape myself.  For a while, I resorted to alcohol, drugs and shitty relationships. However, after going to rehab, spending time in the psych ward and doing an outpatient program, I finally got myself on the right track. At 22, I felt stable enough with my medication, so I decided it finally was time to go to hair school.  

Being a hairstylist definitely wasn’t easy for me at first. My social anxiety made me so nervous every time I got a new client.

I hated being double booked, especially without an assistant. I felt I was being rushed and pushed into this little box where I couldn’t be creative or be myself. I quit and, honestly, I didn’t know if I wanted to do hair anymore. I didn’t feel like there was a place for me in the industry. I didn’t like my current options and needed to create my own vision. 

This was two years out of hair school, just me and a vision for something better. I remembered where I came from, the fact that I used hair to make myself feel better, to feel different or just express myself as a person.  I saw creative color becoming a trend and decided that’s what I was going to create a business on.

I stayed home for the next couple months doing doll heads every day, trying new patterns and colors and posting them to Instagram. My goal was to create a clientele based on super individualized colors. I wanted everyone to feel they got their own unique look when they came to me and, most importantly, feel happy and loved when they left.  This is where Hair Painted with Love began.  

For the most part, this hair journey has been amazing. However, living with bipolar disorder also hasn’t made it easy. Some days are better than others. Some days I’m very quiet and others, I’m talking nonstop. Some days I’m so anxious and overwhelmed, I feel I can’t even do it. 

Fortunately, I know I am not alone in this struggle. I have met so many successful people in this industry like me. I want to break the stigma that people with mental illness can’t be successful. We can! I also want people to know they aren’t alone, and so many of us go through these highs and lows of life. 

Our industry is full of the most caring people who, like me, get so caught up in helping others they forget about themselves. As my career has progressed, almost five years of Hair Painted with Love, I am still teaching myself boundaries and how not to overwork myself.

My advice to others who are struggling with mental health or addiction is to talk about it. If it’s bad, seek professional help. The worst thing to do in times of struggle are to isolate and be too ashamed to tell anyone. Mental health is a journey — one that’s going to be constant work. 

Last year, I had to attend my second outpatient program and take four months off work because I had gotten to a place where I didn’t want to live anymore.  I was disappointed in myself because I thought I had gotten better. But, like I said, mental health is a never ending battle. I was worried about losing clients, but honestly, they were all the most supportive people I could ask for.  

I hope if you are struggling or know someone struggling with mental health, you can see hope in my story. I hope if you’re in times of despair, you will reach out and know that, eventually, you will find light at the end of the tunnel.

Rachel Stefanik
Rachel Stefanik
Rachel Stefanik is a San Francisco-based hairstylist who specializes in creative color, blonding and extensions.