Trichotillomania is always something I’ve had a really hard time talking about. Mental health is becoming less and less stigmatised by the day, and that’s only because people are willing to discuss it – but it’s never easy. I’ve suffered a lot because of trichotillomania – I’ve been mistreated by friends and family because of it, never mind strangers – and that means opening up about it makes me feel pretty vulnerable, based on previous experiences. But people need to talk about trichotillomania, because it affects up to 4 in 100 people, and that’s quite a lot.
If you don’t know what trich is, which is entirely likely, it’s an impulse control disorder (although when I first developed it, it was considered a form of OCD) that makes the sufferer pull out their own hair. Now, this can be any hair, such as head, eyebrows, eyelashes, pubic, chest, anything. The person has no control over this action and will often pull out great amounts of hair. I’ve heard some arguments that this isn’t really an impulse control disorder because we “don’t do it in our sleep”, which is, of course, a load of bollocks, and I’m sure not a single trich sufferer would choose to have this disorder. Although it’s closely linked to stress and anxiety, trich isn’t necessarily caused by anything, but there are examples of it being a result of a traumatic event.
I first started to pull my hair out when I was about nine. I started on my eyebrows initially. I can’t put my finger on the day it began or how I was feeling at that moment – all I know is I started and couldn’t stop. When I did try to stop, I was completely overwhelmed with the urge – I even felt physically symptoms, like an intense pain in my chest and sweaty palms. Soon enough, I had no eyebrows whatsoever, so I started pulling out my eyelashes, too. Around this time I had started suffering with anxiety, so you could argue trich may have been a result of this. Whatever the reason, my lack of eyebrows and eyelashes triggered relentless bullying from my peers, and I started pulling even more to cope with the stress. After a single night, a huge chunk of hair was missing from the front of my head, and that only worsened the bullying. At the same time, my parents were struggling to understand and deal with the situation, and were initially quite unsupportive – most likely in attempt to deflect the pulling in case I was just doing it for “attention”. In fact, we were watching a TV show in which an ‘expert’ gives advice to parents about troublesome children, and told a mother and father whose daughter was pulling out her hair that she was doing it for attention and if you ignored it, she’d stop. That felt like a kick in the gut.
It really took over my life. I’d been a very normal, moderately popular girl and suddenly I was alone and felt hideously ugly. The first years of high school is when a girl’s appearance really comes into play, and I was walking around with numerous bald patches. People would stare at me on the street, relatives and family friends would whisper about me, kids at school would yell stuff at me. I rarely went a day without receiving some kind of insult from a total stranger: “You look like you have cancer,” “Are you going bald?” “Did you know you have bald patches?” “Went too far with the razor?” “Nice haircut!” “Baldie!” and, inexplicably, the word “Cancer!” just thrown at me down hallways. I didn’t have a single shred of confidence. I was not pretty and I would never be pretty because I would never stop pulling. In my first year, I cut off all my hair into a pixie cut in the hopes it would make the pulling less obvious, but the insults only increased.
My parents quickly came to my support, but nothing helped. I attended counselling, but it didn’t make a single bit of difference to my pulling. I went to a trich support group, but it just made me feel more hopeless. In online forums, people spoke of their success stories with combating trich, but nothing worked for me in the slightest. The only thing that made me feel a little less alone was the YouTube channel beckie0 (Rebecca Brown), a teenager (at the time) who also suffered with trichotillomania – and suddenly there was this whole community of young people struggling like me. Maybe I’d never meet anyone who just ‘happened’ to have trich, but it helped me to know there were people out there who faced the same struggles as I faced.
Today, I am pulling less and less, which I believe is a result of my increasing confidence. I have gone weeks without pulling and always ended up breaking, but in comparison to the times when I could barely go ten minutes without pulling, that’s quite a significant breakthrough. And after I post this, I am vowing to stop pulling for good – no second chances or hiccups or one-offs. I’d like to update my progress as I go on. I stopped pulling for over a month previously, and I think I can do it again. I don’t face bullying anymore, either, as my balding isn’t visible (although it’s a lot less visible than before anyway) as I cover it with a powder called Toppik. This isn’t a plug but it is something that has genuinely improved my quality of life. I can leave the house without expecting people to stare at my hair, and it feels wonderful; it’s totally liberating. It’s basically hair fibres you shake onto your scalp, and voila, a full head of hair!
I think so many young – and old – people suffering with trichotillomania would truly benefit from it being represented in the media and entertainment. I’ve only ever seen trichotillomania represented in the TV show Nurse Jackie, in which a child begins pulling out her hair but fully recovers in an incredibly short amount of time, and also, I guess, in the novel Sharp Objects, in which a controlling and manipulative mother has a “nervous habit” of pulling out her eyelashes. Neither of these have had any positive influence on me. I’d love to see a book, or a TV show, or a movie, or something, in which a character deals with trich, and it’s ugly and it’s hard and they’re stigmatised and bullied and go through all the suffering I went through, but show that we are not alone with this disorder.