Wednesday, January 25

my missing hair

I have to turn back the clock by 14 years to begin the story of my missing hair. I’m seven, and in most ways I am exactly like every other 7 year old girl. I play the piano (poorly), I take ballet lessons, I hate maths and mushrooms and prefer dolls and story writing. The only odd thing about me is that I like to sit on the brick wall outside our house, picking at the moss. And I don’t know this is odd, or what it will lead to. I could stay there for an hour, just pulling out those hair-like growths and letting my thoughts wander over the day, over life.
I am terribly embarrassed and distressed when my family says to me at meal times, “Your eye brows are looking moth eaten Dee...have you been pulling them out?” I furiously deny the accusation. Someone suggests that I am using tweezers, copying my mum. Which isn’t at all true. I’ve never touched tweezers, and I’m not sure why I’m missing so many eyebrows... it’s not a conscious decision to remove them, certainly not an attempt to thin the crop.
One morning on camp, my little friend comes up to me. “Oh Danielle! You’re missing eye lashes! How did that happen?!” I freeze inside. I feign surprise. I say that I didn’t know I was missing them, and that they must have fallen out in my sleep. I had been lying in bed the night before, pulling out lash after lash for no reason other than that I felt like doing it.
I only knew two things about my missing hair at this stage:
  1.  I do something which other people don’t do.
  2. This thing shocks people, so I must cover it up.
The only thing which concerned me, was how appalled people were when they observed missing hair. Their reactions seemed to accuse me of doing something naughty which puzzled me. To me it felt like sucking my thumb, twirling my hair – something mindless and comforting. And mostly I was unaware, lost in thoughts, considering things over a thousand times.

By the time I had reached my early teens, my little oddity was developing into a big ogre. It seems that I was just growing into my habit rather than out, and it was poised to wreck havoc with my life. With my age had come a hearty dose of self awareness. No longer was I blissfully unaware of my odd habits and my patchy appearance. I was painfully conscious of my problem. I was conscious that I was the only person in my acquaintance with such an issue, and therefore the only person in the whole world.
I had the very thinnest line of eyebrows. Just a scattering remained. There were a few lashes growing out of my eye lids – only a few. But the worst thing was the right side of my head. I had recently run out of hair other places and taken to selecting the thickest, darkest strands of my long hair to remove. It wasn’t the hair that I wanted, it was the root. I would stick my prize possession, a juicy root, in a place to save it - a book, a table...and then keep pulling, always hoping to find a better one, never giving up.
I had never questioned my sanity until this point. But one day, I heard something which terrified me to my core. My mum had a friend over, and they were discussing the friend’s young child. My memory has stripped me of all the details but the gist of what they said was that the child was losing hair, by twirling it and pulling it out. I heard them say something about ‘psychological problem’.
As a 13 year old, I was naive and uneducated about that word - Psychological. To me it meant insane, mad, not-quite-right. This little child was losing hair, and it could be a psychological disorder.
I pull out my hair by the handful, therefore I am insane.
This tiny discovery about the nature of my issue plunged a weight into my heart. A weak sickness seemed to spread right through me. I was crazy! If I had wanted to Google-search my condition, this was the end of that notion. I didn’t want to know the details of my problem, I just needed to stop right now and let the hair grow back and become ‘normal’.
Unlike other habits I’d managed to stop, this one was resistant. It was cruel to me in its fiery refusal to be gone. I tried wearing hats, making promises, praying hard...but each day there would come a point where the only thing I wanted to do was pull out my hair, and the urge was so overpowering that I gave in.
“Just one hair”, I would promise myself. But that one hair wasn’t good enough. It didn’t have a big enough root. It hadn’t fulfilled the cravings inside me. One handful of hair later, I would drop my loot in the rubbish bin, looking at it with repulsion.
Life had become increasingly anxiety provoking. My balding appearance was now impossible to hide, despite my earnest attempts with hairstyles and hair spray. I avoided swimming at all costs, as wet hair showed the baldness far more than dry. This was very challenging considering we had a pool in the back yard, excuses and more excuses. I steered conversations with all my social ability away from topics relating to hair, terrified that someone would mention it and shame me to my very core. I lied to hair dressers outright about the reason for my missing hair (on the very rare occasion that I actually went). I cried night after night about the ballet concert which was coming up, where we had to have our hair in braids: mine wouldn’t go into braids, and then the secret would be out...and I would ruin the whole concert by not being able to have matching hair. I lay awake inventing convincing stories:
“I’m taking a medication which makes it fall out.”
“My hair is just falling out and I don’t know why.”
“My friend cut my hair which is why it’s so patchy.”
In bed I would realise how miserable life had become, how much I wanted to stop. I was so young that it never occurred to me that there could be help out there, that problems can be solved. To me, it was my burden which I had to bear, and ‘trying harder’ was the only solution.
By the age of sixteen I had a little more control than I’d had earlier on – and for a couple of years I went almost free from my addiction. Because I never pulled in public, my being away from home from 6.30 am – 5.30 pm proved to be very helpful. I simply didn’t get the chance to pull it out. The problem waxed and waned over the next few years. It still caused me terror whenever someone wanted to talk about or touch my hair, but it wasn’t half so hard to conceal.

My first year of university arrived, and I was sitting in an aural class watching a girl take a pair of tweezers from her bag to pluck an eyebrow. Her eyebrows looked very sparse. She seemed rather intent on removing the hair that she had decided on, and pulled until it was gone. I couldn’t tear my eyes from her. I knew I had just met the first person in my entire life that compulsively pulled out their hair. Gradually we became better acquainted, and one day in a painfully drab lecture on Music Theory, we sat at the back of the theatre sharing stories about our bizarre compulsive addiction. Our laughter was uncontrollable; I was weak with joy and relief at finding someone just like me. She had seen a doctor and knew that our psychological disorder was called Trichotillomania. She wasn’t insane - she was lovely, funny, and quirky.
I went home and researched it, finding that 4% of people suffer from it. It’s more common in females. Sufferers often suffer from depression or anxiety as well. Finally my condition was out in the open and I began to deal with the years of terror it had given me. I went to a psychologist to learn strategies, and then an Alexander Technique teacher. It went from being my naughty addiction, to a real problem for which there was help and support. I am now the happy owner of a full head of hair, and while I will probably never be urge free, I am armed with strategies to control it. I have finally learnt that ‘psychological disorder’ doesn’t mean ‘mad’, and as my psychiatrist recently assured me, if I don’t have any mad cousins or great aunts it’s rather unlikely that I will ever lose my marbles. Thank goodness!

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