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When a Woman With OCD Asked Me to Remake Her Coffee

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Everybody who knows me well knows I pull my own hair out. It’s no big secret. I’ve had trichotillomania (also known as hair-pulling disorder) since I was 11-years-old. Fussing with my hair or picking at my split ends are things I do mindlessly and they’ve become such familiar behaviors they seem folded into my identity by now. Being transparent about my hair-pulling has always done me more good than harm, as I get to raise awareness about a little-known condition, answer questions, address misconceptions and sometimes hear a little bit about someone else’s struggles in return.

I’m probably half bald, but my trichotillomania is something I haven’t felt particularly ashamed of for years. I work part-time in a local coffee shop and because of the combination of the fast pace and the ease I feel around my coworkers and our customers, I seldom pull my hair when I’m at work.

However, one particular Sunday morning when we had a line out the door and in scrambling to fulfill a never-ending string of latte orders, I was becoming frantic. My hands seem to detach from my brain at times like this. Pulling works to soothe some of my anxiety in the moment, although as one might imagine, brewing coffee and steaming milk become an awful lot harder with one hand, since the other one is occupied with something entirely out of my control. The drink ticket line never seemed to get any shorter, but I was steadily getting in the zone when I heard a woman’s voice from the other side of the espresso machine say, “Excuse me?”

“What’s up?” I replied, not even taking a second to look up for fear of disrupting my rhythm.

“I’m really sorry, I asked the girl at the counter to ask you to wash your hands before making my drink but I guess the message didn’t get to you. I have OCD and I noticed you were touching your hair a lot back there, so would you mind remaking my drink but washing your hands first?”

I looked down at the ticket and noticed it was a complicated one. Then I looked back up at the group of patrons forming a circular perimeter around the counter, closing in, hankering for their caffeine and sighed.

“One moment please,” I said to the woman and went back to the sink to wash my hands, almost theatrically, huffing and puffing the entire time.

I pretended my hands were a magnet physically repelled by my head or else they surely would have lurched back to pull in that moment. I honestly didn’t quite know how to feel about the incident. So while I tried to make sense of it all, I remade the drink at half speed, making absolutely sure I was doing everything the proper way because I could sense the woman watching me. She seemed appreciative when she got her drink, but left without saying anything besides “thank you” and soon I forgot all about it on account of the lunch rush swallowing me up again.

After our line subsided, I remembered the incident and decided I was livid about it.

How can you walk into a café during their busiest hours and expect someone to drop everything for you like that? I should’ve just told her nothing bad would happen to her if she drank the coffee so I just can’t remake it. What if I played my trich card? Then it would be battle of the compulsive behaviors.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the incident, even after my shift ended. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to see how much that woman and I had in common.

All she’d done was ask for an accommodation, the way someone with a physical disability would. It was no Herculean task and she’d asked with the utmost politeness. I was ashamed of myself for having been angry, because as someone who lives with a very public and observable mental illness and even as someone who knows anything about mental illness in general, I should have been eager to support her, in the hopes people with mental illnesses won’t have to stand in the shadows all the time.

I realized very early on that being honest about my trichotillomania took the burden of hiding off of me and vastly improved my quality of life. For me, it was an easy choice. But for other people, it may not be. That woman was able to enjoy a cup of coffee without sensations of fear or dread and that’s important, whether it was her first time coming clean to a perfect stranger or her thousandth. I suppose I was just offended that for a moment, I became ashamed of my trich again.

I do wish I could have told her about it though, even briefly, so she could understand the motive behind my behaviors as well.

It seems to me this world runs on compulsions and there might be a battle of compulsive behaviors playing out at this very moment. They range from mild annoyances to pervasive obstacles that make daily life impossible. In the trichotillomania community, there is a longstanding debate on whether one should strive to be cured of the disorder or simply accept oneself, disorder and all. I think recovery is a wonderful and not an impossible thing (in writing this, I’ve just had my first pull-free day of the new year). But in the meantime, being accommodating and accepting of one’s own compulsions is important and may even make recovery a bit easier. I found I was removing a large quantity of worry from my day-to-day life when I stopped fixating over stopping myself from pulling or making sure no one could see the damage. And if I wasn’t as comfortable as I am with my trich, I might even have snapped at that woman and the incident would have ended with us both feeling terribly about ourselves.

It seems small and insignificant, but these interactions are reflective of the world we live in and I certainly want to live in a world where you can ask for someone’s help without reservation and they’ll be supportive. I want to live in a world where no matter what you’re struggling with, you can walk away with a great cup of coffee.

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Thinkstock photo via photofriday.

Originally published: March 7, 2017
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