Beating Trichotillomania (How a Rubber Donkey Saved My Eyebrows)

How I am beating Trichotillomania

I distinctly remember that day in high school science class when I realized for the first time that I’d developed a habit of plucking out my eyebrow hairs with my fingernails. It was an absent-minded past-time; I’d just suddenly catch myself doing it. Worse yet, I couldn’t bring myself to stop. It got so bad that I started having to use eyebrow pencils to fill in where the hair was missing. The embarrassment wasn’t enough to stop me, nor was the suggestion by my mother that if I didn’t stop, eventually the hair would never grow back. She was wrong, by the way. The hairs kept trying to re-emerge, but all they did was become fresh targets for my obsession. I thought I was the only person doing this; that this was my vice alone.

So it continued for approximately 30 years. Though an occasional eyelash fell victim, I managed to primarily restrict the damage to my eyebrows, plus other facial hair that could stand to be absent anyway. It wasn’t until I turned my book Facing Up to It over to my editor, Debra Ginsberg, that she read about it in my manuscript and informed me that my habit had a name.

Trichotillomania.

And I realized it was silly to think I was the only person in the world doing this.

Trichotillomania is defined as an impulse-control disorder in which people have an irresistible urge to pull out hair. Mine is a mild case compared to some, since I am able to confine it primarily to my eyebrows. Some people end up with huge bald patches on their scalp. I think at one time I may have pulled the hair from my scalp, but only one at a time. In keeping with the symptomatic descriptions, I would then find myself examining the roots. At some point, I abandoned that practice.

I’ve never been formally diagnosed, so I can only guess that mine is anxiety-related, as it got more extreme when I was in the midst of intense projects. I felt bad for doing it, and worse still because I couldn’t stop myself. I have non-addictive tendencies, and viewed this as a weakness. I was ashamed of my lack of will-power. I tried covering my eyebrow with band-aids and such, or wearing gloves so that my fingernails weren’t available to grab and pluck the hairs, but all for naught. So I pretty much gave up trying, because along with the obsession came apathy. I’d catch myself doing it but if the stress level was high enough, I just didn’t care.

In the spring of 2012, something changed. Perhaps it was the notion that my book was nearing completion and that a new phase of my life was about to begin. I decided once more to make a concerted effort to end this habit. While no hard and fast cure could be found anywhere on line and therapists specializing in this disorder are few and far between, one technique that came up was diversion. I needed to have another outlet for the stress and find something else for my fingers to do. When Ian and I volunteered for merchandise for a band called Gaelic Storm, a possible solution presented itself in the cheap foam rubber donkey representing the band mascot Darcy. They refer to these critters as “stress donkeys,” so I decided to put it to the test.

I discovered several things about my poor little foam Darcy. One, anything painted on rubs off, and two, they tear easily. I squished, folded, pounded and twisted that donkey every time I was tempted to reach for my eyebrow. The only reason my original Darcy is still in one piece is because I also discovered that super glue works really well on that material, and because despite the violence I enacted upon it, I put a concentrated effort into keeping it intact. However, it definitely bears the scars.

My trichotillomania diversion

This foam rubber donkey, purchased at a Gaelic Storm concert, became my trichotillomania diversion.

Most significantly, the effort paid off. A few hairs at a time, the bald patches filled in. By summer, my eyebrows had nearly grown completely back.

Victory!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. My resolve slipped, the foam donkey was set aside, and my behavior reverted. I wondered if this is what smokers go through, trying to quit. However, despite the setbacks, it never got as bad as it was previously. Most of the assault was on the left side, so except for the very outside edge my right eyebrow survived.

The behavior is self-perpetuating. Once you do damage, you cause the skin to itch, so the compulsion is even stronger. Leave it alone long enough for the skin to heal, it is easier to stay away.

But I held onto the notion that if it worked once, I could make it work again.

Is this awkward and embarrassing to put my admission of this compulsive disorder, or as some would say, “mental illness,” out there before the world? Sure! Yet I am currently renewing my efforts. I am slowly but surely in the process of beating a 30-year-old habit, and if I can do it, maybe others can too.

Largely due to the process of writing my book, my self-esteem and self-acceptance has progressively improved over the last few years. Perhaps it is these internal changes that allow me to gradually eliminate whatever psychological need this hair-pulling vice fulfilled. More and more, if I catch my fingers going to my eyebrow, I need only tell myself to stop. As a result, the bare patches are slowly filling in once again.

And even though I haven’t needed it this time around, my war-torn Darcy the Donkey stands ready just in case.

Do you have Trichotillomania? How bad is it, and have you been able to control it? If so, how?

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31 Responses to Beating Trichotillomania (How a Rubber Donkey Saved My Eyebrows)

  1. Cee July 21, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

    Glad I stumbled upon this! I’ve been suffering for nine years. I guess mine would be considered a mild case as well as I only stick to my brows and lashes. I’ve tried simple will power to no avail. I’ll try a stress ball and see how it goes. Thanks for the idea!

    • Dawn July 21, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

      Unfortunately I’ve backslid a bit, but happy to say that my right eyebrow is still intact and I’m only missing about half my left. It’s not easy, but I still believe that the key is diversion- giving the offending hand something else to do. I also know that stress is a factor- I’ve been doing some intense work on the computer lately. Also, if you can get past those first days of everything itching because you’ve disrupted it so much, it does get easier after that. In fact, your comment has inspired me to try harder with the diversion tactics. I think we do reach a level of apathy- we realize we’re doing it, and decide we just don’t care. But then we do!

  2. Shira July 23, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    Dawn, thanks for posting about your donkey! I have been a hair puller since the age of 16 and I’m now 38. I think it’s worse when I’m reading, which makes reading less appealing…and that’s probably the saddest part of having OCD!

    I can live with and camouflage a small bald spot, which is about all i ever have these days.
    When I was younger, I had less impulse control and it was harder to conceal. I don’t give myself a hard time for tweezing hair that I don’t want. That’s one of the great joys of life!

    I do however, try to catch myself at the beginning of pulling and I put my hair into a ponytail, which always works. At one time, I tried dying my hair blond and cutting it so short I couldn’t pull it very easily. That was another technique that worked pretty well. Unfortunately, short, blond hair is not super attractive on everyone.

    Lately, some of the hair in my “favorite” pulling spot is growing in white. I don’t have white hair anywhere else, so I think this has to do with the pulling. Boo.

    It really helps to make friends with someone else who deals with this condition. Two of my close friends coincidentally have the same issue and they were relieved to find out we have that in common. There is so much shame and joy in hair pulling. It’s quite weird!

    One final note. People with OCD actually have more grey matter in their brains. That means we’re slightly smarter. Hey, perhaps we need to remove hair to ventilate our colossal brains and keep them from overheating with sheer awesomeness. Just a thought.

    • Dawn July 24, 2013 at 8:34 am #

      Shira thanks for your thoughtful insights! My eyebrow abuse intensifies when I’m at my computer which is…a lot. Since my left hand is the worst offender, I grab my pant leg or otherwise try to distract it. Try a stress ball while you’re reading, or find a way that you have to use both hands in order to read. My hand likes to be destructive, so my poor donkey doesn’t look so good, but something you can dig your nails into or pinch might help. Hey, that white spot could be kinda cool! Maybe you could spot-dye it blue or purple and turn it into a fashion statement!

  3. Sarah December 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    I have very relieved that I too, stumbled across this, as now I have a name for what’s been happening to me and also, that now I know that I’m not the only one with this ‘issue’. I’ve been obsessively ‘playing’ with my eyebrows since I was a teen, but quickly realized what I was doing and stopped doing it until about the past 2 years or so, that was when I was 15 and I just turned 31 one week ago.Over the last two-three years, it’s gone from just playing with them, rubbing them, sliding my fingernail across them, to actually pulling them out, this past year, has been the worst. It’s humiliating, not only when people see me doing it, but also the bald spots that it’s created. I also have to constantly fill my eyebrows in with a pencil or keep my bangs short enough to cover them,and I also primarily stick to the left side, but revert to the other side when need be, they both have definite and noticeable damage/missing hair as a result. It’s driving me crazy, I can’t sleep at night bc I can’t stop doing it, I literally have to pass out from extreme lack of sleep bc otherwise, I can’t stop doing it long enough to concentrate on actually falling asleep. It’s obviously the worst for me at night, I don’t know if it’s the peace from not having to have people seeing me do it, or from being in the dark so nobody will see what I look like bc of it, but I want to stop none the less and am willing to try anything. I miss my eyebrows and I don’t want to continue being so ashamed of how I’m practically disfiguring my face. Thank you for posting this information and allocating to me that I’m not in fact the only person in the world who has this disorder.

    • Dawn December 6, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

      Wow, Sara, I am impressed that you started in your teens and was able to stop for 14 years. I started in high school and never stopped. It got so bad I had almost nothing left. I guess since my face is different anyway that sort of self-induced blemish was just part of “look.” ;) Though I used diversion to allow them to mostly grow back, I’ve significantly lost ground on my left eyebrow. My right one is still all natural. I’m now actively trying to regrow the missing half of the left one. It’s a tough battle. I’m not using the donkey so much this time. I have a Time Turner replica (from Harry Potter) instead! I can’t help but wonder if something changed in your life 2 years ago that brought you back to this behavior so radically? I wish there was something else I could say that might help. Is there a way to get to the root cause? I wonder if it may be only a symptom. Good luck. I hope you find a solution by finding a way to live with it or finding a way to control it.

  4. Lindsay December 17, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    I have been a hair puller since I was in 5th grade (I am now 23). My pulling began with my hair and I still pull from the same spot occasionally. I have a bald spot that has not completely filled in since 5th grade. For the past 6 years, I have been pulling my eyebrows. My pulling is definitely stress related. When I have to sit and study for hours, the pulling is extremely bad. I hate myself for doing it and I am humiliated by it but I truly feel like I have no control. I’m going to find something right now to occupy my hands. Prayers are with you all that struggle with this problem.

    • Dawn December 17, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

      It’s a really, really hard habit to break. I’m at my worst at my computer, which is most of the time. I’m making another attempt to grow back the still-missing half of my left eyebrow, and aside from diversion (finding something else for my hand to do) I have some success with stroking rather than pulling. Whatever you find to occupy your hands, I find it works better if it’s something you can squeeze, poke, dig your fingers into or through, etc. I am actually using a replica time-turner from the third Harry Potter film right now. Moving parts and gaps I can stick my fingers into.

  5. Daisy February 23, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    Thanks Dawn! After stumbling upon this article, I searched for something new to break my fifteen year pulling habit. I couldn’t find a donkey… but I came across spinner rings which are amazing. Gives my hands something else to do until the urges go, I wear it all the time, and it looks just like a mood ring, so I don’t get questioned for carrying around a squishy object as I used to. Definitely worth a try!!

  6. Vic April 20, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    It’s good to know this bad habit can be beaten. I only have a mild form but when my stress level gets high enough I will start to pluck. It’s embarrassing and unfortunately it just feels good to do it, almost like acupuncture.

    With the support of my loving wife I have made great progress but I still fall off the horse, I feel silly doing it again, just a bad habit I need to break.

    • Dawn April 21, 2014 at 8:16 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Vic. I really can only just now say that I’ve beaten it. It’s only been a month or so that I’ve quit wearing eyebrow pencil to cover the bald spots. Now that I have two full eyebrows again for the first time in over 30 years, it’s easier to remind myself to leave them alone because I don’t want to be back where I was. I can’t say exactly how or why I succeeded this time. Maybe it has to do with other major positive life changes. There is no magic answer, unfortunately.

  7. anya April 23, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    thank you for the great advice i will try to stop pulling my head hair and stop causing my familiy pain. i was diagnosed when i 8 years old and now im 13. i try to stop but it never lasts. if you have any more advice plz reply. i hope i can stop once and for all for my familys sake

    • Dawn April 23, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

      I’m sorry that this causes you so much anguish. I don’t understand why this is so hard on your family. You are the one who needs support; you are the one in pain. Your family should be supporting you in trying to find the root cause and in helping you find solutions. I hope they are not making you feel bad about your compulsive habit. This only makes it worse because it puts more guilt and stress on you. Do you have someone supportive outside of your family that you can talk to about it?

      • anya April 24, 2014 at 7:21 am #

        my grand mother probably. but i cant talk to her because my phone doesnt call and my mom wont let me call her unless she calls first. your method seems to be working well i have a really big book that i read whenever i feel the urge to pull. thank you so much

        • Dawn April 25, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

          Diversion is certainly what I use and worked this time around. Something to occupy your fingers as well as your mind. Good luck.

  8. Pip April 27, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    Thank you for this.

    I’ve been pulling since I was about 10, and I’m 23 now. It started just on the crown of my head, and I stopped when my mum told me I had a small bald patch. But it didn’t take long for it to come back, and now I pull from anywhere and everywhere. My head is still the biggest problem area. I had to wear wigs through the latter years of school because I had almost no hair left on my head, and so far I’ve needed to shave my head twice just to get myself out of the habit. Right now, it seems to be getting severe again and I fear another head shave is looming in the not-so-distant future.

    I think a stress ball would be a good investment. I’ve tried many things in the past – gloves, tape over my fingers, Vaseline, hair nets, a yoyo, tea tree shampoo and learning coin tricks to name a few – but finding something that combines effectiveness with practicality is pretty difficult. The only thing that has actually worked for me so far has been the head shaves, and even they have only been temporary, with the pulling coming back after a year or so.

    Doctors don’t seem to know what to do with me, so I need to find something myself. I’m desperate to have long hair like I used to have about ten years ago.

    • Dawn April 28, 2014 at 7:18 am #

      Thanks for sharing your story. For me, it was worse in times of high stress. Is there any way you can identify the stressors that might be the underlying cause and address those? If you have been talking to medical doctors, it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t have a solution for you because it’s a psychological condition, not a medical one. You might want to check out http://www.trich.org and see if there is any helpful information there. I wish you luck. It’s taken me years to solve mine, but then I consider mine relatively minor in comparison.

  9. Danielle August 15, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    Going to try this. I’m so frusterated. My left eyebrow has never looked this bad. Yes my issue is obvioulsy impluse control but it’s not stress driven. I notice that I only pluck the wirey hard eyebrows that feel prickly to the touch. The big problem is that when a strand of hair starts to grow back they all feel prickly. You know that tiny first sign of the hair. If I rub my finger over it and it feels stiff to the touch without thinking I immedately start trying to pull it out. If only I could get the strands to grow in super fine and soft like a child’s eyebrow I wouldn’t have the compulsion to pull it out.

    Is anyone else like me? Can anyone help?

    • Dawn Shaw August 15, 2014 at 11:53 am #

      Yes I felt the same way. Those first few days when the new hair is trying to grow in is the hardest, because it ITCHES. It’s still a struggle even months later, but now that I have two full eyebrows, it’s easier to remind myself to leave them alone, because I don’t want to have to start over. I still pull a few hairs now and then, but it’s not constant like it was.

  10. Michelle August 19, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

    I’m not sure when my eyebrow hair pulling started, but I know I was definitely doing it in high school. I have my Dad’s eyebrows, very long and bushy. I always felt like they were two huge caterpillars on my face. I didn’t start actually plucking with tweezers at this point. I would simply pull them out with my fingers to thin them out. It wasn’t a problem at that point because there were just so many. However, over the years I’ve done several strange things that I have just recently acknowledged to myself and my husband. I can’t stand the harder, wire-like hairs. They feel wrong and I pull and pull or just grab the tweezers. I actually start to feel more anxious as the minutes go by, then relief when I get it out. I pluck the hairs that are too blonde. They are usually harder feeling hairs, too. For longer than I can remember, when I would hand-pull or tweeze my brows, I would have to place each hair on a white piece of paper, so I could see how many I was pulling out. I would feel satisfaction for getting so many. I also like to twirl them between my finger and thumb. I really only enjoy it when they are the harder hairs. The past year has been really bad, really for the first time am I having bald spots in my brows. If I get them waxed and tinted, I tend to leave them alone longer because I can focus on having them look nice. However, once that grows-out, I start plucking again. I now find myself pushing the hairs the opposite way of their growth, so of course they feel “weird” and then I start pulling. It’s mostly my left eyebrow that I abuse, but my right still gets it! I find myself touching them that way almost all the time, watching tv, playing on my ipad, at work, in the car, etc. I do it before I even release I am. I have had luck in handing over my tweezers to my husband to hide and my smearing petroleum jelly on them so they are too slick to pull. I am going to increase my efforts by focusing on regrowth by: giving the tweezers and all magnifying mirrors to my husband for safe keeping and I’m also going to try using minoxidil on them until early October. We have a wedding to go to, so my hope is to have enough hairs grown back that I can get them shaped and tinted. I’ve probably stopped typing this about ten times to touch my left eyebrow, make the hairs go the wrong way and think about how much I’d like to just shave the freaking things off!! I hate to say I’m glad there are others out there with this issue, but it’s nice to not be alone.

    • Dawn Shaw August 19, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

      We are very seldom alone in anything we do. It sounds like the waxing and tinting works for you. Me, I am so happy just to have full eyebrows again I try hard to control the plucking. But by having full eyebrows, I know I can afford to lose one or two here and there. But if I get carried away, well…then I have to start all over and I don’t want to do that. Still, compulsion is a difficult thing to overcome. I wish the best for you- sounds like you’re on the right track.

  11. Melanie October 10, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    I found you by searching for a better pencil. I have been pulling since 5th grade. I didn’t start trying to fill in until they were completely gone. I was an adult, and people (guys mostly) started asking me where my eyebrows were. I subsequently fit in with the goth rock and metal crowd as drawn brows were accepted. 25 years after starting to pull, I grew them back almost completely until my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. They disappeared quickly. I can only attribute growing them back to having a huge falling out with my best friend. It was like sadness took over the anxiousness that caused the pulling.
    In the early days I root-examined and collected, as you all spoke of doing. It wasn’t until I took an abnormal psych class that I knew there was a name for it, and that I was not alone. I’m 37 now, and although I don’t care to fret over what I look like anymore, I am afraid of passing this on to my child. I don’t want him to see me doing it, I don’t want to have to explain to him that I do it because they itch, as I’ve always told the rest of the world. He is a year old, and he pulls his hair when he drinks and when he’s tired. When I hold him he pulls my hair, and that of my friends with long hair. He even does this in his sleep. The pediatrician told me not to worry, that he is too young for trichotillomania to manifest, but I worry nonetheless.
    It’s a vicious cycle. You get the will power to grow a few hairs and then convince yourself that one side doesn’t match the other, or you can’t get the hair to blend with pencils, and remove it all.
    Growing up I thoroughly examined my aunts and grandmothers. I never saw any signs of them doing this, so perhaps the obsession will die with me. I sure hope so.

    • Dawn Shaw October 14, 2014 at 7:54 pm #

      Thanks for writing, Melanie. Sorry for the delay in responding but I’ve been out of town and email access is limited on my phone. So far so good on my eyebrows, even through some stressful situations, thought it is always a battle. I can’t say about heredity, as no one else in my family seemed to exhibit it. I confess, I look at older photos when I used a pencil and really don’t like to post them unless I have to. Prefer the natural “bushy eyebrow” look, and with my facial difference, you’d think the eyebrows would be the least of my worries! :) I guess I am proud that I finally have them back. It’s nice not to have to worry about the pencil rubbing off on things, leaving me eyebrow-less.

  12. Leah October 21, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

    Thank you very much for posting this comment. I am 18 years old and have been pulling the hair on my scalp for about 8 years now. I have never been formally diagnosed and did not discover I had a disease until I googled how to stop playing with your hair. For the past 8 years, I thought that it was just a severe lack of willpower on my part and I constantly wondered why I could not stop. My mother would constantly yell at me whenever she saw me playing. It got so bad (and it is still this bad). I have a complete fear of bald spots which I can see appearing distinctly on my head :( I have very thin straight hair, so they are visible. Also, my hair is quite oily and I realized that I play with my hair most when it is oily which is why I wash it everyday now. My trichotillomania got better for a while, but this is my first year of university and it is really bad again. The only times I seem to leave my hair alone is when it is tied back, so I do my best to keep the hair off my face. All of you guys have inspired me so much, because you’ve let me know that when you succeed your hair grows back which is what I keep wishing for! My mother always said they would not grow back. I am hoping that if I go see a psychologist, they will be able to help me. This site is very encouraging because of all the success stories! Also, I think it may be hereditary because my father picks at his face all the time. It is an absent-minded habit of his and my mother is also trying to get him to stop. I’m trying so hard to beat this, but my only solution is to keep a bandana on…

    • Dawn Shaw October 21, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

      Leah, thanks for sharing your story. My mom tried to tell me my hair wouldn’t grow back, but maybe it was just a scare tactic. Or maybe it’s what she honestly believed. Your mom is doing the best she can- she just doesn’t understand. Whatever works for you to keep it under control. It was bad while I was in college- gloves and band-aids over my eyebrows didn’t help. I wonder if finally making some positive changes and putting my life on its correct path (inspirational/motivational speaking) have helped quell the urge. A psychiatrist or psychologist can help if there is an underlying cause to your stress that manifests through your hair pulling. Bringing that to light might help you a lot. My trichotillomania is not gone and probably never will be, but at least I seem to have it under control. I hope it doesn’t take you the 30+ years its taken me!

  13. Eric November 1, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    I just found this site today. I had a pretty serious episode last night, and am so embarrassed today. Sigh. About 2/3 of my left eyebrow gone, and about 1/2 of my right. I just couldn’t stop, and now I look weird and feel stupid. Hope they grow back soon. Good to know that I’m not alone.

    • Dawn Shaw November 2, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

      I totally understand the feeling of not being able to stop, though for me at least it isn’t that I “can’t” but rather I hit a level of apathy in which I just don’t care so I keep going. I mean, we must get something out of it or else we wouldn’t do it, right? So your pulling is episodic? You pull, it grows back, and you pull again? Mine was fairly constant- up until recently I never allowed it to grow back. Now that it has grown back, I work really hard to leave it alone so it STAYS grown back, but it’s a constant battle. Nope, you are not alone. I was 30 years into it before I realized I wasn’t alone and that it has a name! Good luck, and thanks for writing.

  14. Santana November 21, 2014 at 7:45 am #

    I have been a eyebrow scratcher for some time. I actually go to the point to where I create scabbing and bleeding from eye brow. Then of course I love to pick at scabs so just makes it that much worse. I’ve been told to put a rubber band around my wrist and use that as a decoy. It worked for a bit of the time but now my urge has gotten worse. I’m glad I saw this post. I will try to use this stress ball thing and see if it works however only set back is I see is that I can’t bring a stress reliever with me everywhere. But glad to know I’m not the only one

    • Dawn Shaw November 21, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

      You can take a stress reliever most places. My worst is while I’m driving. Thank goodness I can focus on the pesky little hairs around my chin instead. They are not missed and can be a way to feed the obsession without losing my eyebrow again. And no, we are not alone.

  15. T F December 9, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    I’m so glad I found this as I was starting to think there was no hope. No I have renewed enthusiasm to fight this! For years I’ve plucked my eyelashes and daily apply false ones to cover it but this just stops me doing so many things. I can’t go anywhere without wearing full make up. For once I’d like to be able to get up and go out without taking an hour to get ready! I’ve now also started on my eyebrows and like previous comments it’s my left one that suffers. I’ve also noticed its when I’m stressed or tired (which can roll into one thing) that the urge is strong. I’ve managed before to break the habit for a while but I seem to always come back to it. Thanks very much for sharing with everyone your thoughts and experience with this. It means a lot to know that I’m not the only one.

    • Dawn Shaw December 9, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      There is always hope. What happens if you go without full make-up? I just used eyebrow pencil to cover my bare spots. It was a little embarrassing if it got rubbed off during the day, but oh well, I didn’t die. You are beautiful. You could be completely devoid of hair and still be beautiful. Go forth with the comfort that you are not alone.

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