I started pulling my hair when I was fifteen. One day, during my first year of high school, my mother found me in my room, sitting on my bed unknowingly yet furiously ripping strands of hair out of my scalp. One by one, the pieces fell until there was quickly a large pool around me. With a blank face, I seemed to be unaware of what I was doing. All I knew was that I felt this unnerving pressure in my heart and my mind was racing faster than it ever had, and the only way to alleviate it was to therapeutically rip the pieces out.
Since that day, I never stopped ripping out my hair. I do it all the time -- whether I'm really stressed out or just really bored. My friend complains when I get out of the passenger seat in her car because it's always littered with hair. My mother constantly chastises me about it. I even silently curse myself after the millionth time of ripping a piece of hair out during the day.
Oh, and don't even get me started on haircuts. I cringe when I sit down in that chair and the stylist holds up the awkward short tufts of hair that sit on the top my head: physical evidence of my severe disorder. The conversation always goes like this:
"Well... you have these random short pieces up here..." he or she always says.
"Yeah, I rip my hair out. It's a problem," I always respond quietly as I sink into the chair.
What I have is called trichotillamania, classified as an "impulse control disorder" in the DSM-IV. About 4 percent of people may have trichotillomania, according to the National Institute of Health, and it's mostly women who have the impulse to pull or rip out the hair on their bodies. I have known a few female friends who suffer the same ailment as I do. One of my close childhood friends can't stop pulling out her eyelashes. Olivia Munn rips her's out too, telling the New York Daily News last year, "[...] I rip my eyelashes. It doesn't hurt, but it's really annoying. Every time I run out of the house, I have to stop and pick up a whole set of fake eyelashes."
As anyone with trichotillamania can attest, treating it is very difficult, and overcoming the habit feels almost impossible. It's kind of crazy -- all of a sudden you snap out of your intense hair-picking moment and you realize you ripped out so much hair. I've tried many tactics. Once I started ripping off too much hair on the top of my head, so I started only ripping it out from the bottom. But in the end, it still looked like a mess.
I know wearing headbands and hair wraps can effectively hide bald spots (for those who rip the hair out of their scalp). As far as hair products go, I personally use a lot of anti-frizz serums to keep down the stray short hairs that pop up from my hair pulling. Right now, Federic Fekkai's Brilliant Glossing Cream is working wonders. I also am really into Living Proof's No Frizz Styling Cream.
In the end, trichotillamania is a disorder brought upon by anxiety, which I (and many other young twenty-somethings) sure have a lot of. There's the relentless pressure from fashion magazines and ads to have a perfect body and always look flawless. There's job security. There are relationships. It's pretty daunting, and each of us cope with it in some way or another. But for many women, we mess around with how we look, whether it's pulling our hair out, biting our nails or picking at our skin. What is this urge to pull out or remove things from our bodies?
I assume that because I am naturally a perfectionist, my anxiety stemmed from my undying need to make everything perfect and be the best at whatever I attempted. And in this effort to be flawless, a hidden anxiety crept into my system and slowly yet adamantly became a permanent fixture. Pulling my hair out perhaps developed as a defense mechanism against my imperfections. I would pull and pull, hoping to weed out any personal imperfections, until it just became a normal part of my daily routine.
As much as it relieves my tension and anxiety, I desperately want to stop it. I've tried so many things -- anti-anxiety medication, therapy, exercising -- you name it. It never ends. I look at girls with long flowing hair and I envy them. I get even more mad knowing that I could achieve that hair if I just didn't destroy my own only to enjoy one short moment of temporary satisfaction.
The other day, I saw "Blue Jasmine" with my best friend. Needless to say, the movie stressed me out afterward. (If you know anything about Woody Allen movies, you'll understand.) On the train home, my friend kept trying to have a conversation with me, but all I found myself doing was furiously ripping strands of hair out of my head. I was hardly even paying attention to what she was saying.
Looking at my hair was more important than looking at my friend. Holding each strand of hair in my hand and examining it had a soothing effect on the millions of thoughts running through my mind. And hearing the little "click" of the hair breaking in my hands was immediately calming. I found solace in holding the broken-off piece of my body. With each thread pulled out, one pang of anxiety was tranquilized. And when the next piece of hair started to fall to the floor, my mind began to clear even more.
What do you do to relieve your anxiety? Check out some more little-known anxiety disorders in the slideshow: