I used to have a recurring nightmare. I was walking through a hallway full of people I didn’t know, and I was bald. I had forgotten my wig.
This truth hit me in one blow and tasted like acid on my tongue. I wore clothes, but I was naked, and every single person could see it and was ashamed of me.
Not one of them knew me, cared for me, but every single one of them was disgusted with me. I was being indecent. I was exposed. How dare I.
I tried to run, retreat, but it was like moving against a riptide: exertion but no forward motion.
Now, at 23 years old, my nightmare has come true. I am bald, and I am exposing myself to not just a hallway of people, but an entire online community. I don’t have cancer. I don’t have alopecia.
I did this to myself.
When I was eight-years-old, I lay on the couch, bored, thumbing my nose, eyes, mouth. I touched my eyebrow and felt an unusual, prickly hair. It was out of place. I pinched the hair between my thumb and pointer finger, then tugged. And tugged again, and again.
Thirty minutes later, I walked to the front door and looked in the mirror. I had half an eyebrow, which was suspended awkwardly over my eye, like the smudge of an eraser.
Four years later, I moved from my eyebrows to my scalp. I plucked my hair for upward of five hours a day, until my fingers blistered and bled. Every morning, I performed my ritual of covering up the damage: putting on hats and headbands, filling in bald spots with mascara and Sharpie marker. I lived a life of hiding.
Externally, I was composed and confident. Internally, all was chaos. Urges to pull came on strong, like the need to scratch a mosquito bite. Pulling itself put me in a sort of trance—time went by in a blur. I wanted to stop pulling my hair, but I couldn’t. It felt too good, too soothing. Too uncontrollable.
I have trichotillomania (trick-o-TIL-o-mania), a hair pulling disorder that affects 15 million Americans—that’s three times the number of people who suffer from anorexia—the vast majority of whom are women.
Trichotillomania has been called the “disorder of isolation.” It is also an enigma. Although organizations like the Trichotillomania Learning Center have made advances in treatment and research, hair pulling remains one of the most mysterious of all psychiatric disorders.
The fact that hair pulling is so common, yet so misunderstood, means that its sufferers—your family members, friends, and classmates—are living in silence. Almost all of us have believed, at some time, that we are the only ones who do what we do.
For years, I pursued a double life. I passed through elementary school and middle school striving to achieve academically, make friends, and make my parents proud. I kept my hair pulling buried, believing that that part of me was ugly, disgusting, and unworthy.
I spent my days either plucking, hiding my plucking, or obsessing over whether my headband had slipped, my makeup was smudged, or if the wind would carry away my beanie. I giggled with friends, handed in essays to teachers, thinking If only they knew. I was trapped in a cycle of shame and silence, enveloped in a hollow hush.
My hair pulling worsened with time, and at the age of 17, I purchased my first wig. Now I could hide better than ever before. But the more I was able to fit in, the more I felt like a fraud. In my mind, I could fool others into believing I was put together, but I knew the truth: I was broken and unlovable.
As a hair puller, I could not be loved. Who could possibly care for a girl who pulled out her hair? The only solution was to stop plucking. I needed a cure. I needed it quick.
I tried hypnosis, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy. Some strategies worked better than others, but none of them stuck. I would stop for a day, a week, occasionally a month, and then, inevitably, I would start up again.
Weeks’ worth of growth disappeared in a matter of minutes. I was succeeding in and out of school, but, underlying that, my days were made up of a million failures that no one else saw.
Then, out of the blue, I decided to tell a high school friend about my hair pulling. My confession came out jumbled, like those strings of word magnets that form complete, but incoherent thoughts. I was shaking as I spoke, and my friend put a hand on my shoulder, steadying me.
“OK,” she said.
“I love you no matter what. Hair or no hair.”
All at once, it seemed that my two worlds—that of my external image, and of my internal identity—had collapsed into one another. For the first time, I felt like one, unified person.
I had exposed my deepest, darkest secret, made myself as vulnerable as ever, and I’d never felt better. I was loved. With or without my hair pulling, with or without my hair.
For years, I had been addicted to secrecy. Now, I was addicted to sharing my story. I felt liberated. My shame, which had once crippled me, was dissipating. I was still plucking my hair. I was still bald. But, by opening up about my hair pulling, by coming out of hiding, I had begun what will likely amount to a lifelong project.
I had begun to heal.
Looking at Google and YouTube, I found posts and videos of women—beautiful, funny, vibrant women—who also struggled with trichotillomania.
They were all people. People, who happened to pull their hair out. For the first time, I considered the possibility that I could be well, be happy, even without being cured.
Wellness, I was coming to understand, was not simply a condition—it was a personal choice, a mindset that allowed for internal peace, regardless of circumstance.
My hair pulling was not the entirety of the problem—hiding my hair pulling was at the heart of my suffering. I may not have had control over the behavior, but I could control my response to it.
I could embrace myself and give others the chance to embrace me too. I could surround myself in a community of supporters, individuals who saw me, and all of me.
No longer ashamed of my hair pulling, I released myself from my cycle of silence and suffering. I may not have slain the beast of hair pulling, but I was slashing it in the gut.
Three years ago, I attended my first national trichotillomania conference, hosted by the Trichotillomania Learning Center. Being in a room full of hundreds of hair pullers, individuals who shared the darkest part of my history, was surreal.
Everyone was hugging. We didn’t know one another, but, by virtue of our attendance, we knew each other, more intimately than even our closest friends and family members. How could we not embrace?
On the last day of the conference, I made the most terrifying decision of my life.
I was walking through a hallway full of people I didn’t know, and I was bald. I hadn’t forgotten my wig. It was tucked into my tote bag, just in case, though I would never even think about it that day.
These strangers did not know me, but they were proud of me. Some of them told me so. Most made eye contact with me, smiled or nodded, and then kept walking.
One woman told me I’d inspired her to take her wig off in front of other people for the first time. Another that I should run for the Miss America pageant. I felt like a rock star for the same reason I had once believed myself an outcast.
I imagine that most of us are in hiding, in some way. We all exist on two dimensions, the level of external performance and internal discord. Hair pulling is one form of this duality, and is distinguished not by its rarity, but by its lack of acknowledgment in our current society.
With new medical research and the expansion of social media, that paradigm is only just starting to change.
Now I am part of a community where I don’t need to hide. Where, in fact, being my unified self makes me fit in. My splintered identity has been rendered unnecessary—why be someone I’m not, when I can comfortably be me?
Hair pulling is an overwhelming compulsion, one that is likely to follow me throughout my lifetime. There is no cure. Maybe there never will be one.
Trichotillomania has not been a blessing—I would not wish it on anyone—but it has been an opportunity. An opportunity to gain resiliency, to love myself and others with or without hair, and to be an agent for change in the mental health community.
I wrote a memoir about my experiences with hair pulling, and I hope to be an advocate for continued research on trichotillomania and other related disorders, such as skin picking and compulsive nail biting.
Hair pulling has stripped me down to my essence, to my literal and figurative bareness. I now know that the craziness that I feel while struggling with hair pulling relates to my experience, but not to who I am as a human being. My behavior is ugly, often out of control, but I am not ugly or out of control.
I still dream of beating my hair pulling. Of not having to manage hours lost in my day, not feeling compelled to wear a wig in my day-to-day life.
Though I reveal myself to fellow hair pullers at trichotillomania conferences, I rarely go without a wig in public. Maybe I have residual shame. Maybe I’m not at that point in my journey yet. But I know I’m on the road to healing, and that, for me, is enough.