Perspective: Living with Trichotillomania 

[read time: five minutes] 

I have been thinking about it for at least ten years. Shaving my head. Cutting all the hair off. 

Why? I was sick of it. Sick of my hair. Sick of being a slave to its whims. 

No, I’m not talking about the time it takes to wash/ blow dry/ style my hair. 

Not even close. 

So, I made the decision, on a random Sunday morning, to do it. And once I did, I got looks when I went out. I was bald. I could see it in their eyes, every time. They wonder: is she crazy? Does she have cancer? I know there is a stigma surrounding it. Negativity, even. 

No, the reason I shaved my hair was because of a condition I have been living with since I was a child – Trichotillomania. For those of you who do not know, it’s described as a 

“hair-pulling disorder; [it] is a mental disorder that involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop”

mayoclinic.org

It started when I was about 11 years old, or in grade 6. I recently had major surgery on my leg, resulting in my entire leg being encased stick straight in a cast for about two months. As such, I could not walk anywhere or do anything. I was laid up on the couch all day, as I had to keep my leg elevated to keep swelling down. We had to tape garbage bags over my leg so I could have a bath; even then, I was forced to hang my leg, awkwardly, out of the tub, to ensure it did not get wet. 

I was frustrated. I was bored. I had nothing to do with my hands. All I did all day for the first few weeks home from the hospital was watch tv. My body had to heal. 

Medical trauma is a very real thing. This is what I experienced, going through such a major and life-altering surgery at such a young age. At 11, I had no idea that I would come out of this surgery for both the better and the worse. However, I soon began to suspect that my life was indeed not going to get better, but much harder, as my leg would never function properly – the way it is supposed to: bend – ever again. 

So, as I sat on the couch, frustrated, bored, my hands wandered up to the top of my head. One of the hairs felt different, so I plucked it out. 

I was in intense pain from the surgery. I was taking a lot of painkillers. So, when I plucked that hair from my head, I did not feel pain, but a sort of relief. It was as if a bunch of pent-up stress had released as I pulled that hair from my head. So I did it again. And again. Over and over, one hair at a time. I dropped each hair on to the floor, next to the couch, until there was a little pile there. 

It was not until a few weeks later that my mom noticed that I had a bunch of short hairs growing in around the crown of my head that she mentioned something. I told her I was pulling my hair out, and we got some crafts to keep my hands busy during the day. But any time we watched a movie at night, there would be a pile of hair next to me by the time it was over. 

Over the next 24 years of my life, the hair pulling would ebb and flow. Months would go by without pulling, or I would be so stressed out that I would spend hours pulling hair out of my head in front of the bathroom mirror. 

Yes, hours. Hours at a time. My arms would be exhausted by the time I was done. My head would be full of near-bald spots. 

At some point in time during my 20s I was diagnosed with mild obsessive compulsive disorder, along with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. While I have mostly overcome the latter two, I still struggle with OCD to this day – specifically, Trichotillomania. It took a lot of years sober, with medication, therapy, CBD (yep, weed), CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and meditation to get a handle on my depression and anxiety, but the OCD – Trich – has always endured. 

To list all the CBT tools I’ve tried in effort to combat this would be exhaustive. But to name a few: I’ve worn gloves and/ or toques while inside, I’ve covered up mirrors, I’ve kept an elastic band around my wrist to snap instead when I feel the urge to pull, I’ve left notes around for myself to keep my hands away from my head. Nothing worked. 

All the years of selectively pulling, and not giving my hair a chance to grow back, has taken its toll. Luckily, I have never had too noticeable of a bald patch, but my hair is incredibly thin and thinning more so because of the damage. I would try to grow my hair long, only to have to cut it short over and over again because I could not stop pulling. This created an almost mullet-like hairdo as the hair on the top of my head would slowly grow back in (which, most of the time, I plucked out again anyway) and the parts underneath remained long. 

For the past few years I have been seriously contemplating shaving my hair off, almost as a threat to myself: “If you can’t stop, you HAVE to shave it.” I’d snatch my hands back from my head so quick! However, it usually wasn’t even an hour later before I caught myself doing it again. I’d scream in frustration, smack my hands together, anything just to stop. 

However, over these past few years, besides using the head-shave as a threat to myself, it also almost became desirable. I was starting to warm up to the idea. I began to think that maybe it would be easier to shave it all off, be done with it, and have some freedom. 

That Sunday morning, I had already been pulling at my hair. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen doing it, when my toddler asked me, “Mommy, what are you doing?” 

My heart broke. I snatched my hands down and said, “Nothing, honey.” But I’ve seen her playing with her hair, and I do not want her to start and then to feel the same shame and guilt I have had over pulling my hair out – or the helplessness that comes with feeling unable to stop. 

Twenty-four years of living with this, off and on and it all came down to about five minutes, me in front of the mirror, scissors and razor at the ready. I stepped away a few times before beginning, unsure if I was really going to go through with it. But I thought of all the time I wasted standing in front of the same mirror pulling my hair out, and that is what kicked me into action. 

When I set the razor down, I was all smiles. I had no idea how I was going to feel when I was done. I was free. That was the first word that came to my mind: I was free of pulling, free of OCD, free of wasted time. I felt so good, and even better – I looked good! Turned out I have a nice-shaped head. Hahaha. 

That was the end of September. It’s now been just over three months since I shaved it all off. My hair has grown a few inches, and I shaved it into a mohawk. Might as well – it’s never been this short before. 

So – did shaving all my hair off actually work in preventing me from pulling it out?

Well, yeah. I had no hair. 

Seriously, though: it’s been three months that I have not pulled. It’s been three months that I haven’t wasted hours in front of the mirror. It’s been three months of my hair growing back evenly. Three months of my hands not wandering up. I haven’t even tried to pull the hair that has regrown out – it’s like my mind and hand have been retrained. When I get anxiety these days, I don’t try to pull the short hair that has grown back. I simply run my hands through my hair, content in knowing I have this OCD beat – for now, at least. 

What about you? Do you have any struggles with OCD, depression or anxiety? It’s a safe space here, so feel free to leave a comment below.

Before leaving, check out Disabled Danielle’s post about trich. She inspired me to write this one.

Published by Erica Black

writer, mama, teacher, disability advocate for those living with VMs

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