CW: trichotillomania, dermatillomania, mentions of body dysmorphia and OCD, mental health.
When I was 13, I had thick, frizzy, curly hair – and I hated it. I was ashamed of my baby hairs, of my thick eyebrows, of my dark body hair. I was, as every young teenager is, highly impressionable, and when girls at school said my hair and eyebrows were too bushy, I took it to heart. I took it to heart for the next ten years.
What began was a habit that would undermine my self-confidence and follow me through school and university: I began pulling out my hair. It started as a way to tame the baby hairs that other girls said looked weird, and ended with Trichotillomania, a hair pulling disorder. Trichotillomania can be a result of stress or of a chemical imbalance in the brain, similar to obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.
Often, I wasn’t aware I was doing it. I felt anxious until I had pulled a hair out, and then I felt a sense of relief – that never lasted long enough. It evolved into pulling out my eyebrows and eyelashes (something that has cost me a lot in make up products over the years to hide this from strangers, friends, even close family).
By the time I was 15, where my hair parted at my scalp was an inch thick. My hairline had seemingly receded, unevenly, and I constantly changed my parting in an attempt to hide this. Unfortunately, any time I moved it, the pulling started again in this new spot.
Later, during a very difficult time in my third year, I started picking at my skin – any bump or spot on my face or arms was picked and scratched until it scarred. I still have countless chicken pox-like scars across my upper arms, and still have to cover any mark with plasters so I don’t make it worse. This is known as Dermatillomania, and is also linked with other obsessive compulsive disorders.
This obsession with picking and pulling at myself massively affected my confidence, especially as someone who has struggled with body issues their whole life. I cut my hair to my chin just before I started university so that I wouldn’t pull at my split ends or over-straighten my already-weakened hair, but it wasn’t enough. I lived in fear of someone noticing and pointing out the stubble-like hair on my forehead that I wouldn’t let grow.
What was worst was the loneliness; I felt as though no-one understood what I was going through, and why I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know that it was a disorder, yet another symptom of my anxiety. Over the first lockdown, my habits worsened out of the public eye, exacerbated by university, financial, and familial stress.
However, in January this year, for the very first time, I made a New Year’s Resolution – I would not pull out my hair. And, miraculously, I’ve stuck to it. I bought a bracelet that vibrates when I lift my wrist, moved my tweezers into less-accessible locations, and invested in multiple fidget cubes. I encouraged my family and partner to shout at me whenever they noticed me pulling.
Was it hard? God, it is still hard. It is hard every day. It is hard when the world is reopening and I am feeling constantly anxious. It’s hard when I’m trying to concentrate on university work and I don’t realise that my hands have retreated to old habits. I still struggle with pulling at my eyelashes and picking at my skin. I don’t know if it will ever be easy.
The hair along my hairline and my parting is now around an inch and a half long, and I rely on bobby pins and careful styling to keep it in some modicum of place. But it’s bewildering to think this is the most hair I’ve had in ten years. Those baby hairs I was so afraid of at 13 are now a sign of my strength at 23. And I’m so proud of myself. At a time where mental health services are so overwhelmed, I haven’t been able to have the cognitive behavioural therapy I need without paying what I can’t afford. Succeeding on my own – admittedly, with only one symptom of my anxiety – has been no mean feat, and it is only the beginning.
Having Trichotillomania is lonely. It is debilitating. It gets worse before it gets better, and it just goes to show that it’s taken me 10 years to even start to overcome it. But you aren’t alone. Talk to your GP about CBT, and talk to your friends and family about what you’re going through. They may not understand it, but they might be able to help you direct your compulsions elsewhere. There’s also me, and many others like me, who have kept it secret for years, but are now encouraging people to share their stories of the “ugly” side of mental health.
Thank you for reading, and remember: you are not alone.
Image courtesy of Yousef Salhamoud.