So… a few months ago I featured Balance Magazine and ended up sharing the fact I have an obsessive compulsive disorder with a few thousand Londoners. I wrote this post soon after and I’ve been too nervous to actually publish it for about three months! *Deep breath* here goes.
I was interviewed about a whole range of subjects in the magazine article, sharing experiences about dealing with stress as well as lessons I’ve learned about my emotional, physical and mental health. One thing I found myself mentioning (that I had totally NOT planned to mention) was the fact I have an obsessive compulsive disorder that I’ve been battling with since I was 12.
When I got the interview transcript back a couple of weeks later, I had a chance to remove that piece of rather private information. I was given 20 minutes to edit and return my transcript before the team needed it back. And I decided “y’know what, f*ck it” and left the information in.
Three weeks later, the piece was published, and a every friend and colleague who read the piece (plus quite a few strangers!) now know I have trichotillomania – the obsessive urge to pull my hair out when I get stressed, anxious or (in more recent years) bored. Those close to me obviously know and I remember one friend previously likening my OCD to a bird in a cage, plucking out its own feathers when it felt miserable. That’s the best analogy I’ve found to make sense of it, since I realised what I had in my late teens.
Those not so close to me, but who spend a lot of time with me, will definitely notice I touch my head a lot in an almost repetitive pattern, but might not have realised what it is I’m actually doing. Or – maybe they do, and I’m just not as good at hiding it as I think I am.
Anyway, I wanted to use my space, here on the internet, to talk a bit about what trichotillomania is and what it feels like to be a normal person who spends a lot of time hiding a quirk. I know I’m not the only one to have it (1% of the population has it in some form!!) and I know that by writing openly about it, I might help someone else realise what they have, or at least feel a little bit less of a weirdo for also having this form of mental illness.
So then, trichotillomania – or ‘trich’ as it is more affectionately known, has been my vice since I was 12. That’s 21 years now. It’s a weird, long word which translates to hair-pulling-madness. So, that kind of sums it up really!
It’s caused me shame, embarrassment and fury. It’s offered me comfort when I’ve felt low and stressed. It’s been my dirty little secret. Trich has been something I’ve had to explain to partners, shamefully showing them my bald patch because I would die of embarrassment if they caught a glimpse of it before I’d had the chance to admit my oddity.
Trichotillomania is something I’ve spent quite a lot of money trying to cure, and quite a few years not really understanding what I was doing. I’ve had countless people say “why don’t you just stop?!” (believe me, if I could, do you not think I would have?!) and I’ve become a master of covering up an unsightly bald patch on my head via hairstyles and, when times get desperate, by colouring kohl eyeliner onto my scalp to hide my little bald patch and detract myself from touching my head.
I only pull hair from a couple of places on my scalp – which is kind of good or else I’d be bald all over – but also kinda rubbish because it means I have a concentrated bald spot that gets really hard to hide when I’ve had a really horrible day and soothed my emotional state by pulling a lot of hair out.
I often don’t realise I’m pulling out my hairs – one by one – in an almost trance like state. I barely pay attention to it now – aside from looking at each hair I’ve pulled out before discarding it on the floor next to me, so my fingers can continue in their absent-minded search for their next victim. Even writing that sentence makes me feel like a fruit loop. What a pointless thing to do! The annoying thing is – even though I KNOW I have control over what I do with my hands, I almost feel like I can’t be bothered to fight my hands doing this because it’s become so ingrained in my habitual daily life, that at times I actually enjoy it – it’s a comfortingly repetitive thing to do.
It’s a habit. I find myself typing on the keyboard with one hand while the other creeps across my scalp, almost as if pulling has become a way to help me concentrate. I will absent-mindedly pull when I’m watching TV or concentrating on a film, too. I’ve tried wearing a hat in the house – only to find myself with my hand under the hat!
And hairdressers. I’ve been to the hairdresser 4 times since 1997. This is partly because I prefer to cut my own hair (I am a tight git who thinks hair dressing prices are extortionate), but I mainly don’t go to one because, upon noticing my bald patch, there is always an uncomfortable silence from the hairdresser followed by their fake-cheery question “ooh! What happened here?!” Despite my best No F*cks Given attitude, the words “I pull my hair out” aren’t easy to breezily mention to a stranger .
No matter how hard I try – those words stick in my throat and spring tears into my eyes. It’s a strange thing to admit as a rational adult, and I’d rather not have to explain myself. So, every few months, my latest wonky bathroom-mirror haircut is unleashed on the world and I promise myself I’ll stop pulling by the next time I need to visit the hairdresser.
So, there you go. After cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, medication and a visit to an ‘expert’ who charged me £150 for a 20 minute consultation which concluded with her leading me out of her office with a jovial “Lovey, just buy some knitting needles to scratch your head with, that’ll be your best solution!” I still have a bald patch, and I still can’t fully stop.
I’ve come to the conclusion that trich is something that I will probably have until I am a little old lady. So I’ve got to learn how to manage the urge to pull out my hair as best I can.
I’m also realising that getting comfortable with this quirk and talking about it in as matter-of-fact a way as I’d say “I’ve got brown eyes”, makes it less of a shameful, dirty secret, and more of a thing I feel I can live openly with. This attitude will probably lead to a lot less anxiousness – the main emotion that leads me to descend to a hair-pulling frenzy.
And so I guess this blog post is a way of me saying “here’s who I am, and I’m ok with that”, for two reasons. Firstly, I hope I can make anyone else battling to hide a relatively common form of mental illness, feel less like the isolated freak you so often end up feeling like when you spend a lot of your time trying to hide who you are. And secondly, I guess I’m hoping to rid myself of anxiousness that having trich so often brings to my door. Maybe that’ll make me feel a bit less like I need to pull to feel calm.
Thank you to the Balance editor, Sophie Scott, for inviting me along to feature earlier this year; and the lady who interviewed me on the day, Gemma Calvert, for making me comfortable enough to talk about this in the first place (and for her kind email which made me decide to keep it in my transcript).
And thank you to you, for reading. This was a pretty personal admission, and I feel both scared and relieved to put this out on the internet. This is me, internet. A normal, rational, intelligent woman… with a little bald patch.