I’m surprised I haven’t talked about this before, but one of my mental health issues is trichotillomania. Trichotillomania is defined as the compulsive urge to pull out one’s own hair. Not the hyperbolic, “oh my god, this is so frustrating it’s making me want to tear my hair out” type, but like, literally. You pull it out with your bare hands.
My trichotillomania started fully in 2008, but the first hints of it were in 2007, around November. That’s the first time I remember tugging at my eyebrows with my fingers in a compulsive, pointless, emotion-ridden way, and coming out of it with a tuft of discarded eyebrow hairs on my Moleskine journal.
It wasn’t particularly noticeable that I was doing it because I didn’t go that far and my eyebrows hadn’t been particularly nice before then. That’s what drove me to pull them out specifically and not the hair on my head or anything else. I’d always had issues with my eyebrows. For a long time, I resented my mom and blamed her for my trich; whenever I told her I hated my eyebrows as a teenager, she said, “They’re fine,” and didn’t do anything to help me like them, or help me make them into eyebrows I’d like.
You see, I don’t have useful instincts when it comes to beauty. There are all these rules and they make no sense and I need someone to guide me. I needed someone to say, “Your eyebrows are fine, but here’s a pair of tweezers and this is how you use them.” I didn’t start shaping my own eyebrows with tweezers (and care and purpose) until a good two years after my trichotillomania solidified into a proper disorder.
(I’d like to take a moment here to be relieved that my similar ignorance and lack of instinct about hair care and split ends didn’t lead to a trichotillomania outbreak on the hair on my head. I guess people online complimented my hair frequently enough to keep that from happening. Thanks, people online.)
Over the past year I’ve come to realize that the reason I don’t have any useful instincts when it comes to beauty is that nothing about beauty is instinctive. It’s all society-based, and it’s society forcing unnatural conventions on people. It’s my borderline Asperger’s getting in my way again — or rather getting in the way of me adhering to society’s rules without question.
That seemed like a good time to break out this picture. June of 2008. See? Still got eyebrows. I do in July, too:
But I think that’s a turning point of sorts. I remember being so, so conscious of my eyebrows when I was in Oxford. On the bus back from London, I remember there was a group of teenagers a few rows in front of me and they seemed to be whispering about something and I kept wondering — I’m sure I had a reason for the self-centeredness here, other than paranoia — if they were talking about my weird shapeless ugly eyebrows. Or if they were talking about how hot I was. Seriously, it could have been anything! Including any of those two things. I am a very strange person, and my self-esteem is also very strange. Multifaceted abnormal, as Lorelai Gilmore would say.
And then the eyebrows went.
Once I dropped out of college, I stopped having a reason to go anywhere, so it was like, well, I have no eyebrows, but no one’s going to see me, so who cares? I did occasionally go to the library, but that was about it.
It was around December 2009 or 2010 that I found out my habit of pulling out my eyebrows had a name, and it was called trichotillomania. I mentioned it in a yuletide (the small fandom fic exchange) chat, and someone said it was called that. This is also how I learned the thing my fingers and toes do when they’re cold where they go white and purple also has a name: Raynaud’s syndrome. But that’s a different story.
I don’t know what kickstarted my decision to really fight my trich. Maybe it was the tweezers, or maybe it was the fact that I always felt really terrible and dirty after I pulled out too many eyebrows. It’s a weird state of mind; you start and you can’t stop, and you get hair and skin bits on your glasses and then you feel all kinds of odd.
I usually got — get — triggered by idle hands. I think giving up on writing regularly did wonders for me. Writing uses your hands, sure, but when you’re not particularly “inspired,” it can lead to these stretches of downtime when you’re just staring at the screen hoping the next sentence will pop into your head, and that, for me, is the biggest trichotillomania trigger.
But fight it I did, and slowly
I’ve never mentioned it here, but overcoming my trichotillomania — and it’s a process, and I still relapse every now and then; I had a relapse last week — may be the biggest, definitely the most tangible accomplishment I’ve made regarding my mental health. I didn’t just squash the urge long enough for my eyebrows to grow out to a point where it made sense to shape them with tweezers; the resentment also somehow fizzled out, and so did my obsessiveness. I no longer hate my eyebrows; I’m not ashamed of them and I don’t want them to disappear. They’re unpredictable and annoying and the years of trich mean that they grow all over the place and I have little scars and wounds around them. It’s not very clean, and not having clear skin — there’s also the acne scarring — is my least favorite thing about my face.
But it’s different now. I don’t know why or how, but my trich feels different now. It doesn’t have the weight of self-doubt and resentment in it. It’s just a leftover compulsive urge to pull out my eyebrows when my hands are idle. I feel like that’s half the battle won, and it’s a part of it I didn’t even know I was fighting.
Have you ever experienced trich or any other compulsive disorders? I’d love to hear about it. It’s always great to know you’re not alone.
Further reading: How Modeling Helped My Trichotillomania — an update as of 2015/06