IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Shaved My Head to Gain Control Over My Trichotillomania

The decision wasn’t as desperate as what led up to it.
Publish date:
December 10, 2014
healthy, hair, mental health, trichotillomania

The day my husband shaved my head, my psychic asked me, “Why can’t you?” That may not mean much without my comment that prompted her question, which was “I wish I could shave my head.”

During my initial meeting with Lisa, my biggest problem came up: trichotillomania, a condition defined by the compulsion to pull out one’s hair. “Trich” is something I have allowed to define me for years. It’s also something I’ve been unable to kick. I’ve tried behavioral modification therapy, antidepressant drugs and pure willpower, but nothing worked. I continued to pull out the hair on my head and my upper eyelashes. I couldn’t begin to explain why. I was able to quit cigarettes cold turkey, and the fact that I couldn't apply the same force of will to quitting trich drove me crazy.

I was 12 when my trich emerged and I was forced to devise new and more interesting ways to hide my bald spots. Hairspray and ponytails usually did the trick. As a nearly teenaged girl, all this time spent styling my hair made me feel more grown-up.

That changed as the years passed. Sick of cleaning sticky hairspray residue off my bathroom floor, I ditched the hairspray in favor of hairbands and scarves. But it was harder to cover up the spots farther away from my hairline. I noticed the patches showing through when I’d look in the mirror or at photos of myself. Since I am a brunette with pale skin, the patches practically glowed, they were so visible. I occasionally resorted to coloring them in with a makeup pencil.

A while later, a massage therapist told me I was developing tennis elbow. She said something about how it must be all the office work, the repetitive motion with the mouse. I agreed in a vague way, fully aware of the true culprit and not about to admit to it. Over a decade of pulling out hairs on my head, often to the point of pain in my fingers because I pressed my index finger and thumb together so hard, was taking its toll.

The last straw came when my in-laws dropped by for a surprise visit. I shouted through the door for them to let themselves in and then dashed upstairs to the bathroom. They had never seen me without eyeliner and my hair fixed. The hair was an easy if not glamorous fix of throwing on a bandanna. But I couldn’t find my eyeliner anywhere. Out of desperation, I used a Sharpie as eyeliner to avoid their seeing my undecorated eyes. Ever since then, I occasionally suffer allergic breakouts where my eyelids swell nearly shut.

By the time I visited my psychic, I was exhausted from all the hassle of styling myself just so every day. I have little patience for style and was just plain done with the “need” to get up early to fix my hair and to apply eyeliner over my bald eyelids. So when she asked me what I was hiding under my bandanna, I mentioned my situation. I said that I often wished I could just shave my head and be done with it. Her three simple words gave me pause. “Why can’t you?”

I laughed. Of course I couldn’t shave my head! Not only am I a woman living in a rural area of the Midwest (not known for its acceptance of new and unique styles), but I’m overweight! I’ve seen women who look great with a shaved head, but they’ve all been slender. I didn’t voice any of this though. I censored the words before they escaped my mouth because I knew they were so much bull. There was no good reason why I couldn’t. Only a sticky residue of fear.

Why can’t you?

When I arrived home, I recounted the discussion to my husband, ending in a shaky voice, “So I think maybe I should do it.”

Two seconds later, I whined to the ceiling, “Oh, but I can’t!”

This went on, back and forth with myself, for about 15 minutes. Finally, I grabbed a pair of scissors and lopped off my ponytail close to my head. “There,” I said and started crying. “Now I have to.” My husband’s response made me grin, cry harder with relief, and remember why I married him: “Okay, you pour yourself some wine," he said. "I’ll get the clippers.”

The fear remains. Fear of standing out. Fear of being different. Fear of being mistaken for a cancer patient when I wear scarves to hide the bald spots that have yet to fill in. It’s the first conclusion most people draw. Complete strangers ask me whether I have cancer. I’m too much of a people-pleaser to tell them it’s none of their business. I’m too scared of the perception I’m masquerading as a member of some club for pity’s sake to tell them anything other than “No. Don’t worry, it’s something else.”

On a day I felt confident enough to go without my scarf, a coworker felt truthful enough to laugh when she saw me and tell me from behind she thought the company had hired a new guy in my department. I chuckled along with her. Of course that’s what you thought! What girl in her right mind (except for those “weird” girls on the coasts or in Madison) shaves her head?!

Except I disagree. A small part of me loves getting looks from the “normal” set in my small town. I feel their eyes on me when I jog down the street, the wind blowing past my nearly naked scalp. That small part of me is getting stronger, gradually becoming my new normal with every day. It’s almost so normal I’ll sometimes forget to wear something on my head. It’s almost so normal that I don’t panic when I realize I’ve forgotten a head covering. Almost.

I no longer draw on myself with permanent marker, and my elbows and fingertips are feeling much better, thank you. That’s a new normal I can live with.