I was nestled into the bean bag at the foot of my bed, reading One More Time by Carol Burnett. Consumed by the book, lost in stories, my hands made their way up to my eyes, rubbing my eyelashes between my thumb and my index finger. It was comfort. Soothing. Calming all the anxiety that was pinned up inside. The rubbing turned to pulling. Lash by lash, each pull was the answer to the bit of tension built up. These are the first moments I remember trichotillomania being a part of my life.
I was ten and in fifth grade.
My friend caught me one day at my desk with my hand to my eye and with a judgmental tone asked what I was doing. I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed, telling my friend that I read in a magazine that if you gently pull your eye lashes it will make them longer. I lied to hide my embarrassment. “Oh, okay” she said. I was in the clear.
But I couldn’t keep my hands from my lashes and the pulling became out of control.
At the start of sixth grade I had no eye lashes and I found myself creating more lies to the questions people would ask about my hairless eye lids.
“I was standing over a grill when the flames shot up and burned them off.”
“I was riding in the car, curling my lashes, when we hit a giant bump and the eye lash curler ripped them all out.”
Wasn’t I creative? No, I was just desperate to come up with some story to make it look like I wasn’t the one doing it to myself. What would people think of me if they knew I was actually pulling them out? I just knew they would think I was a freak.
One of my sixth grade teachers had no sense of personal bubble space and when I would talk to her she would get what seemed like six inches from my face and stare darts into my eyes. It was too much for me. I would look down, close my eyes, avoid eye contact, anything to get out of the line of her glare. She was very sweet, but always seemed to look at me with a strange curiosity. Then, one day my mom received a phone call from her and she told my mom that she thought that I might have some sort of psychological issue since I didn’t have any eyelashes and apparently blinked a lot. She suggested that I had Tourette Syndrome.
Oh how that hurt. I felt like a completely normal person except for the compulsion to pull my lashes. Her suggestion made me feel like a broken toy, a person that was only made to be diagnosed rather than loved and accepted.
For three years in junior high I had no lashes. I had great friends those three years who never asked me about it and I never talked about it; They just loved me for who I was, lashes or no lashes. For that, I was very grateful since I felt completely unlovable with such a problem.
The sweetest moment came from a friend who, at the end of eight grade year, finally got up the courage to ask me what happened to my eye lashes. No lies this time. With courage I outright told her that I pulled them out and I just couldn’t help it. Her sweet reply I remember to this day; “You know, eye lashes are an inconvenience anyway. Sometimes I wished I didn’t have any either.” And we went on as if nothing were different.
With my answer to her question I had prepared for her to end our friendship, citing me as a freak of nature. But instead, she was compassionate, empathizing, and relatable. It was a moment that spoke life into a situation that had consumed me for the previous four years. Her response made me feel normal, yet unique and special.
I had been basing my friendships on outer appearances, always curious why anyone would want to be my friend and preparing myself for the moment they would leave. Her response made me see that it’s what’s on the inside that matters more. A massive revelation for a thirteen year old.
The summer I started high school I vowed to keep my hands from my eyes to let my lashes grow out. My mom took me to have fake acrylic nails put on because it made it harder for me to pull. I wrote a contract with myself stating “I, Hannah, do solemnly swear to never pull my eye lashes again. Ever.” and signed it, with the intent of keeping my word.
And I did. I began high school with my lashes grown out for the first time in four years. “I’m cured!” I thought.
Far from it, actually. I went through high school having lashes a majority of the time, with occasional pulling binges. I would pull them out, beat myself up, realize it’s just hair, show myself grace, and fight the exhausting compulsion to pull until I had a full set of newly grown lashes. Then the cycle would start all over again.
People have told me to “just stop” or “it’s as easy as just not doing it.” But it’s not. It’s so much more. It’s so much deeper. Imagine not scratching the itch from a thousand mosquito bites and the amount of concentration, energy, and anxiety it takes not to scratch the itch that is eating away at you. Easy? No. It’s exhausting. It’s consuming.
I didn’t know that my hair pulling had a name until my freshman year of high school. I was in the nail salon reading a Seventeen magazine. In the “Ask Seventeen” section a girl described her hair-pulling compulsions identical to mine. She asked, “Am I a freak?” I asked the same question right along with her. “No. You’re not a freak,” Seventeen said. “What you have is an obsessive compulsive disorder called trichotillomania.
“Holy cow! It has a name? It’s a real problem?!” It was an enormous relief from years of plaguing myself with condemnation for such a compulsive, self-mutilating habit. The redemption I felt at that moment was overwhelming, and I began to cry in the middle of the nail salon. I did something I never do and tore the article out of the salon’s magazine and saved it to remind myself that I have a real problem and that I’m not a freak.
While that initial step my freshman year of high school to take control of my hair pulling was the first step to success, trichotillomania has not disappeared from my life. No matter how hard, I still have rough seasons.
I sit at the computer late at night and my hand is at my eye, rubbing my lashes. The rubbing inevitably turns to pulling.
I’ll rest my left elbow on the window in the car and twirl and pull the hair on my crown. Twirl and pull. Twirl and pull. Until there’s a pile of hair between my seat an the door.
I rub my eyebrow as I’m laying in bed at night. Rub. Pull.
Please know that pulling is not an indication that something is wrong in my life. It’s just a trait I live with. It’s a conscious effort every day of my life to keep my hands away from my hair. It’s exhausting at times to resist the compulsion and occasionally I have a panic attack to keep from doing so. Then I pick myself up and press on.
Lately, I’ve been having a rough time keeping myself from pulling. I’ve compromised too much. My brows are thinner than they’ve ever been (I have light, thin brows anyway) and when the short patch of hair on my crown that I’ve always been able to hide began to show through, I fell into gut-wrenching panic. It was the first time since sixth grade when I was accused of having Tourettes, that I felt helpless and ashamed.
I had to do something to gain back control. To stop compromising.
My blog friend Aunie, who also suffers from trichotillomania, frequently blogs about her struggles and triumphs. I admire her and appreciate the community she has built to for us with Trich to encourage one another. She made herself a goal bracelet where for every day you go without pulling, you get to add a bead onto your bracelet. If you pull a hair, you take all the beads off and start from scratch.
I decided to create my own version to hold myself accountable. This photo has two beads but as I write this post I’m up to four. Four beads to show four days of hard work to keep my hands away from my hair. And as a reward for myself, once my bracelet is full, I’m treating myself to something special. A new bracelet. A mani or pedi. A trip to the beach with a book. Something to pat myself on the back.
Seeing these beads is something special. It’s an exterior acknowledgement for an inner triumph I’ve fought hard to accomplish.
I don’t write about trich a lot on my blog but I wanted to dedicate a whole post to it since the OCD has been a part of most of my life. The thought that I’ve been dealing with trich for seventeen years is astounding to me. The difference between younger me and Hannah now is grace and self-acceptance. No matter what hair I’ve pulled I realize that I’m beautiful because of what’s on the inside – a realization that comes with age, maturity, a sense of self-worth, and the love of my Savior. A realization that helps me to show myself grace when my human nature wants to beat myself up.
Trichotillomania doesn’t define me. My character, my integrity, and my love for Jesus and others…those are what set me apart.