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What Trichotillomania Feels Like to Me

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with a body-focused repetitive behavior, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.

I pull out my hair.

I don’t do so because of stress or because I take sayings too literally. Instead, I have a disorder called trichotillomania – tricho: hair, tillo: pull, mania: well, you know what mania is. I have come to realize that rarely anyone has ever heard of trichotillomania.

I can more or less point out when I started pulling out my hair. That was back when boys tugged on girls’ hair and hoped that it would hurt us, and when I realized it didn’t, I started pulling my hair just to show off. At some point, I couldn’t stop. When I was about 13 years old, I had this pressure on my head that could only be resolved by tying my braid so tightly it would take over the pulling effect for me. Then it was uncomfortable from one day to the next and I plucked the hairs that were tied too tightly; first from the top, then in the following years, it wandered down to behind my ears and my lower head.

An important part of the campaign to make mental health more acknowledged is proving that an illness does not need to be visible to exist. Things can exist within your head and still be real and have real effects. I suppose that when people hear about a hair-pulling disorder, they assume those affected will have huge patches without hair on their heads. They assume it will be just so incredibly obvious. The thing is, if you saw me, you wouldn’t know. I don’t even actively hide my bald spots; they are just quite unnoticeable in general because of my massive, poofy hair. And even though I’ve known about my condition for about seven years now, I have only encountered four people who live with the same disorder.

I don’t pull out my hair voluntarily. It’s an impulse control disorder, meaning I just reach up for my head without noticing, or when I do I notice it, it feels like I can’t really do anything to stop it. When I do pull out hair, it’s one hair at a time. Sometimes I am fascinated by the texture, sometimes I just feel this incredible burning sensation on my scalp while my hand does its own thing.

I have improved. Over the years, I have decreased my pulling from several dozens of hairs a day to only a couple, countable on one hand. But for some reason, the burning continues and my head feels like it is under immense pressure. My hand pulls out hair, by hair, by hair.

When previously asked to explain what relief pulling gives me, I drew an analogy to having a cactus thorn in your finger: you don’t really feel the thorn itself, but your entire finger is just pulsating and it’s the only thing your senses can focus on. You keep picking at it, trying to get the thorn out. Once you get it out, the tension drops and you feel free, finally relieved of that thorn that has caused you all the burning.

The feeling I have when I pull hair is just like that: the pain I get is not even present, it’s just the relief of having pulled out that thorn.

Trichotillomania is real. It’s shitty and I might live with it forever. But I hope that I can share some understanding of it and maybe help society know how why some people prefer when nobody touches their head or does their hair.

Unsplasha via Rachel Lynette French

Originally published: October 30, 2018
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