I was trying to slip my friend the baggie of coke in the salsa club, drunkenly shoving it into his hand, whispering, “Enjoy!” When he came back from the bathroom, the live band was in full swing, the horn section blasting out a riff to one of my favorite songs. “How was it?” I shouted at my buddy as he slipped the drugs back into my jacket pocket.
“You know, it was good,” he yelled back. “But -– when you gave it to me -– there was a bunch of hair with it. All these knots of hair. It was kind of –- nasty?”
My smile froze on my face and I stopped swaying to the music.
“That’s -– uh –- weird?” My voice sounded weak and scared, even to me.
Luckily, my friend was more concerned with getting trashed that night than following up on the icky mystery of the clump of hairballs I’d accidentally passed to him, along with our precious bag of Thursday-night fun.
I’d almost given away the most terrible, shameful secret of my life. What no one knows about me. What I have never talked about with anyone.
I hoard hairballs.
I pull out my hair -– sometimes dozens of wispy brown strands at a time –- and roll them into fuzzy, packed balls. Sometimes they are as tightly wound and hard as little dark pellets, other times they are a thick mess of wiry strands that look like something your cat hacked up.
It happens when I’m bored and nervous. It happens when I’m writing (and I work in media, so believe me, it happens a lot). It happens and I don’t notice until I look down and see a handful of kinky hairballs strewn across my computer keyboard.
I’ve never been formally diagnosed with trichotillomania -– the uncontrollable urge to pull out your own hair. I can’t even bring myself to talk about it with my therapist -– but let’s not kid ourselves, I’ve got trich written all over me. There are supposedly thousands of women in the US who are afflicted with the disorder.
I’ve visited the forums, I’ve posted on the message boards (pull free tips, anyone? Best way to cover bald spots besides Toppix?) As much as Internet use sparks my pulling, the Web has also allowed me to reach out to tons of other women who know that sickly, shameful popping feeling of that first dark hair leaving your scalp all too well.
But I’ve never met someone whose pulling behavior also involves the weird obsession with hairballs. This is one soothing ritual I’ve got going on here. I pull out the hair and rub it between my thumb, index, and middle finger. It rolls tighter and tighter, taking on the familiar shape that feels as relaxing as a jolt of heroin as it massages my fingertips.
Out comes more hair, which gets added to the hairball. Let’s play with it -– rub it between my fingers and against my teeth. If it’s a deadline day, usually I’ll end up frantically ripping it into pieces with my teeth and fingers. As a result, there are billions of tiny bristles of hair accumulated in clumps under my keyboard. Every few weeks, I have to pry off the keys and frantically try to clean it up a bit with a clump of bubblegum (great for picking up tiny splinters of hair in those hard-to-get places!)
This is all so gross, I know.
While in some ways it has become more accepted to write about hair pulling in reaction to stress, I haven’t seen a lot of literature out there related to the sometimes-very-strange rituals that accompany trichotillomania. Some people bite off the white bulby root of the hair they pull out. (OK, OK –- I’ve done this too. It’s a secret communion –- let me swallow this tiny part of myself, and then everything will be OK.)
Other people brush the hair against their skin, their lips. Still, I haven’t seen anything out there –- not in the forums, not on the official websites –- about the compulsion to roll giant hairballs, and then tear them apart.
I started hoarding my hairballs in high school. I told myself that hey, maybe so long as I had a ready supply on hand, it meant I wouldn’t have to constantly be pulling out more hair. As a teenager, I kept the dark clumps in a Mickey Mouse pencil case, stuffed in my desk drawer. As a young professional, now I usually keep the hairballs in my purse pocket, the way other women would guard a confidence-boosting lipstick or nicotine gum.
Unfortunately -– like that wasted night in the salsa club -– keeping my fuzzy friends in my purse increases the risk of me accidentally pulling them out. But what’s a girl to do? You never know when you might have to clamp a wad of hairballs between your teeth, to ward off that feeling of something terrible is going to happen to me, if I don’t do this right here, right now.
No one has ever noticed that I’m the hairball type. In fact, no one has ever come as close to discovering my secret stash as my coke-sniffing friend did that night in the salsa club. People have asked why I always style my hair the same way -– parted to the left, everything clipped firmly into place and stiff with hairspray. My hairdresser hipster friend always begs me to allow her to cut me some bangs, but there’s no way I could ever let anyone that close to my scalp. Haircuts are awkward affairs, involving me, scissors, and the bathroom.
Like anyone struggling with the overwhelming urge to act out compulsive rituals, I have days when I’m more or less able to control it, and I have days when it’s seriously a miracle to me that I still have hair on my head. It’s thrilling to me that more people are writing about trichotillomania on public forums. But not many people understand that sometimes, trichotillomania isn’t so much about the act of hair pulling –- it’s what you do with the hair afterwards.
I try. I put stickers on my calendar when I have pull-free days. Sometimes I take all the twisted hairballs accumulated over the past few weeks and flush them furiously down the toilet, toss them over my apartment balcony. Never again, I vow. I’m going clean.
But the sad part is these hairballs are something like the love of my life. No one else can make me feel so calm. No one else can make me feel so safe.
I see my struggle with hairball hoarding as part of the same fight so many women have to face, when it comes to compulsive behaviors, all of us sad, ashamed, sick about it inside. We all have tightly wound knots of insecurities and anxieties that we keep to ourselves. How do we undo the tangles, make everything smooth, straight and OK again? I’m still trying to figure it out.
Until then, I have my Toppix, and now this article, so maybe that’s a start.