Image you’re doing something you love. A project, hobby, reading a book, playing a game, anything. But then there’s something in your eye. Or, you think there is. Your hand automatically tries to remove it, prodding around in the sticky tear duct. You blink and find that it’s gone. But you can’t move your hand away. Your brain screams ‘no! no! no!’ But you can’t hear it. You stand up, pace the room, hands shaking. Tell yourself to calm down, that everything is fine, that you’re strong, and you can beat this. Sometimes you do.
The other times…
The merciless desire to grab your hair becomes uncontrollable. You have no choice. Just one. One won’t make a difference. The sharp tug and twinge of pain is satisfying. The eyelash falls to the ground. You don’t make a wish on it; you spent your allowance many years ago. You watch it land and feel better, but now there’s another. Next to the space created by one you pulled out. It feels odd now; exposed. Two won’t make a difference… Oh, oops. You missed it, got a different one instead. Better try again…
Later, you drag yourself over to a mirror and force yourself to look at the damage. The ugly, swollen gap on your eyelid. Feeling that you’re a disappointment, and that everyone will notice and think so as well. You look back at the thing you were doing and don’t have the courage to carry on, in case another attack comes. What once brought you joy, now you hate. You’re a failure. You feel sick. And you know that tomorrow you will have to steel yourself to face this same fight.
This is my reality.
I have a compulsive behaviour disorder known as Trichotillomania. I’ve struggled with it for as long as I can remember; hair pulling is just something I’ve always done. I don’t know when or why it started happening. I didn’t even discover the name ‘Trichotillomania’ until I was 17. When I was a child, my parents didn’t think of it as anything more than a habit I would grow out of. As a teenager, I grew weary of everyone telling me to ‘just stop it!’ or ‘you really need to grow some eyelashes’ as though lacking them was an immense flaw in my character. Like I needed them to be normal and accepted. No-one, myself included, understood why I pulled my hair out in the first place and why I couldn’t stop doing it. Reaching my wit’s end and turning to Google, it didn’t take me long to discover that I wasn’t alone and that I had an genuine medical condition. I burst into tears of relief. I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t the only person in the world who suffered like this. I could FINALLY give people a reason. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, I just had Trichotillomania.
The liberation which came with learning this improved my confidence. I began to talk more about my hair pulling, and slowly become less ashamed of it. Even so, many people still didn’t understand it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to recognise situations which may trigger an attack. I can go for days, sometimes weeks, without pulling, as opposed to when I was younger and would pull every day. But the urge always returns eventually, and all the progress I’ve made can be destroyed in an instant. I’ve accepted that I will never be free of it. Trich is so integral to my life, I can almost get defensive about it. I hate it, but at the same time, it’s a defining part of who I am. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have hair pulling attacks.
Of course I was bullied at school. Other kids would ask me why I didn’t have eyelashes, and I’d shrug and pretend I didn’t know. If they caught me pulling they would laugh and whisper behind my back. One time in class I heard a boy behind me murmuring to a new pupil about the girl over there who pulls out her own hair. The new guy sneered in disbelief, but then later on he saw the evidence. Another face watching me like I was a circus attraction. Those bullies used to upset me, but now I pity them. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so narrow-minded. To not even think to ask someone if they’re okay, to just automatically decide to taunt them because they’re different.
When writing, if I pause I’m always courting an imminent attack. Sometimes Trich makes me feel worthless, like I’m never going to get anywhere because I physically do anything. By its very nature, Trichotillomania erodes your self confidence. Its makes you believe you’re ugly and that no-one will want you. On bad days, I find myself avoiding peoples’ eyes during conversations for fear that they will notice. I can’t bear to look into someone else’s eyes, because then I can see them seeing me. But I love writing, and I will keep fighting for it no matter how many times I lose. Eyelashes are now my currency. They’re the price I pay for each article I complete, all the positive feedback I get on this blog, and all the stories I tell. All of those things are worth the cost. At university, I steeled myself enough to walk into seminars after Trich-y days and share my work with my classmates. None of them laughed or judged me—they just wanted to see what I had brought to workshop! Those wonderful people taught me that what I have to say, my words I continue to write, are more important than how much hair I have. Every. Single. Time.
If you have just discovered Trichotillomania, then I’m going to ask you a favour. If you notice someone you know pulling out their hair, go up to them. Speak kind words. Ask them how they are. Compliment them. There is enough pain in this world. We do not need to create more by judging each other, or feeding the misery our own minds can already give us.
If you also have Trichotillomania, then fair greetings to you, my fellow comrade. Look in the mirror. Smile. Write ‘don’t pull!’ on your hand every morning to remind yourself. Be brave. Keep fighting. Keep being you.