There is something I have never told anyone outside my immediate family and a very, very small circle of friends. As a matter of fact, as I once heard a little girl say, “I haven’t even told myself.” Or, I hadn’t until not long ago. Turns out, “telling myself,” and then others, was the absolute best decision.
There’s this thing I’ve dealt with nearly my entire life that I thought was just me. I thought I was alone in this, I thought it was a character flaw. I thought I was just a freak, and I used to cry myself to sleep over it, frequently. Good girls don’t have character flaws like this. They control themselves. They get over it. They grow up. I told myself.
And grow up I did. And yet, this thing stayed with me. As a matter of fact, it grew with me. It grew until it had me in a tizzy. It had me on my knees in prayer, it had me staring at myself in the mirror asking hard questions and (don’t laugh,) googling “what is wrong with me?!” Now, I’m not claiming to have been officially diagnosed. I have not sought psychological, professional help (more on that later,) but I know that I have Trichotillomania, because I live with it every day.
What is that?
Trichotillomania (trick-o-till-o-mania) is related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is a disorder that causes people (like myself) to obsessively, compulsively pluck their own hair. According to the inter-webs, it’s “chronic and difficult to treat,” the peak age of onset is 9-13 years of age, it may be triggered by depression or stress, but this is unknown. It is estimated to affect 2-4% of the world’s population, and out of those, 80-90% are women.
When did it start?
The first time I can remember plucking is when I was about four, but my mom tells me I started earlier than that. I became extremely aware of it when I was about seven. Ten and eleven were awful. Periods of stress during my teen years were also traumatic for my hair. I always thought it was just a bad habit, so I tried my best to stop, but I couldn’t.
Why do I do it?
Well, it’s an obsessive compulsion. For me, it’s primarily my eyelashes that take the hit. I used to think stress was my biggest trigger, but I think boredom is an even bigger trigger. Do you ever mindlessly scroll through Facebook or Pinterest when you know you should be sleeping? You just keep scrolling and scrolling, even though your mind is half-asleep. You are in a bit of a trance, and you’re decision-making is dulled. That’s exactly the same state that finds me pulling my eyelashes. We revert to these self-comfort, mind-numbing activities frequently when we’re stressed, so stress is related, but it’s the trance-like boredom that triggers the mania.
And by “mania,” I mean that quite literally. I go on plucking sprees against my better judgement. I often start without realizing it (especially when I was kid,) and then I have irrational thoughts like, “I’ll just get one more, then I’ll be done.” But you know how your brain is in that state. There’s never just one more. You have to put your foot down, or it will go on and on. And I desperately want to put my foot down, but I’m arguing with myself. Like you might say, “Gosh, I have to go to bed. This is ridiculous.” But your body just stays on the couch, flipping through the channels.
I sometimes cry while I’m plucking because, 1. it hurts! 2. I know, deep down, that I’m going to regret this “spree” in the morning, but I can’t bring myself to stop. But the more I pluck, the more sore my eyelashes become, and the more sore they are, the more I feel the urge to remove them. Some folks with Trichotillomania report an irrational notion that certain hairs are “evil” and must be removed because of this. For me, it’s more like, I just don’t like that one and need it gone and think I will feel “all better” once I pluck it. Of course, I don’t. I feel deep remorse and a stronger urge to pluck.
I have spoken to people with O.C.D. who cut themselves in this same way. It is not the result of self-hatred. It is more like scratching an itch, only the itch is in my mind. We simply have a irrational notion that we will feel relief if we cut or, in my case, pluck. And, in a way, that relief is there. Sometimes I even convince myself that it’s a good idea, in this “special case.” That’s why it’s a mental disorder. But I wake up the next morning and look in the mirror and cry, because no woman wants to go to work or to hang out with friends and have no eyelashes. It’s painful to see yourself and think, “I made myself hideous.”
Like I said, I haven’t been “officially” diagnosed, but reading about the disorder has already helped me more than words can say. The most helpful thing I read was that this isn’t a character flaw, but a disorder and I’m not the only one who struggles this way. That may seem overly simplified, but it’s true. It helped me in leaps and bounds. The second-most helpful thing I learned is that triggers are very real. I try to avoid that mind-numbing twilight time when I’m most likely to start plucking. I try not to be alone during this time, because it is embarrassing to pluck in front of people and, if I catch it that early, I am still “in my right mind” enough to take heed.
Another thing that is helpful is keeping my finger nails long because it’s very difficult to pluck anything that tiny with long nails! Simple and almost silly, but very real for me! Also, wearing mascara, as finding the mascara under my nails grosses me out and tips me off that I’ve been plucking. Touching my eyelashes every once in a while, without plucking seems to help. I think about my eyelashes, I acknowledge them physically, and instead of plucking, I think, “Wow, it feels like my eyelashes are getting really long and thick. That’s great. Let’s keep it this way!” And move on.
The other thing that is hugely helpful is refusing to abuse myself for my own self-abuse. I used to get stressed or bored or what-not, start plucking, go on a plucking spree and wind up bawling my eyes out in the middle of the night, thinking about what an embarrassing failure I was. I felt ugly and out of control and deeply ashamed of myself. Now that I know it is a disorder that lots of other people have, I still sometimes pluck, but then I think. “Okay, I wish I hadn’t done that, but it happens sometimes. I’m not going to dwell on it. That will only cause more stress. I am going to move on and put that behind me. Maybe next time I’ll be able to resist.”
Other things you should know:
It helps me give myself some slack when I think about how many other people have Trichotillomania. I mean, I don’t want anyone else to go through what I go through, but seeing them live normal lives helps me live mine. Or their not so normal lives. Many famous people have Trichotillomania, such as actress Megan Fox. She has been treated in-hospital on three occasions and is very open about her disorder. Singers Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry have both “confessed to being trichsters” in interviews. (At least according to the internet…I’m not that great at keeping up with celebrities!)
There is not a defined way of treating Trichotillomania, such as a pill, but because it is thought to be a type of or closely related to OCD, help can be found in various types of therapy and anti-psychotics.
The rest of my story…
After years and years of struggling with Trichotillomania and not even knowing it, I finally made a Google search that changed my life and learned that I am not a freak. At this point, I talked to my sisters and, later, my parents. They all knew I had struggled with plucking as a child, but didn’t realize it was a disorder or that I still struggled with it as much as I did. (Though there were definitely times when the results were very noticeable, more often than not I was hyper-aware of how my eyelashes looked. It wasn’t as noticeable as I thought!)
At this point, my parents talked to me about getting help and, if recommended, medication. As of now, I’ve opted out. After all, this doesn’t really have a negative effect on my health and I am better controlled now than ever. I still pluck, but I don’t freak out when I do, and I think I do it less and less. I have thought about wearing false eyelashes, but I haven’t had a serious bald spot in a long time! For now, I want to do three things:
1. Blog about it and raise some awareness and simply let people know that I’m a perfectly normal person (with trichotillomania.) There is no shame in being diagnosed with a mental disorder, because it has nothing to do with the awesome person you are. My sister is diabetic, my brother has asthma, I have trichotillomania. If anyone has more questions for me, please feel free to leave a comment! If you are a fellow “trichster” who wants to talk, leave me your email address.
2. Donate to Wigs for Kids. Because the hair on my head happens to go untouched by my disorder, I have plenty of it to spare! I have donated my hair several times and, most recently, to Wigs for Kids. I chose them because they donate wigs to kids who experience baldness due to trichotillomania. Yes, I think it’s very sad when children lose their hair due to cancer treatments, but I also find it very sad to think of the shame a little girl feels at pulling her own hair. It is self-inflicted, but also unwanted, and those kids deserve wigs too!
3. Live my life without stopping every five minutes to worry about not having enough eyelashes! Like I said, I have more control now than ever, but I will probably struggle with this for the rest of my life. I might as well make the best of it and learn to live with it, rather than to constantly fight myself about it. Avoiding triggers, helping myself when I can and, when I can’t, not beating myself up about it—these are the things that keep me going. Life’s too short to worry about if my eyelashes are. ;)
“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” Matthew 10:30
What Christians Need to Know about Mental Health by Ann Voskamp
Any and all kind and helpful comments are welcome. I would love to hear from folks who have overcome this or similar struggles!