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.
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.
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.
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?