Over the last year, I have experienced the resurgence of a behavior that I thought I had long since kicked. Trichotillomania is a condition that compels a person to pull out their own hair. This affects both men and women, and no age is spared. People with trichotillomania pull hair out at the root from places like the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, or pubic area.
When I was 19, my eyebrows and eyelashes were my target. I had suffered a surprising blow when I was raped at a party where I found myself to be the only girl, not long after I had left home and was trying to make a life for myself in Houston. Since hair is tied to sexuality, sensuality, as well as beauty and good health in our culture, it is no surprise to me that I would want to dismantle what some say are the frame for the face. Think of how Brooke Shields would look without her eyebrows in the early days.
Having trichotillomania affected how I felt about myself. I was self-conscious about how hair–pulling affected my appearance, which made me less confident about making friends and dating. I blamed myself for not controlling the urge to pull and not being able to stop, which created self–loathing.
When I was in my early twenties, I found a clinic in one of the teaching hospitals in the city. It was there that I learned about approaching my trichotillomania from a behavioral standpoint. In therapy, I learned about urges, how to identify situations, places, or times when I had a tendency to pull. They suggested disrupting the pattern with something like snapping a rubber band on my wrist, but it didn’t work quite as well as heavy exercise. This new habit filled my time and broke the pattern enough for me to see I could resist the urge more and more.
Unfortunately, the behavioral therapy coincided with medication. I was on a drug called Anafranil, which caused depression. Experts believe the urge to pull hair out occurs because the brain’s chemical signals (called neurotransmitters) don’t work properly. This creates the irresistible urges that lead people to pull their hair. So I was given Prozac which had even worse side effects like weight gain, my face becoming flushed, a facial tic, and suicidal thoughts.
Since I had grown up with a mother who was suicidal, I believe from prescription pills, for the better part of my childhood, I knew I needed to get off all the pills if I wanted to live. This was not an easy time to navigate through; it was one step forward and two steps back.
When I was feeling down after a relapse one time, my therapist told me, ”The next time you are unable to resist the urge, and you’re feeling down, go to the mirror and take a really good look at yourself, and say something loving and kind. Then put on something that makes you feel beautiful, or pick out a lovely, bright lipstick, and get yourself outside as soon as possible and take a walk.” As dumb as this sounds, it always worked. This was a new trick in my arsenal besides exercise to alter behavior, or at least mine. I didn’t need to totally self–destruct but could catch myself in a free fall and move in an upward direction.
A stable love relationship and stability in my life became my new reality. With practice, I got better at resisting the compulsion to pull my hair out, and the urge became weaker and easier to resist. In those years, I challenged myself in running and completed a degree, all of which helped build my self–esteem. It wasn’t long before I realized the OCD had quietly vanished.
Decades later, I have found myself in eerily similar circumstances to those of my 19-year-old self, thoughnot in the same order. First there was the assault, the relationship ending, and here I am making it on my own. As the impulse emerged, I found myself succumbing, and it soon become undeniable that I had lost control. Feeling satisfaction in seeking perfection, among other reasons, far outweighed my desire to stop.
The OCD behavior migrated to what used to be my long, flowing hair. I had actual bald patches on the top and sides of my head when I arrived at my sister’s, where I am living now. Her stylist convinced me to cut it all off and start over again. Losing my hair in this way was devastating. On a bad day, I looked like my mother when she got a haircut that reminded us siblings of Robin Hood. It was a serious blunt cut with barely there bangs.
I try to look at myself in a non- judgmental way. This is a primal part of me to help me feel safe. Perhaps this has more to do with a purification process that I have been going through for years, as I move through the different layers of healing with Spirit. Maybe this is my chance to touch base with unresolved matters with the girl I used to be, and I can say to her, and to the “now” me: “It was never my fault.”
A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to stop the behavior. As self–destructive as it is, there is pleasure in it, too. Ask any alcoholic or binge eater.
Luckily for me, I have knowledge about what worked and didn’t in the past to draw from to help me move from this place. Stability of a home, exercising, family support, and a life coach in my life now, as it was then, is slowly building me up. I’m having thoughts about creating a satisfying way to support myself and feeling self–love ooze in from me. Spirit is always with me. My sister and I are in a race to see who can be first to get her hair to look healthy like a lion’s mane. I will let you know of my progress and health tips at another time.
Meanwhile, do you have a destructive habit you’re trying to break? What has worked for you?
“Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”