Why I Hid My Struggle With Trichotillomania
In the midst of prepubescence and the mean girls of middle school, I didn’t need anything else to make me ashamed of who I was. And yet, it was exactly at this time when it happened.
One day, I started pulling out my eyelashes.
I don’t remember the day it started, when suddenly, pulling out my eyelashes became a self-soothing ritual. But it did. I spent hours pulling the “right” way. I wore mascara more, because the mascara would give the eyelashes extra pull tension. The behavior was compulsive and quiet, but I was increasingly aware that my pulling was noticeable.
One day, my mom sat me down and expressed concern about my sudden eyelash loss. Numb with shame, I denied everything.
As I got my makeup done for a school play, I was hypersensitive about the gaps in my lashes. My shoulders folded inward with humiliation the entire day. Did anyone know? Could they guess?
I was forced to see my pediatrician, which was one of the more humiliating moments of my life.
“It seems like you must have been pulling your eyelashes out,” The nurse said and looked at me with a pointed glance.
My gaze averted downward, and I vigorously told the nurse, “I didn’t pull them out, they fell out.”
Then came the physical effects of deep shame: blood rushing into my cheeks, fidgeting in my seat, failure to make eye contact.
“They fell out,” I stuck to my story, gaze averted downward, shoulders crunched forward.
My story made no medical sense, as there is no medical condition I am aware of that causes hair loss to only eyelashes. The nurse was also well aware of this and winked at my mom. I can still remember her wink, her knowing glance as if to say, “Gotcha.”
But this was not a “Gotcha,” moment.
What I was doing was not taken seriously. No one named what I was experiencing or gave me reassurance that I wasn’t “crazy.” I got the sense that my behavior was viewed as a preteen phase, like if I wanted to dye my hair blue for a while.
Out of shame, I was able to stop pulling for a while, and as my eyelashes grew back. I breathed a sigh of release, once again able to pretend I was “normal.”
Trichotillomania, or hair pulling, is not really something people talk about.
One of the common misconceptions about trich is that hair pulling is centered around hair on the head. An assumption is that trichotillomania is easily noticeable because it would cause bald patches or hair loss on the head. This is not the case. While sometimes hair pulling can be noticeable if it is done on visible body parts, sometimes it is not. Trichotillomania can occur on any part of the body that produces hair — head, eyelashes, legs, armpits, etc.
If I have to sum up my decade and a half of struggling with trichotillomania, I would — without a second thought — answer: shame.
I have no problem writing and talking about my struggle with an eating disorder or anxiety, as I often do in the Where I Stand blog. However, I perceive a special stigma associated with hair pulling. Excluding my therapist, who specializes in OCD and obsessive-compulsive-related disorders, I have not had good experiences talking about this issue with therapists in the past. There is a level of discomfort with the subject I detect on their faces.
The pervasive shame includes my self-talk during these pulling periods, such as, Why can’t I stop? What’s wrong with me? It isn’t socially acceptable to discuss a hair pulling struggle. Over the years, I have explicitly or implicitly heard the message, “Get it together. That’s gross.” Perhaps that’s an exaggerated shame thought, but it is still one I believe is grounded in some reality.
My initial shame from feedback on my patchy eyelashes was so pervasive, I forced myself to stop pulling. Then a year later, the pulling transferred to another area of my body. I still struggle with trich. While I don’t pull every day, I go through phases of intense hair pulling that last between a few days and a few weeks. Then it lies dormant for several months until the next bout occurs.
Even though trich is relatively rare, it does exist, and many of those who struggle with it are silent, humiliated or maybe even ashamed. This disorder is an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder, so trich is often correlated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder, depression and/or dermatillomania (skin-picking disorder). At age 8, I developed compulsive skin-picking on a family vacation and experienced similar shame. I also struggled with OCD and general anxiety starting at a young age. Given this host of other symptoms, I suppose it was no wonder that I developed trich. Still, when it developed, it was an unwelcome, secret and embarrassing new reality.
It is a reality that is not discussed much, not even in the mental health community.
I wish I could tell you I’ve worked through my intense shame about my trichotillomania struggle, but I haven’t. Even now, I am hesitant to talk about these symptoms to my therapist of three years. I don’t want to tell her about the hours in the bathroom pulling or the web of rituals surrounding pulling. I am comfortable disclosing the darkest moments of my eating disorder or other obsessive-compulsive rituals, but when it comes to hair pulling, I try to shy away from details.
If you struggle or have struggled with trichotillomania, here is my message to you: I feel you. I understand your shame, because I still have it myself. I wish I could take away my struggle with hair pulling, and I’d take away yours too. I know how time-consuming and humiliating trich can be. I’ve heard shameful comments that I’m sure you’ve heard as well. Keep your chin high, and don’t listen to those who shame you when you likely already shame yourself. I hope you’ve talked to a mental health professional who understands your issue and doesn’t judge. If that person doesn’t get it, I suggest you find a new therapist — they’re out there. Even though my trich symptoms have been dormant for a few months, I know they’ll come back eventually, and that scares me. You are not alone. Trich is so isolating and shameful that it’s hard to imagine someone there in solidarity — I get that. Voicing my struggle and giving it a name were two steps I took against the secrecy and shame, and maybe that might be a step for you. It seems like such a solitary struggle, but there are many of us.
My name is Charlotte and this is Where I Stand.
If you or a loved one is affected by body-focused repetitive behaviors, you can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.
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Thinkstock photo via Corina_Dragan.