Living with trichotillomania: Meet the girls who are literally pulling their hair out

It affects two in 50 people


I suffer from trichotillomania (trich for short), a hair pulling disorder that affects around two in every 50 people, both males and females, young and old. We pull at our mascara leaving gaps in our eyelashes, over-pluck our eyebrows and pull at our hair. It’s an obsessive compulsive related disorder and there’s still a lot about it we don’t really know.

There’s currently much debate about what actually causes the disorder, whether it’s an addiction, a habit, a tic or an obsessive compulsion. The uncertainty stems from the fact it has such a wide spectrum, ranging from “automatic” pullers – people who have no awareness of their hands until it’s too late – to “focused” pullers, those who experience urges and may not be able to think of any thing else until they’ve pulled.

Some people have specific patches, others don’t, some get pleasure from it and for others it’s more negative…the list of variations could go on.

POSING WITH NO COMB OVER!

Posing with no comb over

I lie somewhere in the more severe 0.1 per cent.I’m an automatic puller, I have been since around the age of four. Because of my condition I won’t let people touch my hair and I wear it up if it’s windy. I pull it when I’m stressed, anxious or feeling down. As a result, I’ve had no eyelashes, no eyebrows and bald patches in my hair.

To cover my problem, I’ve used every excuse in the book, from “my eye-lash curlers ripped them out” to “thin eyebrows are so in” (who was I kidding?). Not only that but for years I had to support a comb-over which both emos and old men would kill for.

Admittedly, 14yr old Claire loved the comb over.

Admittedly, 14yr old Claire loved the comb over

The shame I’ve felt from having this disorder has massively affected my self-esteem and self-worth. I still remember my Grandma demanding to look at my eyelashes and telling me that without them “boys will never think you’re pretty.” I was seven.

Because the disorder is self-inflicted, it’s a tough thing to navigate and so difficult to stop. Until I was 18, I really thought I was the only person to do this incredibly weird and harmful thing. However, when I met Jude, I learned my weird compulsion had a name and that I wasn’t alone – suddenly there was hope.

Jude

Isn't she a babe?

Isn’t she a babe?

Jude, 36, is a PhD Psychology student specialising in trich and a hair puller of 30 years.

She told me: “I thought I was the only person in the world who did it, so finding a support network and understanding friends really helped.”

It wasn’t until she was 23 that she managed to diagnose herself. She said: “My parents took me to the Health Services numerous times but we were always told it was a bad habit or simply a symptom of something else.”

Last year, Jude came out on Facebook about her struggle with trich: “I decided enough was enough. This disgusting self-loathing had to end, I needed to grab trichotillomania’s emotional clutches by the horns and set it free. It was the best thing I ever did.

“When I woke up in the morning, my notifications had passed one hundred and I had messages in my inbox from friends, some telling me how proud they were, others disclosing similar conditions they suffered, realising they had someone with whom they could now share they affliction. I’m still not pull-free but I’ve realised recovery comes in many forms.”

Louise

Louise*, was finally diagnosed at 21. She said: “My Mum and I had gone to Aviemore, she was reading the Newspaper and came across an article on trich. She turned to me and said: ‘I think you have this’. The article was about a girl with trich who had an eyelash transplant. I thought she was an idiot because she’d no doubt tear them out again.

Louise first became aware of her hair pulling around the age of 11: “My hairdresser commented to my mum that I had what she would call a Mohican of short hair down the middle of my head, which made me think it must’ve started quickly.”

Studies show trich commonly begins to rear its head as people begin to start puberty, so some people believe trich may have biological triggers. Like me, Louise feels that when her trich was at its worst, she felt very self-conscious. She said: “You just feel like everyone can see it, even if they don’t, it just makes you feel uglier.”

However, Louise feels like it’s something she now manages: “I don’t think you can ever really stop but you can definitely bring it under your control. You have to want it.”

Bridget

Another beauty!

Another beauty

Bridget has had trich since she was about 9 or 10. She told me: “I know in my last few years of primary school I had developed a couple of tic-like behaviours, like aggressive blinking, or stretching my mouth open wide, both of which I felt the need to do compulsively and frequently. My teacher started to point them out to me and I remember feeling very embarrassed. Not long after I began pulling out my eyebrows.

“For the next few years I had no eyebrows at all, shaving them off completely thinking it would draw less attention than having large bald patches. This was pretty awful and I remember being very lonely, scared and confused. Somehow in the summer between changing schools, I managed to stop and allow my eyebrows to grow back fully. This was a massive relief as I’d been dreading starting a new school and being known as ‘the girl with no eyebrows’. Sadly though, it hadn’t gone, but just moved to the top of my head.

“Since then I’ve managed to relocate it again to the bottom of my head, behind my ears, where it’s almost always hidden from public view, so long as I never wear my hair up high. Nearly 20 years on, and my relationship with trich has changed somewhat. My partner and family are more supportive than I’ve ever imagined they could be, and I feel less of a prisoner to this behaviour, but it’s not always easy.

“The problem with trich is that it’s much more than the visible effects of hair loss, it also makes you feel ugly, worthless and ashamed. And those feelings often don’t go away even when you have a full head of hair. The most positive change for me has been deciding to focus on trichotillomania for my professional research, which as an anthropologist, means spending time within a community and getting to know peoples’ experiences.

“It’s an odd thing though when, as a medical anthropologist your ‘community’ is the ‘illness’, meaning I have to travel all over the place to try and capture where trich is and what it means to people. But I also have to understand what it means to me. I feel incredibly lucky that I have the opportunity to dedicate my PhD towards this cause, and hope my work can benefit a community of people who have spent most of their lives living in silence and shame.

All the regrowth!

All the regrowth

“I wish I could say that there’s a magical cure but there isn’t a definite answer. The University of Minnesota School of Medicine  inducted a 12 week double-blind study which suggested that NAC, an amino acid you can buy in most health shops, can curb the urge to pull in around 50 per cent of trichsters.

“If you think you have trich or knows someone who does, I want you to know there’s definitely hope. I no longer have a patch on my head – it’s covered with around three inches of hair and my eyelashes and brows are as normal as they’ll ever be.”

Yes, I'm looking at you, hair.

Yes, I’m looking at you, hair

Like the other girls mentioned, I thought I was ugly and weird for a long time because of my disorder. However as I’ve gone on to learn about it, and meet beautiful people who suffer too, I’ve realised we’re more than our hair-pulling; it doesn’t have to define who we are or how we feel. Funnily as I became kinder to myself and more accepting, the pulling waned. Now I can wear my hair however I wish.