Self-Acceptance with an Ever-Changing Self-Image:
My journey to self-acceptance with the hair-pulling disorder, trichotillomania.
2001: The Beginning
I’m ten years old sitting in my parent’s room watching television when my hand gravitates toward my eyebrow. Something inside me tells me to “tug” so I do. When I look down I notice there are hairs between my pinched fingers. Hmm, I think to myself, I didn’t know hair could come out that easily. What if I did it again? I tug, and more hair comes out. I tug, and more hair comes out. This kind of feels good. What am I doing? What have I done?
From that moment on, I cannot stop. I am continuously pulling out my eyebrows until I do not have anymore. My parents immediately take action and I am whisked away to doctors, therapists, and psychologists. What am I doing to myself? Why can’t I stop? Who has the answers? Finally, I am diagnosed with trichotillomania.
Trichotillomania, also known as the hair-pulling disorder, is a body-focused repetitive behavior where one has irresistible urges to pull out one’s own body hair. It affects 2% of the total population. People with trichotillomania can pull from the hair on their scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, arms, legs, pubic area, and more. On average, the age of onset is 9 to 12 years of age. It is chronic and there is no known cure.
It Gets Worse, Way Worse
I didn’t stop pulling after all my eyebrows were gone. I started pulling out my eyelashes.
It’s the beginning of 6th grade and everyone is at school to take class photos. After the photos are done, I make my way to the bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror and begin to pull out all of my eyelashes on the lower lash line. All of those eyelashes- GONE. What have I done? How am I going to face my classmates? What will everyone say? Will they grow back? Everyone noticed, and almost everyone questioned me. “What did you do to your eyelashes, Barbara?” I didn’t know what to say.
When my eyelashes were gone, I started pulling out my hair. It got to the point where my mom started to look into children’s wigs because she thought my pulling might never stop. That one day I would be completely bald. I was scared too. My trichotillomania had a mind of its own. My hands would be in my hair for hours. My hands would cramp, my fingers to the point of bleeding.
Trying to Stop and Failing
I did everything I could to stop but nothing seemed to work. My mom and therapists came up with a ton of helpful ideas and although helpful for a moment, my hands would still somehow end up in my hair.
When I first started pulling I was told to wear gloves. A wonderful idea, in the winter. I was already getting stared at because of the way I looked, I didn’t need to be the girl in the middle of summer wearing gloves.
I was told to pull out a baby doll’s hair. Maybe I could transfer my own scalp pulling to an object. I tried but it did not give me the same sensation. The problem was, I liked how pulling felt. I put the baby doll to the side.
As I got older, the ideas changed. I tried wearing acrylic nails. It was extremely hard to do anything when wearing acrylic nails, especially to pull out your eyelashes, but after a few weeks I was able to use my acrylic nails like a pair of tweezers. The accuracy was alarming.
I was told to bead, something I enjoy to this day, though it only curbs my desire to pull for as long as I am doing it. I found that touching, organizing, and stringing small beads did keep my interest and hands busy for at least an hour.
Trying to Blend in and Failing
I was tired of having no eyebrows. My mom decided to help me by letting me use her eyebrow pencil. For a while I let her draw them on for me, but eventually I decided to take over. I was still getting looks, but I began to feel confident, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I had eyebrows!
When my eyelashes were bare, soon after, my mom helped me pick out a pair of fake glasses. She thought it would be a great physical barrier between me and my eyes. I loved wearing my fake glasses because they drew the attention away from my bare eyelids. Still, I was met with questions. “Why are you wearing fake glasses?” and “Do you even need glasses?” But at that point I was happy the questions were directed at something else.
That same year, my first bald spot on my scalp began to show. I instantly started wearing thick headbands to cover it. My mom went out and bought at least 50 of the thickest headbands in every single color she could possibly find. I was thrilled! Not only could I wear the headband to cover my bald spot, but it would also block my hands from pulling there again! Unfortunately, one day after P.E. class, a boy yelled “Ew, Barbara! Didn’t you wear that headband in P.E.? I should pull it off!” And my days of wearing my nice thick headbands were over.
I was so petrified of having someone pull off my headband that my mom suggested she cut me bangs. She was a hairdresser and was able to cut me bangs right there in the kitchen! Okay, NOW I will definitely start to feel confident. I went to bed feeling excited. That was until I went to school the next day. “Barbara, why do you have a mullet?” I just can’t win!
It Continues, Indefinitely
Although my scalp was never completely bald, I continued to pull out my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows until I was in college. My trichotillomania began to slow but never quite stopped while I was there. I had a few “pull-free” years but what that really means is that I only pulled a few hairs throughout the day, not over one hundred like I would normally. The bald spots and patches were tiny until they weren’t there at all.
My trichotillomania started back up again when I was 25. It hasn’t slowed down since, and I recently turned 30. I no longer pull out my eyebrows, but I continue to have bald patches in my hair, and bare eyelids. I have had trichotillomania for 20 years, two-thirds of my lifetime, and only recently have I been able to openly talk about it, and ultimately accept it.
Self-Love? What is that?
Growing up and living with trichotillomania caused me immense shame. Trichotillomania was devastating to my self-image and self-worth. I was constantly altering my appearance in such a negative way, how could I possibly love myself? Who was I? I don’t even recognize myself! I walked around with bald spots, bare eyelids, and no eyebrows. I had been ridiculed by others, questioned, and laughed at. I not only believed I was ugly, I knew it.
I know now that I couldn’t help it, that I had no choice. Trichotillomania is an incurable disorder. It took many years, different therapists, new friends, and the continued support of family to finally turn those negative thoughts around. I wasn’t ugly. Hair does not equate beauty, what is inside our hearts and how we treat others is what makes us beautiful.
Found Self-Acceptance and Wrote a Book
In 2018, I started writing my first book, The Trichster Diaries, which detailed my life with trichotillomania. I was finally ready to share my experience with the world after years of self-loathing, shame, and secrecy. I was ready to accept my trichotillomania and hoped to spread awareness of a disorder that impacts so many yet is discussed by so few.
In 2020, I published The Trichster Diaries and it was met with more love than I could have ever imagined. Others with trichotillomania shared how they related to my story, whether it was the age of onset, the location of pulling, or their own journey of self-loathing to self-love and ultimately self-acceptance. I have taken something that I hated about myself, and turned it into something that I am most proud of. I continue to spread awareness of trichotillomania and I know I’ll never stop.