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When I Finally Googled 'I Pull Out My Own Hair'

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It’s a phase. It’s just a phase. I’ll grow out of it.

13 years later, I still have not grown out of it. As a 25-year-old female, I have now officially been pulling out my hair for more than half my life.

It started as a preteen. I would pull it strand by strand, examine the texture, the cold, wet root. I would hide it, camouflage it into places I knew no one would look: underneath couches, on dark carpets or between the pages of textbooks. No one saw the remnants and it was my hairy secret. The center part on my scalp grew to the width of my index finger and I didn’t wear my hair down for the next two years. Friends and teachers didn’t say anything, neither did my parents. If they saw me pulling, then they probably were in shock of my strange behavior and at a loss for words.

In college, I became curious about trichotillomania. The first time I typed “I pull out my own hair” into the Google search bar in 2008, an alternate universe was revealed: definitions, anecdotes, resources and websites devoted to others with similar disorders. My mind was blown, and I finally realized I was not alone.

So what was I doing to myself? It’s called trichotillomania, or trich for short, and is an impulse control disorder characterized by the compulsive urge to pull out one’s hair. It falls under the body-focused repetitive behavior classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and it is estimated that trichotillomania affects one to four percent of the general population. Treatment is available, but there is no cure.

Over the years, I continued to tell myself my trichotillomania was just a bad habit, and one day I would be able to go cold turkey and just give up pulling. If only it were that easy. Upon entering graduate school and various internships, my pulling increased and I recognized being in a professional setting was not conducive to overcoming the disorder. It was at that moment when I realized my trichotillomania was real and not something I could fight myself. I sought help from a wonderful therapist in the counseling center of my graduate school and learned asking for help doesn’t make you weak. It makes you stronger.

Her specialty was anxiety, but she had never worked with anyone with a body-focused repetitive behavior disorder before. I was her introduction to the world of trichotillomania. We brainstormed ways to cut back on pulling and various methods of limiting urges. At this point, I feel I have tried every tool to manage the pulling: gloves, hats, Band-Aids, wet hair, fancy hair, fidget toys, rubber bands, rubber fingers, silly putty and bracelets. Yet, I am still surprised when I hear of other methods that have worked for people. I ended up transferring therapists to a specialist at a Trichotillomania Clinic. I have been lucky enough to continue working on understanding how to best treat and manage my disorder.

After some amount of convincing, I forced myself to attend a support group in Boston. As an individual with social anxiety, it was among the most nerve-wracking and terrifying things I have ever pushed myself to do. Tell my story to a bunch of random strangers? Are you nuts? It ended up being one of the best decisions I have ever made and was the first time I ever opened up to anyone (other than two close friends) about my struggles.

Let me tell you, it was incredibly liberating to see and hear other individuals who I related to. “You primarily pull in the car? Me too!” “You like the feel of the root against your lips? OMG same!” After my first meeting, I miraculously went on a pull-free streak for 10 days, the longest of my life.

Acceptance is and remains tough for me. How can I accept something I so desperately want to eliminate from my life? Sure, I have awesome days when urges are non-existent, but there are other days where my hands and fingers feel like an entity separate from my body. I have absolutely no control, like a magnetic force is driving them to my scalp.

“Just stop!” I tell myself.

“You’re doing this to yourself!”

I try to stop. I want to stop, but I cannot stop pulling out my hair. In fact, some days I actually don’t want to stop pulling. It just feels so good, but those days pass. I have learned trichotillomania is something that does not just go away by closing my eyes and counting to three. It is with me for life, an annoying sidekick. It is up to me to accept it for what it is and learn to work with it so I can continue to live my life to the fullest. As it turns out, I have written this article with Band-Aids on my thumbs and a few close calls.

I know my story is not unique, but trichotillomania remains one of my biggest secrets. Every day is a new battle, but a battle I am ready for. I know I have to face it head on.

Originally published: June 28, 2016
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