I Hate That There Is A Name For This: Heather Doney

I Hate That There Is A Name For This: Heather Doney

Heather Doney blogs at Becoming Worldly.

Trigger warning: self-injury.

First off, let me say that I can’t write about this topic without tears of shame coming to my eyes.  Still, I figure the best thing to do with shame is to shed sunlight on it.  So here goes…

I pull my hair out when I’m stressed.  I grab a single hair and yank it out by the root, and then grab another one and do the same thing.  Pulling out the coarser hairs hurts more and those are the ones that I want to pull out.  Wanting to do it isn’t the right word, actually.  It is a compulsion.  If I am absentmindedly messing with my hair (and I generally don’t notice I’m doing it when I am) and find a coarse hair, it is very very hard to not pull it out.  It is an exercise in willpower to just leave it alone, smooth my hair back the way it was, and do something else.  Sometimes I have to put my hair up in a ponytail or a bun because otherwise I can’t help but pull that hair out and then look for another one just like it and then another one after that.

This may seem like an odd problem to have.  Maybe it strikes you as kind of nutty.  I guess I think it’s kind of nutty, and I imagine that if I didn’t have it, I’d probably be pretty judgmental towards someone who did.  Heck, I’m pretty judgmental about it and I do have this problem.

You probably wouldn’t ever know I had this problem if I didn’t tell you I did, or at least I hope you wouldn’t.  I have lived in fear of people discovering it and thinking I am ugly or crazy.  Instead lots of people tell me I have great hair, beautiful hair, compliment me on the cut and color, but I secretly know the truth.

There have been many times when I’ve had a patch or two of short hairs growing back in after I’ve pulled a number of them out and I will use hairspray, clips, ponytail holders, and lots of other things in the arsenal of hairstyling products and tools to hide it.  When in doubt I’ve sometimes gone months without ever wearing my hair down in public.  It makes me so mad.  I prefer having a simple beauty routine as well as wash-and-go haircuts, so the idea that I have this annoying problem and need to spend time and mental space on covering it up, all the while knowing I caused it myself, drives me nuts.  The frustration of being your own worst enemy with something this weird is as maddening as it is hard to explain.

There is a name for this problem.  It’s called trichotillomania.  I still can’t stand that word.  Just writing it down I feel intense loathing for it.  It makes me want to puke or punch a wall.  I hate that there is a name for this.  I hate that it exists.  I hate that I still have it and I hope that sometime, somehow, it will go away.

There are apparently other problems connected or somehow related to trichotillomania and I used to have some of them too.  I still have one of them, although it’s minor.  Nail biting is a similar sort of compulsion, as is skin-picking, and chewing on the corners of your mouth.  I still chew on the corners of my mouth, particularly while reading or writing.  (Yep, just caught myself doing it right now.)

I used to bite my nails and the skin around my nails down to the point where they’d bleed.  I quit at age 14 and have nice healthy nails today. I accomplished this by carrying a nail clipper in my pocket for immediate use on any hangnails (biting them just makes them worse), keeping my nails neatly trimmed and painted with clear nail polish that had a hint of glitter (a forbidden rebellious thing that made me happy), and I would literally sit on my hands when I really wanted to bite my nails until the urge had passed.

I used to pick at my skin daily, making my teenage acne considerably worse, and I stopped because I got a better skin care routine (I use Lush facial scrub followed by a little dab of organic coconut oil as moisturizer every day).  I also limited the time I allotted myself to inspect my skin, and I stopped using a magnifying mirror.  Today I have good and well cared for skin and thankfully the tiny scars I accidentally gave myself aren’t all that visible since I have freckles.

I had trichotillomania for years before I knew what it was.  One day when I was around 11 or 12 years old I was reading a book and noticed I had a small pile of my own hair on the couch next to me.  I threw it in the garbage.  Pulling my hair out inexplicably felt like a relief from stress, which, as the eldest daughter in a large, impoverished, and dysfunctional Quiverfull homeschooling family, I had a lot of.  A few months later I was shocked out of my hair-pulling denial when my parents noticed I had two visible bald spots on my head, each about the size of a quarter.

“Are you stupid or something?” My Dad said,  “You’re quite an idiot to be pulling your hair out by the root.  It might not even grow back now.  You’d better hope it does.  Nobody’ll want anything to do with some baldheaded girl who’s yanking out her own hair, that’s for sure.  Do it again, stupid, and you’re gonna get a spanking.”

My Dad and my siblings mocked me and laughed at me in the months afterwards as the tiny little baby hairs started sticking up when they grew back in.  I was filled with shame and embarrassment. I started wearing my hair in a ponytail all the time.  It’s the only way I was able to stop pulling it out so much and stop having people notice what I’d done.

My Dad’s solution to my problem had been (predictably) to make me feel powerless, ashamed, fearful, insecure, and scared of being hit.  As it is, I think I developed trichotillomania in the first place because I already felt all of those things very strongly.  My life was out of control, I was pointed down the future submissive wife track, and as a sensitive girl who enjoyed books and ideas a hundred times more than babies and domestic duties, I felt I would rather die than have that be my lot.  I felt stuck inside of a skin, an existence, a body, all of which I desperately wanted to shed.  Those were some of the darkest times in my life and I loathed myself as much as I felt my parents did.

I’d like to say that it was sheer willpower that got me to quit these destructive behaviors, but the truth is that over time, as my life trajectory changed for the better and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, these compulsions naturally weakened to the point that quitting them was possible.  The most noticeable improvement was when I started public school.  Still, I never did quit the hair pulling entirely.  I just hid it better and I tried my best to put my hair up and out of my own reach when I noticed I was doing it.  Thankfully today I don’t do it nearly as often as I did as a girl and at times I have thought the problem was gone entirely.  In recent years it has still returned during periods of extreme stress though.

Finals week.

Flooding out in Hurricane Katrina.

The death of my grandfather.

A breakup.

For years I believed that this problem was because I was somehow defective, screwed up, pathetic, damaged goods, and just couldn’t hack it.  When I think of trichotillomania today I view it through a different lens though.  The image that comes to mind is a bird in a cage.  This connection hit me when I learned that certain kinds of parrots, when they do not get proper socialization and care, will pull their own feathers out.  I can identify with being that bird, wings clipped, kept behind bars, not even knowing what goes on outside of the little space it’s allowed to live in, but feeling bored, unloved, and loathing it’s immediate surroundings.

I think that for girls (and probably guys) who grew up like this and have struggled with various forms of self-harm, it was a perfect storm where the expectation that “God-given natural beauty,” obedient behavior, rigid levels of self-control and self-denial, and perfection in your assigned duties were seen as giving you all of your worth, while any real independent thinking, personality, and human desire were ignored or stamped out, that self-harm became a rebellion of sorts.  It’s natural to want to be valued for who you are, not what you are, so I think that although it is certainly counter-productive, harming your appearance or health, behaving in a manner that is not allowed (towards a body that is your own but you’re told doesn’t really belong to you), and developing compulsions (the very definition of a loss of self-control) is on some level reactionary against that mindset, a twisted affirmation that you are more than those things.  After all, we all are more than those things.

I don’t think I would have ever developed trichotillomania if it hadn’t been for how I was treated as a girl, day in and day out.  Being made to live in a way that is not compatible with human nature really does strange things to people and this is what happened to me and apparently to so many other former homeschoolers (and mistreated kids in general) who developed self-harming behaviors.  The toxic environment messed with our heads so much to where we hurt ourselves, it felt natural to do so, and we didn’t even know why.

16 thoughts on “I Hate That There Is A Name For This: Heather Doney

  1. April June 10, 2013 / 8:30 am

    Dear Heather, I am crying for you. The shaming and abusive family responsibilities you experienced were very wrong. I’m so sorry. I think writing so honestly about what selfharming is gives it less power. I hope this post is another sliver of healing for you. I wish someone had stood up for you and stopped the abuse when you were a kid. I’m glad you are saving yourself now.

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  2. Meg June 10, 2013 / 8:32 am

    My sister and I both pulled hair out; we were thumb suckers as kids, nail biters in early adolescence, hair biters once the nails started drawing attention (my dentist showed me where I was wearing down my teeth), and hair pullers when we realized our hair looked gross. I was pretty secretive – I don’t think she modeled her behaviors off of me; until recently she didn’t know I had done all the same things.

    We were raised to be super perfectionists. Easy to demand of homeschoolers, with no time limits or other kids doing age appropriate work to compare to, we would do school until it was perfect or very nearly. It was never explicitly said, but if I wasn’t in the top 25% of kids in an extracurricular I was pulled out. I never took more than one session because it was too much of a hassle for my mom and I wasn’t a prodigy. I’m taking dance classes for fun with my SO and the instructor says I’m a natural who gets in my own way with thinking too much – gee, wonder why. Combine this with parents’ financial/health difficulties and an adoption of TTUAC when we were all older than five and we were kids with a lot of stress. My siblings and I have autoimmune issues and obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors, almost certainly stemming from high stress childhoods.

    In my late teens, I noticed light brown hairs on one side of my chin – they were soft, just darker than the blond fuzz and similar to the hairs a lot of women get above their lips. I started tweezing them, obsessively looking for hairs and pulling them out when very short (often damaging my skin or contributing to acne). I still have very small scars from trying to remove ingrown hairs.The hairs kept coming in, thicker and darker, and spread to both sides of my chin.

    By my mid20s, I was convinced there was something very wrong with me – PCOS or a hormone imbalance. I have such light skin that the just-below-the-surface hairs created a shadow and my chin was constantly red and irritated. I made appointments with my GP, a dermatologist, and an OB-GYN who all ran tests and told me my hormones and thyroid were within normal ranges so it must be genetic (but no female in my family has had thick facial hair before 60 or so). They recommended laser hair removal and I bit the rather expensive bullet on a student budget (thank you, Groupon). In discussing my history, I told the technician that I tweezed constantly and she said that’s why it went from a few downy hairs to many thick, wiry ones. She’d done the same thing, but with her whole body (so glad I was so focused on just one spot!).

    My compulsive self-injury is costing me hundreds of dollars to treat because the follicles have been damaged, making the hairs grow deeper and stronger. It was also so emotionally damaging; I thought something was very wrong with my body to be growing hair like that and felt the dark shadow and constant break outs made me unattractive. The good news is that laser removal has been super effective, after 7 treatments (people who haven’t entrenched their follicles are usually done at 5). I haven’t been tempted to pull hair from my scalp in 10+ yrs, all tweezers went in the trash, and I’m working on my last compulsive behavior – skin or nail picking when very stressed. The more diffuse behaviors like second guessing myself or not being as ambitious as I could be, because I may not fit in or be the best, will take more time. General health, both mind and body, are on an upward incline as I take better care of myself, validate my feelings and allow myself to feel them, and read about how people who are emerging from similar dysfunctional backgrounds are coping and growing.

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  3. DoaHF June 10, 2013 / 9:21 am

    I pick my nails and cuticles and I too used to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror pop-ing pimples and making my acne much worse.
    Thanks to leaving home, birth control, acne medicine from a dermatologist, and a boyfriend who hates it when I pick my cuticles, I am MUCH better than I used to be.

    And come to think of it, when I brush my hair i yank a lot and even when there are knots or tangles I just pull the brush through instead of actually working at the knot. I wonder if this is similar to hair-pulling-out. I didnt know I had/did all these things.

    Jeez. Its one thing to self-abuse. Its another to self-abuse and not even know you do it! *feels ashamed and stupid

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    • Meg June 10, 2013 / 10:12 am

      Things like pimple popping and hair pulling don’t do much external damage so it didn’t raise big red flags (I would have been terrified of really hurting myself while a hair at a time was no big deal). I would have been hard pressed to identify it as self abuse while it was going on. It takes a bigger emotional than physical toll. There was a pretty big overlap for my sister and me with body dismorphia, anxiety, and depression; my impression is that they fairly commonly occur together.

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  4. Anna June 10, 2013 / 10:00 am

    I didn’t know there was a name for it. I compulsively chew two spots on the inside of my lower lip to the point that there are permanent calluses/sores. Sometimes I’ll tear off so much skin that it hurts for weeks and even bleeds. I also bite and pick at the skin around the inner side of my thumbs around the nail, the skin around the outer side of my index finger nails, and the skin around the outer side of my big toes around the nail. It’s hard to describe. It hurts, but it feels good, and sometimes it feels like it needs to be hurt. And that’s just the stuff I do when I am calm or only slightly upset.
    I don’t hate myself for it or hate my body. The pain just helps me cope.

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  5. Revenwyn June 10, 2013 / 10:45 am

    I developed trichotillomania at 11, before I was even homeschooled, but homeschool didn’t help any. I am now 30 and apparently the Trichotillomania Research Center has called my case one of the top five worst they have ever seen, since I pull from everywhere. I am also a skin picker and nail biter, both conditions I had before homeschooling. The latest thought about the condition is that it is an OCD, not a self harm disorder, and they are suspecting another form that is more related to Tourette’s syndrome and is a tic. This last form is the hard one to solve, as it’s not behavioral based and just picking up a hand craft doesn’t help. It is this last form that they think I have.

    I am fortunate to be able to find wigs that look pretty good on me and to have an understanding husband who shaves my head every three weeks so I don’t get an accumulation of hair on the floors of the apartment. I have never been more than two or three days pull free since I got the condition at 11. In many women, it spikes during puberty then goes away by college, and they get it back once they have children. I have not been lucky enough to even get enough for a short hairstyle, and so I’ve just stopped trying.

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  6. Alice June 10, 2013 / 10:53 am

    I’ve had this for years. I think it started in high school when I was going insane from being alone all of the time, having no friends, and feeling like I had to keep everything locked up inside so my parents wouldn’t be upset. Taking online college classes in 11th and 12th grade was also very stressful even though it was a good decision. I haven’t had any bald spots thankfully, but am afraid I will. I had to lie several times when people who hadn’t seen me in a while commented on my haircut. It hasn’t actually been cut in years. I do it when I’m nervous or upset, but often out of habit too. I can generally refrain in public, but sometimes I catch myself. I don’t know how to stop. Washing my hair often helps a little, but not much.

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  7. Kirsten June 10, 2013 / 10:55 am

    I have trichotillomania as well — I first became aware of it when I was 14 or so, going to a hair stylist for the first time. She asked me if I pulled out my hair (seeing the shorter, coarser ones that stuck out obviously from growing back), and I lied and was ashamed. This was the early days of the Internet, so I googled my symptoms and discovered the name. Unlike you, I was happy there was a name — at least I wasn’t alone!

    I see a therapist now and she says this hair-pulling is connected (and beneath) my anxiety disorder, and I am learning how to manage my anxiety (an ongoing, eternal process!). When my anxiety is low, I generally pull out less hair. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop it completely, but I’m happy with how far I’ve come — even just to name things, to call them out and confront them with our words, is a power in itself. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. anon June 10, 2013 / 11:40 am

    I started pulling my hair out when I was 2. I still vaguely remember the sensation and thinking that it felt good. I pulled so much out that the entire right side of my head was patchy. My poor mother tried everything to get me to stop, and eventually when I was 4 or maybe 5 I did stop, completely, but I then went on to have other compulsions for years. I *think* I have actual OCD, but I’m no longer as sure as I was, because the happier I’ve become in recent years, the more every compulsion fades. Many have been gone for years now. I feel like a very different person.

    When you talked about the parrots, it made me wonder if maybe I don’t have OCD. Maybe my siblings don’t either and we were all just stressed out parrots.

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  9. JGYHC June 10, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    I wish I could post a picture. You are a not alone. I am sad, frustrated, embarrassed. I’ve stopped and started soooooo many times. And I’ve tricked myself in to thinking I stopped, but really just stopped in one certain location and started in another area. Or I’ve told myself I wanted to change where the part in my hair is just for something new – but really because I needed to cover a bald spot.

    I’m 43 years old. I have beautiful, thick, curly hair. And while I have an abundance of hair, the areas where I’ve been pulling for many years are no longer growing in again. I have permanent bald spots. I also pull the hair that is more coarse. And gray hair is always more coarse than pigmented hair. I see the problem getting worse as I get older.

    Right now the areas just above my ears are a bald, frizzy mess. I have an important business trip coming up. I know I need to look good. Yet I’m anxious and the anxiety makes me pull more….

    Thank you for sharing and letting me talk about this.

    Like

  10. Matt June 10, 2013 / 12:38 pm

    Are you stupid or something?” My Dad said, ”You’re quite an idiot to be pulling your hair out by the root. It might not even grow back now. You’d better hope it does. Nobody’ll want anything to do with some baldheaded girl who’s yanking out her own hair, that’s for sure. Do it again, stupid, and you’re gonna get a spanking.

    Have you ever noticed the tendency of fundamentalists, and particularly homeschooling fundamentalists, to blame the victim? Your dad’s reaction wasn’t “Wow, what could be going on with my daughter that is causing her to pull out her hair? Is there something I can do to help her with what she’s going through?”

    Nope.

    Instead, he goes on the offensive an enlists your siblings in ridiculing you as well.

    And then, when their kids are grown, they wonder why they leave Christianity behind since they did “everything right” as a parent. (facepalm!)

    I don’t think I would have ever developed trichotillomania if it hadn’t been for how I was treated as a girl, day in and day out. Being made to live in a way that is not compatible with human nature really does strange things to people and this is what happened to me and apparently to so many other former homeschoolers (and mistreated kids in general) who developed self-harming behaviors. The toxic environment messed with our heads so much to where we hurt ourselves, it felt natural to do so, and we didn’t even know why.

    Very insightful. I hope that you are doing well today.

    Like

    • nickducote June 10, 2013 / 12:47 pm

      The morning before I left to go to Afghanistan for a month to teach, I was a nervous wreck and I didn’t want to eat. My dad was like, what’s wrong with you. I said I was just feeling really anxious and he said “well you chose to go over there.” Of course, my anxiety is my fault!

      Like

    • Bethany June 10, 2013 / 9:51 pm

      Really great comment and spot on. 😉

      Like

    • meg2 June 11, 2013 / 8:32 am

      Unfortunately fundamentalists and homeschooling don’t have a corner on blaming the victim and stupidity. Those seem to be part of human nature across the board regardless of race, nationality or creed.

      Yes going on the offensive is stupid. While it is easier to blame the victim it just makes more sense to find the source of the problem and go from there to solve it.

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  11. Bethany June 10, 2013 / 9:47 pm

    “Are you stupid or something?” My Dad said, ”You’re quite an idiot to be pulling your hair out by the root. It might not even grow back now. You’d better hope it does. Nobody’ll want anything to do with some baldheaded girl who’s yanking out her own hair, that’s for sure. Do it again, stupid, and you’re gonna get a spanking.”

    “My Dad and my siblings mocked me and laughed at me in the months afterwards as the tiny little baby hairs started sticking up when they grew back in. I was filled with shame and embarrassment.”

    Wow. Does this ever resonate with me. I also resorted to random compulsive behaviors to deal with stress in an environment where I felt trapped and had no control. For awhile when I was elementary school aged, I would pull out my eyelashes until my family noticed I had random gaps in them. It was the same thing – shame me and make me feel like a stupid freak to get me to stop. Tell me nobody will ever want to date me and they might not grow back. My parents and siblings actually chased me down and pinned me to the bed so I couldn’t get away from them while they humiliated me and stared at my lashes. Awesome memory.

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  12. herewegokids June 11, 2013 / 2:22 pm

    I pull out my hair and my eyelashes….it began in late adolescence and it definitely gets worse under stress. I’ve read that it releases certain hormones that help you feel calmer, and for that reason, it’s addicting. It’s embarrassing to me not b/c I have bald spots (I don’t seem to yet) but b/c I can’t control it.

    Like

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