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?

general-300x250
For Mental Health Information

Subscribe & Connect

Subscribe to my e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

, , , ,

17 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.

Leave a Reply