Courageous

09.21.13

Living With Trichotillomania

In honor of "No-pull week," one young woman shares her story of struggling to overcome the compulsion to pull out her hair.

It started with an eyelash: there was something in my eye so I twisted and lightly pulled my eyelashes to try to remove the foreign object. In the process, I accidently pulled out an eyelash and something weird happened—it felt good.

One eyelash led to five, which then escalated to my eyebrows and actual hair on my head. By the sixth grade I’d created massive bald spots across my scalp.

I have TTM (Trichotillomania), an impulse control disorder that causes me to pull out my own hair. It’s a condition that affects 110 million people worldwide, yet fewer than 10 percent seek help. The first time I saw a therapist he couldn’t even identify this disorder. In fact, he had to look it up on the Internet and diagnose me in my next session. There is no known cure and researchers are extremely behind on the knowledge of TTM. People who suffer from TTM describe experiencing a calming effect from pulling out their own hair, especially during stressful times. What began as a simple habit left me bald, confused, and lacking in self-esteem.

I couldn’t stop pulling and even after my diagnosis it was hard for my family and I to understand. My mom wanted to shave my head, and though I argued and cried, begging her not to, eventually I lost the battle. I walked into the bathroom where my brother was waiting with an electric shaver. Even though I didn’t have much hair, it was still my hair, the only hair I had left. I wept as my brother shaved my head completely bald. That was the first time of many where I would have to look in the mirror and see a hairless version of myself.

Fast-forward 18 years, when the answer to my prayers arrived. I had enrolled in school to study Respiratory Therapy and the late nights of study sessions left me nearly bald again, as stress is a big aggravator for pulling. Desperate for help I stumbled upon a YouTube video called “Girls on the Pull” by Lucinda Ellery. When I first sat down with Lucinda and shared my story, I was immediately filled with hope. She had dozens of photos of clients who had overcome TTM with her help on her personal cell phone because she was so proud of them. A month later I was at her Beverly Hills studio getting the Intralace system. They placed a lightweight and breathable mesh onto my scalp and lifted through my existing hair. Next, natural hair was applied to camouflage my bald patches. This allows time for my natural hair to grow as I begin to break my habit of hair pulling episodes. Intralace is for anyone with thinning hair or hair loss, but it is especially helpful to women with TTM, as it acts as a barrier so they can’t pull out their hair.

What began as a simple habit left me bald, confused, and lacking in self-esteem.

Lucinda also gave three helpful tips I didn't have before. The first was a breathing technique to practice several times a day that helps relieve stress. The second was to mimic the pulling sensations by gently poking my scalp with a dull needle to still get the satisfaction without losing hair. The third was to rub my fingers together to replicate the sensation fingers felt on my scalp when looking for hairs to pull.

Opening up about my pain and suffering has helped my healing process. When I was getting my hair done at Lucinda’s salon, Lucinda asked if I could talk to another girl who has TTM. After talking to her for a few minutes, I gave her a hug. Being able to connect with someone else who shares my disorder was therapeutic.

Many years, wigs, medications and therapy sessions later I am still battling this disorder, but Lucinda’s support and system helped immensely. Her “International No-Pulling Week” is a great opportunity to shed light on this seldom-discussed issue that affects so many who suffer in silence.

Growing up, bullying and teasing became an everyday thing. I would retreat to the bathroom where I could shut out the world with the bathroom door and cry in solitude. I’ve battled bouts of depression, and the most horrifying thing about my experience with TTM is that I am the one doing it. This hair-pulling disorder not only takes a person’s hair away, but is emotionally crippling in the process. I was haunted by years of people telling me to stop, but the truth was I couldn’t.

My story may sound pitiful, but I was able to stay strong through my faith and knew that I was given this struggle for a reason: to help others one day and share my story. As much as I despise this disorder and absolutely hate the everyday battle to not pull, I am still standing. I have come to the realization I have a disorder, but it doesn't define who I am. There is more to a woman’s beauty then her hair alone, and knowing this I am able to stand a little taller. I’ve heard it said, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”This is my mantra, and I have become a stronger woman for it.

At my 18-year mark of battling TTM, I remember the first time I pulled like it was yesterday and I wonder if it hadn’t started it that night, would it have started another time? If it never began, how different would my life have been? Perhaps I would not have felt stripped of my beauty and actually experienced a childhood with the “normal” joys a girl should experience like flirting with boys and trying new hairstyles. However, I am also able to reflect on my healing process, both the ups and downs. My battle is far from over, but one thing will remain true: I will never give up fighting.