My Long-Standing Battle With Trichotillomania

Photo: Courtesy of Ash Hodges.
Trichotillomania is a really strange-sounding word. If you didn't know what it is, it might sound like a joke — or like a fake disease from a sci-fi novel. In reality, it describes a disorder that also might sound fake if it doesn't affect you: obsessive hair-pulling. Those who suffer from it feel an insatiable desire to pull out their own hair, often causing large bald patches on their heads or loss of eyebrows and eyelashes. This disorder can affect anyone in any age group, but it’s more commonly diagnosed in women (80 to 90% of sufferers are female, to be exact). Innocuous enough as hair-pulling may seem, the reality of living with trichotillomania can be anxiety- and shame-filled, and sufferers often go to great lengths to hide their habit.

Let me jump back a bit and talk about when I noticed myself pulling out my own hair, long before ever hearing the disorder named. I was 12 years old, sitting in my seventh-grade English class in early fall. I remember the warm Southern sun heating up the classroom and making me sleepy; I don't remember the lecture at all. I was bored. I casually ran my fingers through my (at the time) long, curly hair when suddenly, I felt something strangely rough. I snapped to attention and hunted with my fingers along my scalp, attempting to find what it was. Finally, my fingertips closed in on a single strand that was curlier than the others — rough and thick. I pulled it out at the root and instantly felt a wave of relief. I set the hair on my desk and ran my fingers over it, wondering how long it had been on my head. It must have been growing for months. Worse yet, were there more? My hands went back to my scalp, and thus began a long and unending hunt for the imperfect hairs.

It started slowly. I only pulled in class and, even then, occasionally. But as I got older, and school became more stressful, I began to pull simply for the feeling of relief it gave me. Here was something I could control. There was something imperfect about myself, and all I had to do to fix it was diligently root out these wild, ragged hairs and rip them out. Piles would form beside me as I did homework or sat to read a book. I would scoop them up and flush them down the toilet so my mom wouldn't notice, even then realizing there was something worrisome about this behavior.

It wasn't until years later, in high school, that I truly realized I might have a problem. By this time, I was also pulling out my eyelashes, my eyebrows, even armpit and pubic hair; the thicker and kinkier, the better. I usually wore my hair down, but for a photo shoot before a school dance I put it into two braids. It was in these photos that I first saw it: my bald spot. My scalp was clearly visible, and there was a mess of regrowing hair sprouting from it at awkward lengths; it jutted out just off-center from the top of my head. I couldn't smooth down the frizz, I couldn't cover up the thinness, and I had no idea how long it had been there or who had noticed it. I immediately deleted the photos, took out my braids, and started wearing a beanie to school. I missed the dance.
Photo: Courtesy of Ash Hodges.
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Oddly enough, knowing about the bald spot didn't actually help. The frizzy hairs growing back in were still thick and still screaming to be pulled out. I tried putting a rubber band on my wrist and snapping it when I noticed myself wanting to pull, but the action had become so unconscious that I never caught myself in time. Not to mention that I didn't really want to stop. It felt too good, too satisfying; it was my coping mechanism.

That's when I decided to cut off all my hair.

I started with a chin-length bob. After having hair that was down to my waist it was a huge change, and for a while things got better. But as I got used to the change, my fingers again found themselves rooting through the forest of regrown “wild hairs.” The frizzy bald spot still popped out at me every time I looked in the mirror, to the point that I took to covering my mirror with a towel. So I took it even further; I cut it down to a mohawk only a couple of inches long (my mom said it was "cute." Bless her).

With most of the problem area removed, I again stopped for a while. The bald spot was less noticeable, and I could pull in peace knowing that most of my head was already bald. When I started pulling again, the bald spot ate away at the mohawk until there was a large chunk pulled out on one side. I combed my hair over to that side to hide the unevenness, but I was growing incredibly sick of feeling ashamed of and controlled by my habit. Finally, in an act of desperation, I drunkenly shaved down my hair to the scalp. There was finally no more hair to pull.

Photo: Courtesy of Ash Hodges.
Although I've never shaved it quite that short again, it’s been five years since I've let my hair grow past my ears. However, I recently decided to grow it back out again — at least part of it. I missed my corkscrew curls and having enough hair to do something with. I’m keeping the sides shaved because it suits me, but my hair has been growing like a weed and is starting to spill to the sides. The moment it was long enough to get a good grip on, I started pulling again.

It’s worth mentioning that I have never sought professional help for dealing with my problem. Growing up with what was eventually diagnosed as generalized anxiety meant letting the small personal tics fall by the wayside as I dealt with the reality of living with panic attacks and social anxiety. Though I have my anxiety more under control as an adult, my hair-pulling is still more of an afterthought as I continue to deal with panic and stress in the big city. Maybe I’ll focus on it in the future, but I’m starting to care less and less.

Learning to deal with the stress of an anxiety disorder seems to help me deal with the shame of living with trichotillomania — I just don’t care as much what others think of my bad habit. Everyone around me always seems so focused on moving toward this sort of perfect, Platonic existence. In an ideal world, we’ll all one day drink only hand-pressed juice, get eight full and unbroken hours of sleep, squeeze in that hour at the gym every day at 6 a.m., and manage to do it all while looking good and making friends.

The problem with all that is there’s nothing wrong with being “imperfect.” The secret to truly being perfect is to accept yourself as you are. I sleep far less than I should, I make excuses to skip the gym while finding the time to pick up a greasy breakfast sandwich, and I pull out my hair in large, ugly clumps. But despite all that, my friends and family love me, I work hard and do well at my job, and I’m really, truly happy with my life and myself — bald spots included.
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