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.
Flooding out in Hurricane Katrina.
The death of my grandfather.
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.