There are myriad ways for people to deal with stress and/or anxiety. Some people go for a power run. Some people play the drums. Others might go to the driving range. But a small percentage of people turn those emotions inward and do harmful things to themselves. These actions are referred to as “deliberate self-harm” behaviors, and I am included in that group of people. I have trichotillomania.
Trichotillomania, a type of deliberate self-harm which affects a scant 2 – 4% of the population, is a rare disorder that causes its sufferers, like me, to compulsively pluck their hairs out in extreme excess. We pick at the hair on our heads, arms, and legs, as well as our eyelashes and eyebrows. We often find ourselves with bald spots after a plucking session, though we hardly knew what we were doing because we became so mesmerized and subdued by the plucking. (I have frequently stopped myself after plucking at my leg hair while in the bathtub, to realize that the water was cold and about 2½ hours had elapsed.)
If I recall correctly, I think this affliction began sometime between junior high and high school. However, I can’t pinpoint any one specific event, or even a series of events, that caused me to begin damaging my body in this way. Perhaps the normal grooming of my eyebrows led to my trichotillomania, as I always did find satisfaction in ridding my brow line of perfectly wrong hairs. I also recall removing black hairs from my blond mane since before I was 10 years old. To me, it was thrilling to hunt down and eradicate these black hairs, especially if they were slightly more coarse than my normal hair. I only wish I knew why. My problem didn’t grow too serious until high school when I literally pulled out EVERY SINGLE eyelash I had over the course of a couple stressful days. I had to line the rim of my eyes with black eyeliner in a feeble attempt to look as though there was at least some semblance of lashes. It was awful and ugly, and I’m not only referring to my appearance.
While in counseling, I learned that this problem was not just some quirk of mine, but an actual psychological ailment. It was very helpful to know that there were others like me. There seems to be no real consensus on the main cause, nor what class of disorder this should be considered, though. I desperately tried a variety of ways to cease this behavior. One suggestion for therapy was to buy a Barbie doll from a thrift store and pluck HER hair. I honestly gave this one my best shot, but it wasn’t the same. I think the uniformity of Barbie’s hair eliminated those “special” hairs; the ones that are much darker than the rest, the ones that are much lighter, the more coarse ones, etc. When I pluck my head hairs, there is usually something that draws me to each hair, as I mentioned earlier- I don’t just pluck sporadically. A method to quit plucking my eyelashes was to affix long acrylic nails to my real nails so I couldn’t really use my them to pull out lashes (which I usually do- tweezers are more for legs and eyebrows). I simply destroyed my nails trying to pluck and/or I reverted to tweezers. I was unstoppable. I tried many methods before turning to medication for help. This finally helped abate the all-consuming urge to pluck, but when I’m exceptionally upset or stressed I will still do so.
Through the years, my trichotillomania has also progressed to include dermatillomania- the picking of one’s SKIN. I chew on my cuticles, pick at any skin lesions, and dig at the skin where I’m trying to remove a hair. The dermatillomania is hardly a problem compared to my trichotillomania, however. My lashes are now scarce even if I do manage to let them grow because years of plucking has damaged the hair follicle. My legs are riddled with scars, ranging from small red dots to deeper, pitted, purple marks where I plucked and DUG my tweezers into the skin to grab a hair that was apparently too short to pluck. This disorder leaves its mark in many ways, but physically is only one. It’s embarrassing, extremely time-consuming and sometimes painful.
I’m unsure how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), lists trichotillomania, but it’s otherwise sometimes classified as a type of impulse control disorder, and has also been considered to be an addiction, or an obsessive compulsive disorder. It can be related to any number of psychiatric diagnoses, and can be triggered by various situations and circumstances. The one common factor is that the plucking seems to soothe and give the trichotillomaniac a sense of control and calm. Fortunately, this is one of the more mild deliberate self-harm behaviors when comparing it to the likes of anorexia and deliberate cutting (both extreme types of self-harm).
Aside from all of these terms and diagnostic jargon, I can tell you what the DSM can’t. I can explain to you how embarrassing it is to have literally, absolutely no eyelashes for weeks during your Freshman year of high school, being gawked at by students and teachers alike. I can show you scars from years of picking at the skin surrounding hairs that were audacious enough to resist the first plucking attempt. I can tell you that it’s incredibly frustrating to have your mother and boyfriend confiscate your 5 pairs of tweezers (including a hidden emergency pair). My eyelashes seem to almost tingle, beckoning me to pull them out, and once I start, it’s easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to stop pulling. I can’t resist plucking the hair on my legs once I see them while bathing- I barely need to shave once I’m done plucking. Hair on my head is plucked according to its shade- extremely black hairs are pulled zealously, while the lighter, blonder hairs are left alone.
My trichotillomania is triggered by stress, anxiety, and sometimes depression. Subconsciously, I also think perhaps I pluck because it is sometimes the only thing I feel I can control in a world filled with breathing treatments, dissatisfaction with my body, doctor appointments, limited finances, relentless coughing, etc. In truth, it seems that there is always a reason to pluck.
This is not a public service announcement, but I hope it sparks some thought. It would be so wonderful if everyone knew how to function with daily ups and downs, but I struggle with this. Sometimes pulling and plucking hairs is my coping mechanism, though every hair removed feels like another failure. So until I learn to focus on the issues at hand instead of reverting to the comfortable but harmful ways of trichotillomania, I may be lash-less, scarred, and balding. But I’m patient, for self-worth and self-love regenerate just as quickly as hair regrows.