Written by Ariel Taylor.
A personal story
Trichotillomania is described as compulsive hair pulling. It is one of a class of conditions called Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRBs). Many people are unaware that it exists. For those that do, they don’t understand how difficult it is to manage. For a trichotillomania sufferer, the urge to pull their hair out is all but resistible. It is not a desire that is easily controlled.
Trichotillomania is often driven by a sensory desire that cannot be suppressed. It can be the feel of the hair between your fingers or what it looks like when you see it in the mirror. Trichotillomania can also be a nervous response to stress or anxiety. The sensation caused by the pulling of your hair brings about a sense of calm. It becomes a habit that relieves feelings of anxiousness and fear. Anxiety becomes a vicious cycle. It drives you to pull out your hair. Trying to stop makes you anxious and self-aware. This, in turn, drives the urge to pull more hair out.
Constant hair pulling leaves painful patches of exposed and wounded scalp. I cover it by never wearing my hair tied up. I am also strategic about where I pull out hair. If I can, I avoid the urge to pull it out to that extent on the top and sides of my scalp. That’s not to say I never pull hair out in those areas. I just try not to let it get to the point where sores are visible.
Going to work in an environment where no one knew would be difficult. I feared my colleagues would look on me differently if I told them my ‘little secret.’ After all, it does sound a bit less than normal to explain you derive a sense of satisfaction from pulling hair out of your scalp. My boss might have looked on me and the quality of my work less than favorably. So, what were my options? Keeping quiet would protect me from the stigma associated with a mental illness. But talking about it before it became an issue made more sense.
When I started my most recent job, I took my courage in both hands and broached the subject with my boss early on. When I told her I have trichotillomania, her face was blank. Realizing I had happened upon a teachable moment, I took the opportunity to explain it to her. I told her I have an uncontrollable urge to pull my hair out. If I feel my hair doesn’t look right, I have to start pulling it out. When I’m nervous or bored, I start pulling my hair out. While saying all of this I struggled to make eye contact. When my explanation was finished, I took a deep breath and looked at her.
I was expecting shock and horror, but I saw compassion. She thanked me for being honest with her. She admitted she’d never heard of trichotillomania, and she wanted to know more. Then came the big question: she asked if she should tell the other colleagues in the office.
I had such mixed feelings about this. The shame threatened to engulf me. But the thoughts of how my condition would come across if not explained also raced through my mind. If I began pulling my hair without realizing it, I could look bored and disinterested, or worse, disturbed. No one would want to be my friend or confidant. I’d be alienated. But I had to acknowledge my condition to gain understanding. I told her to go ahead.
For a while, I was scared how people would react. Most reacted in silence. They didn’t come up and talk to me about it. I’d feel the occasional stare and realize I was pulling. I never heard anyone talking about it, except once. I heard a colleague confessing to another that he thought I was crazy. It hurt.
But some colleagues were supportive. They had their own stories to tell of anxiety and how it affected them. They showed me tolerance and acceptance. The lady who sits in the cubicle next to mine became my staunchest supporter. Now, when I’m pulling, she clears her throat. It grounds me. She does it from a place of love, and I appreciate her. I’d never have got her love and support if I hadn’t chosen to acknowledge my condition and not hide it. I’d be living in fear, a shadow of myself. Instead, I find my confidence growing. It encourages me to try to be the best version of myself I can.
You can find information about trichotillomania and about treatment options on TrichStop.