My Reality: I Pull My Hair Out

by | May 16, 2013
filed under My Reality

(not my real hair)

(not my real hair)

by Jarrah Hodge

I’ve been struggling with whether or not to write on this topic ever since we started the “My Reality” series here at Gender Focus. On the one hand I think it’s important to share these stories because the stigma involved with mental illness is a huge problem. On the other hand, that very same stigma made me worried that talking about my experiences would cause my friends and coworkers to look at me differently.

But I finally decided to face up to the potential consequences because of GF contributor Roxanna Bennett, who is writing about her own experiences on her blog Choose Your Own Adventure. She drew my attention to the fact that last week (May 6-12) was Mental Health Week in Canada, and the main goals are raising awareness and fighting stigma.

So here goes.

I’m a gainfully-employed communications professional, a cat-loving uber-nerd, an occasional TV commentator and a feminist activist and award-winning blogger. I also happen to have a disorder that was until recently known as trichotillomania. In recognition of the fact that the disorder has nothing to do with “mania”, the DSM-5 has now added an explainer to the name: Trichotillomania (Hair-Pulling Disorder).

Trichotillomania (I’m just going to use the short-form “trich” or the previously-recognized abbreviation TTM for the rest of this article) is classified as an Anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorder and it is characterized by the irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other parts of your body. I’ll start by giving a few more facts before I go in to how I experience it.

According to Psychiatric Times, up to 3.4% of adults have TTM (Olivia Munn is probably the most well-known example) and nobody knows for sure what causes it, though there are theories. It is not a nervous habit that you can just stop. It is also not causally-linked to experiencing child abuse or other trauma. It does not come out of a desire to self-harm; it doesn’t even hurt. According to the Trichotillomania Learning Center, trich actually acts as a “a self-soothing mechanism” to alleviate anxiety.

Tackling stigma is important in dealing with all mental illness but in trich has a particular direct connection to beauty ideals in our society. Most people with TTM are girls and women like me, who deal with constant messages telling them they have to look a certain way. When their disorder leaves them with bald patches on their head or gaps in their eyelashes, many withdraw. If a trichster doesn’t feel their elaborate beauty routine is enough to let them fit in, they may isolate themselves from work, school and/or medical care.

I started pulling out my eyelashes when I was around nine years old, for no obvious reason. My mom was quite alarmed and took me to the doctor, who guessed maybe my eyes were itchy and gave me a cream to put on the eyelashes. Of course, that was not the issue.

Not long after, I started pulling my eyebrows as well. It might be hard for you to understand but it felt good. In the spots where I pulled, new stubby hairs would come in and those felt even better to pull. Pulling kept me feeling calm and in control.

Around the time I was 10 years old the other kids started noticing the gaps in my eyebrows. I remember girls in Girl Guides whispering at me that I was a freak and pointing to my eyebrows. I was already being bullied for other reasons and this just made it worse. I felt exposed and ashamed.

My mom’s worry about how this was hurting my looks didn’t help. I know she meant well when she pointed out how beautiful my eyelashes had been; even with the TTM diagnosis, my mom didn’t understand why I couldn’t stop. But I knew how bare and puffy my eyes looked and I felt a deep sense of pain, guilt and failure. I didn’t know how to stop and each day I was reminded that everyone saw how ugly I thought I was making myself.

When my parents separated when I was 13 I went into counseling. In addition to issues around the divorce, my counsellor and I tried to tackle the trich. We tried a reward system with prizes if I could go pull-free and a style of aversion therapy where I snapped an elastic band on my wrist when I wanted to pull. We analyzed my patterns and tried to develop new mantras. I also tried hypnotherapy. Nothing worked for very long and I still felt like a monstrous creation.

However, part-way through university I stopped feeling the urge to pull my eyelashes and they all grew back. Even though I’m not sure why it happened I’m proud of it because it was the only part of my trich that risked my health, by leaving my eyes unprotected.

But another even more significant shift happened; people stopped noticing or caring about my eyebrows. Part of it was that I was getting better at penciling in replacements, but more than that it was that I had grown up and so had my peers. I was also finally starting to feel like I had worth as a human being and that maybe having trich didn’t change that.

I tried new things periodically: more hypnotherapy, online support groups, supplements, wearing gloves or fake nails, even SSRI medication. The longest I ever went pull-free was two weeks. Whenever I tried I was overwhelmed with anxiety and it required a ton of mental energy to monitor my urges and stop myself from pulling. The biggest challenge is that I always have access to the tools to keep up the behaviour: my hands and my hair. If you have TTM and you want to pull hard enough, it is very easy to give in and do so.

I haven’t totally given up on trying to go pull-free again but it’s not the highest priority for me at this time given how busy I am and how I now know that I’m a pretty kick-ass, loveable person regardless of how much hair I have. Feminism has definitely helped with that.

Unfortunately, although I now have full eyelashes, I started pulling hair from my head a couple of years ago to the point where I have large bald patches on the back of my neck and patchy areas around the crown of my head.

When you see me day to day you might notice my hair looks a little off. Maybe it moves a bit funny or it’s just too put-together. The women at the TV studio where I’ve been appearing as a youth pundit have remarked that my hair always looks perfect. That’s because it’s not real; it’s a wig.

AM/BC Youth Political Panel

I made the decision to start wearing a wig last fall because I could no longer find a hairstyle that hid the patchy areas. My feminist ideals caused a conflict because I do want to end the stigma associated with illnesses like trich and hiding it to meet beauty ideals is problematic. On the other hand, it protects most of my hair from pulling. Even more importantly, it lets me set boundaries on when I want to talk about my disorder and who I want to talk about it with. Writing this post is another way I’m trying to talk about it on my own terms.

If you aren’t sure how to talk with someone like me, my first suggestion would be not to ask me or anyone else with trich “Why don’t you just stop?” As Sandy Rosenblatt said in her piece on her experience with Trich (which really resonated with me):

It is a question many of us who have the disorder ask ourselves on a daily basis. When asked by someone else, we usually just wait uncomfortably for the subject to change. Here is the answer: Most of us will never be able to stop. If we could, we would.

Just let us trichsters deal with it in our own way, let anyone you know who has it know they’re not alone, and keep doing what you can to learn and understand.

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  • Jay

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jarrah. I really appreciate you stand up for yourself- how you choose to manage your trich as one facet of your larger life- thanks for the inspiration to keep fighting and celebrating as a young woman who also manages her mental health. solidarity!

  • mari

    such an information, honest and touching account of your experience. thank you for sharing this so openly. inspiring!

  • mari

    such an informative, honest and touching account of your experience. thank you for sharing this so openly. inspiring!

    correction to above typo!

  • Matt

    Awesome Jarrah. Thanks so much for having the courage and openness to share this in the way you have.

  • Roxanna Bennett

    This is an incredibly gutsy post, thank you so much for writing this. I completely understand the conflict about sharing with colleagues and how they might view you differently; I think it’s so very brave that you considered that and wrote this anyway. Thank you so much for writing about this.

  • Wendy Williams

    Hello Jarrah
    Thank-you for writing this.
    Brave of you to share your secret,
    Brave to decide to get a wig
    I learn something every time I read your work

  • Annalea

    You keep amazing me in new and wonderful ways. Thanks for having the courage and maturity to share – love you even more for it!

  • Sh

    Your writing is, as always, frank, gutsy and hugely inspiring. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Clare

    Thanks for explaining this in a clear and open manner. I didn’t know much about this before, or what you were going through. What struck me most is when you said you reached a point where you could see yourself to be a kick-ass loveable person. Truth is, those who are close to you have known this all along. And I’m super happy that you reached this place and will continue to grow and shine and kick some ass.

  • Joyce Arthur

    Thanks so much Jarrah for telling your story with honesty and courage. I do see you a bit differently now – I think more highly of you than ever!

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  • Matilda Branson

    That’s a great post, Jarrah. Absolutely inspirational on many levels.

  • Hillary B

    I’ve been pulling out my eyelashes and eyebrows for over 40 years now, though I do it less regularly now. I never did pull the hair on my head out, only the lashes and brows.
    I remember the ridicule I received as a kid and I can still remember (vividly) the picture taken of me dressed up to go out for my 10th birthday and having no eyebrows. I have patches in my eyebrows that actually don’t even grow hair anymore.

    Thank you for sharing and letting me share.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Hillary,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so glad that more of us are able to talk more openly about it now. I still vividly remember the ridicule just like you do and it’s hard to get past that but so important that we move forward and say we have a right to take up space and be respected like anyone else.

  • Alison

    Thank you for sharing this. I also have trich, which developed alongside my severe anorexia. As my weight dropped and dropped, I pulled more and more. I only pull from my scalp, and I am now almost entirely bald on the top and back of my scalp. I wear hats at all times in front of others, but even then you can tell because there’s only little wispy tendrils of hair that peek out. For me, I think it was definitely a response to anxiety, tied into my eating disorder. I am slowly attempting recovery from the ED and I just hope that eventually the trich will fade as my body and mind heals. But I’m also worried that I’ve permanently damaged the follicles and may never have a full head of hair again. :/

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Alison,

      Thanks so much for sharing your story here. That’s awesome that you’ve come through so much and are looking forward to an even brighter future. I worry a bit about the hair not growing back too, but ultimately the amount of hair you have has nothing to do with your character or how awesome you are.

      Just as a side note, I haven’t tried it yet but I have heard on support groups (I’ve had particular luck with the forums on a number of folks have success with Minoxidil (the chemical used in Rogaine) to stimulate follicles…so that might be something to consider. I’m trying a thinning hair system of shampoos from Redken but I doubt it’ll do much while I’m still pulling. We shall see!

      So thanks again and best of luck with your recovery. Sending lots of good thoughts your way.

      • Alison

        Thank you for the kind words, and for the suggestion! I will ask my doctor about it :) Good thoughts to you as well

  • Trish

    Thank you for your courage to bring light to such a potentially debilitating disorder that Trich can be. I have been a sufferer for 22 years and pull only from my head. I have done the wig and even shaved my head to stop at one point. Hats and bandanas in every shape and color… You name it i have done it. I joined an online support group in 2002-2005 and eventually helped manage the group. I fell out of the recovery scene after a divorce and started coping with drugs. I grew a full head of hair for the first time since I was 12. My doctor wasn’t surprised the drugs curbed the urges. 2005-2008. Since then I have battled the addiction and now am pulling with acceptance that it is part of who I am and I don’t try to fight it anymore. I recently (sunday may 19 province front page)came out in public with the addiction part of my life and I am experiencing a collision of my two ‘worlds’ and dealing with alot of bias, misunderstanding, and judgement. It is nothing new to me as I grew up with Trich and as we know a trichster develops thick skin over years. I am thankful for my life as it is. And yes we have worth and value.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Trish,

      Thanks for your note and your courage as well. I read your story in the Province and it’s such an important one to tell. You’re right about thick skin. In some ways it has been a real blessing to be able to get to the point where I legitimately believe that honest questions are ok but no one ultimately has the right to judge me for my trich. If they do, they are just really missing out. I’d be interested to know if you come across any more online Canadian or BC-specific resources. The site I mostly used was and it was really helpful but it would be good to have other folks around BC to share recommendations in terms of strategies, doctors, counsellors, hairdressers, etc.

  • Trish

    Hi, It has been so many years since I ventured in the Trich groups it seems like a lifetime ago. The group I was in was North American based and many women from Canada were in it. I went as far to attend a ‘ trichnic’ as we called them and many of us got together for a weekend. Everything was planned and people would fly out and travel. There were message boards for various concerns and categories etc. if I recall it may have been a yahoo thing. ( this was all before google). I will do a little research and get back to you. i am curious myself and when i saw your story I knew it was for a reason. I have been doing alot of soul searching and as much as i dont let my trich destroy me like i used to, i certainly cant say i embrace it completely and i am not open about it and i need to be(for me)I have some old Trich friends from these groups I can probably get updated. Cheers.

  • OMG – you poor girl. The horror – the suffering. You’re nuts and you know it. This is the extent of feminist navel-gazing at it’s worst.

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  • andre paris

    You are very brave to be so open with your challenges, good for you

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