Interview: Living with Trichotillomania, the urge to pull your hair out
I felt disgusting, ugly, and the worst part was that I blamed myself for my ugliness. That was probably what hurt the most – when a parent would say ”your eyebrows are so thin, have you pulled again?” and I’d become angry and say no, on the inside, I’d scream at myself because I knew it was the truth – and I felt like I was making myself uglier, when I could become more beautiful
By Sofia Harris on Monday, February 22nd, 2010 - 2,663 words.
It’s a cold, melancholy Wednesday. The snow keeps falling outside my window, big crystals, frozen moments covering the dirty snow with a new beginning. As I wait for “Izabella”, in walks a beautiful woman, long hair bouncing softly on her shoulders, make-up soft and warm against her eyes, a simple outfit, a smile painted all over her. She walks over to where I am, and it’s not until she speaks her name, that I realize that she was the one I waited for. My smile quickly fades, however, when I realize how normal she seems, how her smile seems so natural, her confidence organic. But I know it isn’t. I know that deep inside she hides something which most of us will never understand or even know what is – not to mention its affects.
Izabella has what is known as a Trichotillomania. And behind her make-up, Izabella hides the result of her conditon. Izabella has pulled out her eyebrows and eyelashes.
Trichotillomania – also known as TTM or “trich” – is a disorder which gives a person the urge to pull out hair, whether it’s eyebrows and lashes or any other hair on your body, from arms, legs or even scalp, resulting in bald patches. The disorder is currently considered an impulse control disorder, but many still believe it should be considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The disorder is not very common; many cases remain unreported as many do not seek help, but some believe that in the United States alone, as many as 5% may have the disorder – the majority of them girls and women. The disorder usually emerges around a person’s early teenage years, but children have also been reported to pull their hair compulsively*. There is currently no “cure” for the disease.
SH: Tell us a little bit about the life of a ”trichster”. First of all, what do you personally do, how do you pull out your hair?
Izabella: Well, it’s…hard to explain. I think the disorder is handled differently from person to person, at least I’ve come to find that. And I guess it all depends on where you pull it from. I myself would spend hours and hours twisting my eyebrows and lashes until they came off. I never really intended them to come off…they just did. Worst part is, at that moment…it feels so good. Then comes the moment after, where you realize what you just did, contributing to another bald patch.
SH: How does it feel good? Doesn’t it hurt pulling your hair out?
Izabella: It is very hard to explain, at least to someone who doesn’t do it. You could compare it to a mosquito bite; you know that scratching it might make it worse, and it might even hurt, but you still have to, and you might not even realize that it’s bleeding until you’re satisfied. When I pulled my hair, I felt…a weird form of calmness. At least in the beginning…when I came to the place in my life where I wanted it to stop, I sort of froze, my jaw would lock up, and I just…couldn’t move. I couldn’t, no matter how much I wanted to, even though I knew the outcome would hurt me. When I didn’t stop it, it just felt like such a release…like a smoker having his first smoke of the day, letting it all out. And that moment when the hair leaves the follicle…it’s just such a great feeling…even if it shouldn’t be. Just that moment, you can feel it leaving your body. I loved it. It was like a drug to me. And just like drugs, I didn’t care about the outcome until it was all over, and I saw all the strands of hair around me, realized what I had done to myself.
SH: How often would you do it?
Izabella: All the time, especially when I was stressed. Whenever I would sit down and watch television, read a book, and especially when I’d do my homework, my hand would always reach up and start twisting, sometimes without me even noticing it. Even after school was over, and the stress of homework and tests was all gone, and I was working as usual, whenever I’d sit in front of a computer, read a book or watch a movie, my hand would still reach up…like it had become a habit, which was what everyone else called it.
SH: So somebody knew about it?
Izabella: Yes, my family saw me doing it, even though I tried hiding it. They never understood though. They always called it a bad habbit, like biting nails. Thing is, it’s not that simple. Even trying to explain to them that it is a…disorder of sorts, they would just say it was a phase, and a bad habit that would disappear when I decided it would. Thing is, it runs so much deeper than that.
SH: How does it run deeper?
Izabella: Well, it’s very much psychological. It pretty much destroys you, especially as a girl I think. So many people take things as eyelashes and eyebrows and just hair in general like a given – for us, it’s what we desire the most. Just to be able to touch your eyes and brows, and scalp for that matter, without worrying you might start pulling them off…having the ability to say ”I need to pluck my eyebrows, they’re way too thick”…those kinds of tings are what us trichsters dream about. And with biting nails, to most of those who do that, it doesn’t affect their confidence as much – having bitten down nails is common.
So yeah, it does go way deeper than just how you look. Having it come at an early age, your confidence, which might already be low, just crumbles to the ground. That’s what happened to me,at least. I had zero confidence, and I became severely depressed. I would look at old pictures of me, when I would have thick, full eyebrows and long eyelashes, when I didn’t use make-up, didn’t need it…and I’d just hate myself for throwing all of that away, having to wake up and draw on my eyebrows, put mascara on the little eyelashes that I had, and worry about not only school and popularity and boys and whatever teenage girls might worry about, but also if anyone noticed it. I felt like a freak. And at that point, I cared so much about what others would say about me, as many young people do.
I felt disgusting, ugly, and the worst part was that I blamed myself for my ugliness. That was probably what hurt the most – when a parent would say ”your eyebrows are so thin, have you pulled again?” and I’d become angry and say no, on the inside, I’d scream at myself because I knew it was the truth – and I felt like I was making myself uglier, when I could become more beautiful.
SH: So you were in a way afraid to face the truth?
Izabella: At first I don’t even remember how I handled it. Many parts of my life have been blocked out – and I believe it was because of the depression I went through. It was a hard time for me – not only was I sad that I was doing this to myself – more so, I was mad for feeling sorry for myself. It was an evil cycle. But I don’t think it did affect me as much in the beginning. I’d draw them on, and it would be fine. But then I guess I started realizing what a hazzle it was, how I didn’t want people to notice, how I didn’t want to worry that every time I went swimming, the make-up would disappear. That was one of the worst parts. I love swimming and the beach so much, and I hated having to put on make-up every time. And I tried so much to stop it, but it was…impossible at the time.
SH: When did you realize that it was Trich and just not a habbit?
Izabella: It was actually a coincidence. I was browsing some site and reading interviews with different actors, I can’t remember what site or what it was about…But then I came over an interview with Colin Farrell, where he said that he was a hair-puller, and that it was called something with trich. He also described that feeling of pulling it out…and it was then I realized that I had it, and that I wasn’t alone.
SH: Did this information change anything?
Izabella: Not really. The knowing that somebody else had it was good, I guess…especially coming from someone famous, someone you never would have thought would have it – and the fact that he said he was over it made me a little more hopeful. Then I started reading about it, learning everything I could, becoming a ”personal psychologist” I guess. I had tried to tell other people about it, not only family, but school nurses – thing is, they never knew what to say or do, as they didn’t know anything about it. So I tried to help myself. I felt like I was the only one who could do that, as I knew exactly what I was dealing with.
SH: What did you do, besides read?
Izabella: Bandaids. I’d put them on every finger, and it did not only make me more aware of my fingers and where they were, but they would also make it pretty much impossible to pull. And it actually worked. For a while. Then I relapsed, like I have numerous times before, as I started to unconsiously take them off and start pulling. So I tried pulling my hair up tight and keeping it down to see if there were a difference, wearing headbands and hats, sunglasses, gloves…anything that would either stop my fingers from pulling or my eyes and brows to be open for it. Some did work, some didn’t…and I’ve relapsed too many times to count.
SH: How did that feel, the relapsing I mean?
Izabella: It has been one of the hardest things in this entire process. Having stopped for a while, seeing it all come back, then having some incident of sorts making you go back to where you were. And at that point, you REALLY don’t know why you’re doing it. Before, you had no idea, but now you really can’t see the point either, and you see beyond the ”feeling good” part, which you did feel having the hairs back again, and…it all becomes so surreal, weird, not understandable. And you try analysing why you do it every time. Whenver I’d do it, which was usually in front of a computer or television, I’d always think”okey, why are you doing this? Are you thirsty, hungry, sleepy? Do you need fresh air? Need to go to the bathroom? Need to stretch your legs?”. And there were times where this was the reason – that I didn’t listen to my basic needs. But there were also those times where I wasn’t hungry or sleepy or anything, and I just did it for no reason.
SH: Did you ever do it with people in the room?
Izabella: Very few times , and if there were people there, it was probably one of my parents. I hated doing it in front of even them; I felt disgusting and weird, and I didn’t want them commenting on it – that would be such a slap in the face, like of course I know that I’m doing it. Every time I’d hear a ”don’t do that” or get a tap on the hand to make me realize what I was doing, I’d get super angry for letting them notice it.
Being around people was actually something that helps me on the road to stopping, as I won’t do it around people.
SH: Why is that do you think? Embarrasment?
Izabella: Yes, and also just the feeling I get with people. I love spending time with a lot of people, friends or just aquaintances. I guess you could say that I hate spending too much time alone with myself and my thoughts – which is what I did when I was severely depressed. It also boosts my confidence just being around people that I love, people that I can have fun with.
SH: You say when you were depressed – does that mean you aren’t anymore?
Izabella: No, the depression gradually went away as I got older. Of course, there are days of being sad, but we all have those I guess – me maybe a few more times because of the trich, having those moments in front of the mirror where I’m just…so tired of it all, but I’m not as sad as before. I am enjoying life, having good friends, good times, I’m working now, out of school, I’m starting my life again – and after numerous relapses I think that instead of thinking about how stupid I was for relapsing, I feel more hopeful that I yet again can stop doing it.
SH: Have you stopped doing it?
Izabella: Occationally. I have pretty much stopped pulling eyelashes now, so they are back to being full and long – which is just the greatest feeling ever. I love when people say ”your eyelashes are so beautiful” – it almost brings me to tears, and I guess those people have no idea how much they warm my heart by saying those things. I remember just watching people – the first thing I’d notice when watching a person’s face was never their eyes or smile – it was the eyelashes and brows. Now I look at their eyes instead, cause I know that I’m getting there, they’re growing back. It makes me proud of myself, in a way. As for my eyebrows, I do have some bald-spots. I did survive the summer with fuller eyebrows than ever – I did everything I could to make them grow, put vaseline on them, massaged them with sunflower oil and olive oil, lay in the sun as much as I could – and without pulling, I guessed it worked. When winter came, I did turn back to pulling a little. It might be the cold, keeping you inside, draning you in so many ways. It doesn’t bother me that much though – for I now know that I will beat it, I will have full eyebrows sooner that I think, I’ll stop pulling and by summer, they will be back to normal – I’m getting close already, with only a few spots to go. And I love the fact that my mindset is this way now – I think it’s super important for pullers to have a positive outlook on things, even if it’s so hard. So, it’s a wonderful time. I don’t even worry about my make-up anymore. I’ve grown up, I don’t care if anybody comments on it all looking false. I’ve gotten compliments on my looks more now than what I did when they were full – I now realize that it’s not all about the hair, but about your whole energy, which is something most trichsters don’t realize. I can’t blame then though – I’ve spoken to people who have severely pulled out their hair, having to wear wigs, being mistaken for having cancer and whatnot. I always tell them to be positive though – there may not be any medicine or officla ”cure” to this, but there is always a way to beat it.
SH: I’m glad things are looking up for you. Any final words?
Izabella: To all the trichsters out there, you are not alone, and you will be able to stop one day. And you are all beautiful, never forget that. As to those who do not have it…just think twice before judging someone. If you see someone with a bald-spot on their head or between their eyelashes, or someone with eyebrows that are drawn on, please think before making a comment on it – you might not know what lies beneath.
Journalism student, poetry blogger, aspiring writer and filmmaker. http://www.sofiaharris.com
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