To My 14-Year-Old Self Trying to Hide the Effects of Trichotillomania
There’s a quote that says, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” I’ve gone to two TLC Foundation conferences for body-focused repetitive behaviors. I’ve encountered people of all ages with trichotillomania (trich), but what really sticks out to me is seeing the young girls at these conferences. Little girls as young as 7 years old, with no eyebrows or eyelashes, and large bare patches on their scalps. Many of them may not fully understand their disorder. It makes me so happy to see these girls running around and laughing with each other or swimming at the hotel pool.
Seeing these girls makes me want to set an example for them. I want to be for them the kind of person I wish I’d had when I was just starting to pull out my hair. I started pulling when I was 11 years old, but I never had any noticeable hair loss until I was 14. Which is still fairly young, but I was in my freshman year of high school. It’s only been a little over three years since I started losing my hair, but I’ve already made more progress than I ever could have imagined. So I thought I would write a letter to my younger self when I first started losing my hair.
Dear 14-year-old Gessie,
I know it’s really hard right now. You’ve started getting bald spots and it’s getting harder to hide and only getting worse. Mom doesn’t understand at all; she yells at you for pulling, which makes you feel bad. It seems like no one understands. You feel alone and isolated. You feel like you’re damaged, and worst of all is that you feel like you did this “damage” to yourself. I know you feel incredibly self-conscious, as if everyone thinks there’s something “wrong” with you, and that you’re no longer “normal.” Your biggest fear is someone finding out your secret. You try many different things to hide how thin your once thick curly hair is now getting, like headbands, ponytails, barrettes and bobby pins. And you try even more things in an attempt to stop pulling, but nothing seems to work.
In almost exactly a year from now, you’ll also start pulling out your eyebrows. I know for a while you considered yourself “lucky” that it was just your head and nowhere else. For the first two months, you won’t tell anybody about your eyebrows. You’ll start filling the tail end of your brows with eyeliner pencil, and even when you tell Mom, you still fill them in, even at home because it’s too difficult to look in the mirror.
But I have some great news for you. It gets better. It may be hard to believe, but everything in your life relating to trich will get better.
When you’re 16, you’ll go to your first TLC conference. For the first time, you’ll meet people face-to-face who are just like you. These people will understand you better than anyone else, and they’ll become some of your best friends. It’s really quite incredible how strong of a bond you form with these other people; they become a second family.
Right after the conference, you’ll overcome your biggest fear — you tell all your family and friends that you have trich. You’ll be surprised at how supportive they all are. The conference will bring you and Mom even closer than you already were. It will open her eyes to how trich affects you, and she’ll come to understand it much better and accept it completely. Forgive her for how she treated you in the beginning. You’ll come to realize she was really just trying to help, but truly didn’t understand how to. It was just as hard on her as it is on you. She’ll tell you she felt like she was losing a big part of her daughter when you lost your beautiful curls, but she eventually realized you’re still the same person no matter what your hair looks like.
A month after the conference, you’ll get a glued-on, custom-made hairpiece free of charge from an amazing charity called Hair Club for Kids. It will boost your confidence significantly, but it will also make you realize that what’s even more important than your outward appearance is the kind of person you are inside. I know people say that a lot, but having trich will make you genuinely know what it means. Your hairpiece helps you feel good about yourself on the outside, but you learn you have to love yourself and feel comfortable with who you are on the inside. Eventually you finally do accept yourself unconditionally. You’ll realize you’re still the same person despite your hair, or lack thereof. Your hair doesn’t define you.
A year after getting your hairpiece, you’ll decide to stop wearing it and cut your hair into a pixie cut. Despite your worries about going to school for the first time with short hair, you do it anyway because you like your hair, and that’s all that matters. And spoiler alert: everyone in school tells you they love your hair. Then shortly after, you’ll go to your senior prom and your high school graduation with a shaved head. Can you believe that?! I still can’t believe it either. The pixie cut will be short enough to prevent you from pulling. But you decide to shave your head anyway as a kind of “screw you” to trichotillomania.
Eventually you’ll pull out all of your eyebrows. You become really good at drawing on realistic looking brows. But again, you’ve become comfortable with yourself even if you don’t have eyebrows.
Right now trichotillomania might seem like the worst thing to happen to you. But — and hear me out here — you end up learning so many invaluable lessons from having trich. You learn to love yourself and be confident, and you gain a great support system. You learn not to let trich hold you back in life or let it control you.
You may think having a full head of curls again is the key to happiness, but it’s not. Guess what? Shaving your head will make you feel the most confident and free you’ve ever felt in your life.
I believe in you. You’re beautiful, bald spots and all. It won’t always be this hard. I promise.
Lots of love,
17-year-old Gessie in 2016