It started when I was 13, but I didn’t know what my problem was until college. In my early teenage years, I became the typical “moody teenager” and spent a lot of time alone. I understand now that I’m an introvert, but the way my mother talked about my lack of popularity made me feel like there was something wrong with me. So I brooded. In my room, alone, with music on and excuses about having a lot of homework which did not play out in my grades. I would read (not schoolwork), zone out and hours would fly by until my mother banged on the door to get my attention. On my bed or desk or wherever I was reading, I would find hair, and it freaked me out at first. Characteristic of my moody teenage self, I would yell at my mom for disturbing me, but I was just scared that she’d see all my hair and yell at me. There was a lot of screaming in my house, but as an only child, I could get away with it. Moms and daughters are not supposed to get along, right?
Well, that’s how it started, but it got worse. As I started noticing that I was pulling my hair out of my head along my hairline, I’d go to the bathroom to see if it was going to be noticeable. Then I’d pull some hair out to make my hairline look even. But then it wouldn’t look quite right, so I’d pull some more. If I spent too long in the bathroom, though, I’d hear my mom yelling at me to get out. So I’d come out all the while fearing that she would notice.
And she did, but I hid it. I covered it up with wild hairstyles and teenage moodiness. Oh, yes, I was a problem child, and it served to disguise the real problem. I knew that if my mom could see changes in my hairline, then people at school would too. So I did my best to alienate everyone. If they didn’t like me, or if they were afraid of me, they wouldn’t notice anything about me. I went to school, made passing grades, came home and holed up in my room. This was my teenage routine. I loved reading, but when I did, I pulled at my hair. When I pulled out my hair, I had to spend hours fixing it in the bathroom my pulling out more to make it look even.
When I was 16, my mom made me go to a shrink. She said she was concerned that I didn’t have any friends and my moods were disruptive. I know she did it out of love, but at the time I saw it as a betrayal. The therapist was an idiot. She thought I was depressed and kept asking me about drugs and suicide and self-harm. I let her think I was depressed but drew the line at suicide. All day every day, I was afraid I would be found out. Someone somewhere would notice that I pull my hair out of my head and then I would be labeled as even weirder. I couldn’t stand that thought. Needless to say, I did not go to that shrink for very long. I figured out that if I spent a little more time with my parents, especially my mom, she thought I was better. So we’d go to movies every once in awhile and sometimes even the bookstore. Fake it til you make it was my mode of operation during that time. All the while, I was pulling out my hair along my hairline, but hiding it by doing it behind my ears or along the back of my neck. When it got bad, I would get some drastic hairdo or dye my hair a crazy color. I told my mom I was trying out identities and thanks to the shrink, it worked. My self-imposed isolation was driven by a need to hide, but I covered it up by telling my mom I had to read a lot if I was going to become a writer. My hours in the bathroom was attributed to typical teenage grooming. But it was all a lie.
When I went to college, I convinced my parents I could not handle a roommate, so they got me one of those studio dorms for the extra studious. There, I had my privacy. With the freedom to do what I wanted, I spent long hours in the bathroom pulling out my hair. It felt good somehow, and I didn’t worry about what people thought of me when I was doing it. When I was done, though, I’d become paranoid that someone would notice and think I was a freak. My hairline was seriously messed up at this point, and I took to wearing wigs. I told my mom it was identity-related, that I liked the look of sleek, brightly-colored hair. Was it something a writer would do right? She bought it. But my focus on hair pulling interfered with school, and after the first semester of college, I was on academic probation which meant I had to meet with a therapist in the counseling office.
I could tell immediately that this guy was not going to be fooled. He pegged me as hiding something right away, but it took a while before I trusted him enough to tell him. In the early 2000’s, trichotillomania was not a thing. At that time, it was trendy to have ADHD or depression, but there was no talk about OCD or body-focused repetitive behaviors. My college therapist did not let me off the hook about my source of anxiety and paranoia, so in an anger-filled burst, I finally told him I couldn’t stop pulling out my hair, that if anyone knew I’d be a laughing stock because it’s gross and who does that anyway? I think I screamed during that session. After my outburst exploded into tears, he told me it was ok, that there was a reasonable explanation.
For the remainder of my freshman year, I learned about trich, and I learned ways to curb it. My therapist helped me reconcile the anxiety, social isolation, and the urge to pull my hair, so it didn’t interfere with my life so much. At the school, they even had a support group where I made friends with other people who had issues with body-focused repetitive behavior. I took summer courses to get my grades up, and my mom noticed a change in me. She knows now what I struggled with all those years and surprisingly, she is very supportive. Instead of a writer, I became a social worker. I work with teens who struggle with mental health issues. It helps me to help myself knowing that I can see beyond their behavior.
Not everyone has such a positive intervention early in their lives as I did. I consider myself lucky. It is difficult to put into words the emotional turmoil I felt or the delusions I created for myself to justify my behavior. Sometimes the urges get intense, but I know I can manage even when they do. I know what it is now, I know I’m not defective, and I have friends and family who love me despite my glitch.
Ariel is a mental health advocate and writer. She’s part of the trichstop.com team.