Trichotillomania: hard to pronounce, harder to talk about

Losing strands of my hair to a mental disorder you may not have heard of 

When I was ten years old, my sister came home from school with head lice. As a precautionary move, my mom cut my long, glorious hair into a short bob. 

I hated it, so I grew it out long again and kept it that way, refusing to have it cut beyond a simple trim. 

I protected it as best I could afterwards, all the way to my first year of university. To my never-ending shock, the threat to my locks didn’t end up coming from a stylist’s scissors, but from my own two hands.

Trichotillomania is a mental disorder associated with impulse control. Its most distinctive symptom is an inexplicable urge to pull hair from one’s body. It most often manifests during early adolescence, but it can still be triggered in adults by severe stress, depression or traumatic events. 

In extreme cases, the hair pulling can leave people partially or completely, and even permanently, bald. As a result of the embarrassing nature of the disorder, those with it are at risk of becoming socially isolated and sinking even further into depression.

The summer before my first year of university, my parents went through a messy divorce. When September rolled around, I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I thought I was going to. 

I’d never learned to study and things weren’t coming as easy to me as they did in high school. Like many first-year university students, I couldn’t keep up with the materials and found myself getting my first bad grades. Being surrounded by droves of high-achieving people at Queen’s made me feel pretty inadequate. 

Simultaneously, my home life was beyond my ability to fix.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, all these factors of stress took a toll on me in an unexpected way. It wasn’t until I went home for Christmas that I found out exactly how; your typical teenage girl’s worst nightmare. I had bald spots. Me.

The surreal experience of having my mom freak out when braiding my hair was a little too much to immediately react to.

With the help of my now frantic mom and two mirrors, I was able to see the three spots of plain scalp on my head. They were a little smaller than quarters, just far enough to the back of my head that I couldn’t see them myself.

I always ran my fingers through my hair unconsciously my whole life, it was just a natural movement that I never thought much of. That year when running my hand through my hair, I gradually began searching for strands that felt out of place.

Everyone has a couple of strands here or there that have a different thickness or texture to them than the rest of their head. When I touched one that felt odd, I would play with it absent-mindedly. Without realizing exactly what I was doing, I had begun to go a step further and actually pull them out. It didn’t even feel like something I was conscious of, let alone do enough to actually have visible hair loss.

Once I understood I had actually, honest-to-God, been pulling my hair out, all I could think about was how embarrassed I was.

I imagined all the people who had seen the back of my head in the past few months. Had they whispered to their friends as I sat in front of them in class? What about behind me in line at the grocery store? 

Suddenly, every giggle I had ever heard in the background noise of my university life felt like they it was meant for me. I never wanted to leave the house again. I felt stupid, confused, and distinctly unfeminine.

I became hyper aware of my appearance, never wearing my hair down and always pinning it to make sure it never showed my bald spots. 

I obsessively searched for more spots.  I routinely caught myself in a panic when my hand reached up to pull when I wasn’t paying attention. 

I stopped going out with my friends and cut myself off, afraid that they would find out and think I was a freak.

The prospect of going bald isn’t inherently terrifying. But to a teenage girl who has grown up in a culture that connects hair with femininity, losing it made me feel more like Smeagol than a girl. 

I was no longer comfortable in my own skin. Maybe, if I had decided to shave it off myself, I would’ve felt differently. The feeling of not being able to control my own body or appearance was what made it so painful. 

In reality, not a lot of people would have noticed the spots of sparse hair unless they actually touched it or stood inches away from my head. My case was mild compared to what it could’ve been if my mom hadn’t noticed it, which is what thousands of people across the globe have to deal with.

I knew going into university that it would be stressful. People can develop eating disorders, depression, and a plethora of other mental health struggles during their time here. 

I knew about those, but this was the one I never saw coming. Mental health, something I thought I was knowledgeable about, turned out to be far more complicated and expansive than I knew. 

Regardless of what it manifested itself as, my disorder came about from suppressing how I felt. 

I didn’t talk to anyone about the things that were bothering me and it was too much to take on alone. When I didn’t let it out by talking to someone, afraid of letting people see me struggle, the stress found a different way to show itself.

The stigma surrounding mental health issues, and the idea that struggling makes you appear weak, weird, or both, is a reason why very few people jump at the chance to talk to someone when they’re in trouble. 

I was definitely hesitant to be open about it. But staying secretive about mental health issues like Trichotillomania is what blindsided me in the first place. It doesn’t make you a freak to have problems, and it doesn’t make you a drama-queen to talk about how you feel. It makes you human. 

Not everyone who loses their hair has a mental health cause for it. 

Whether your struggle is medical or mental, it’s never something you can simply stop from happening. It’s a process that can involve a lot of pain and humiliation. 

What I realized through my time working with counsellors, family, and friends to control the hair loss, was that they never saw me differently because of it. 

My self-esteem and self-perception as a woman had been intertwined with my hair. The biggest hurdle in overcoming that was understanding that although it’s a part of me, it isn’t all of me.  

People care about me the same with or without it, and over time I was able to care about myself with the same indifference to what was on my head. 

Two and a half years later, my bald spots are gone. If you saw me, you’d never know I was once in danger of losing my hair. 

I was lucky, my mom was able to see a physical indicator that something was wrong. Not everyone who struggles with mental health will have that obvious of a signal to pick up on. 

Things like Thrive Week, that get people talking about mental health,  are so important in order to spread awareness. They have the ability to spark conversation from both the people struggling and their families and friends. It can help people find ways to ask for help, and have help find them when they need it most.

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