Hey, everyone! I'm Lily (not my real name, but I like my anonymity online) and I started pulling out my hair in 5th grade.
I don't know what triggered it initially or any of that. I just remember when it started and how miserable it made life. I'm sure everyone here knows the story: Ostracized at school, treated like a freak, finding creative ways to cover up the bald spots, etc. It was awful. There were very few people at school willing to talk with me, and fewer still willing to stick by me against bullies. I won't bore with the details here, but let's just say I learned quickly how cruel people can be so I turned inward and focused on school, games, and other hobbies. I had accepted the trichotillomania as a part of me and deep down, I hated that I accepted it, but I found ways to cope with it.
- Coping -
One thing I did to cope was to look at the positives. I know what you're thinking: How can there be any positives to trichotillomania? It's tough, I admit. But think of all of the people in school who treat you badly because of it. Now ask yourself this: Are these the kind of people I want to be friends with? Chances are, no. Why would you want to befriend people who cannot see past your hair to who you are? It may not have been the happiest years of my life- but my trichotillomania helped me see other people for who they were. Which in turn meant that the few good friends I had were genuinely good people. I only keep in touch with one person from my pre-college days- and she's one of the most brilliant, kind, people you'll ever meet. Who knows- if it weren't for my trich, I may have never befriended her and ended up with some of the jerks instead. She had heard rumors about me from fellow peers- I know she did- everyone did- but that never stopped her from getting to know me and realizing that I'm not the freak others believed me to be.
In my first year of high school I joined a local community group. It was a community band that had recently started up. My parents knew that I loved playing my instrument (I still do) and encouraged/forced me to join. They thought I needed to get out more. They were right. I had always had an easier time getting along with my fellow band nerds at school (for the most part, anyway). I wouldn't call them friends, but they treated me with a bit more respect. I mostly joined the community group cause I loved to play- not because I expected to make friends. Turns out, I was the youngest member when I joined. By a LONG shot. It also turns out that the adults in the band (mostly seniors, 50+- but no exclusively) didn't care about my hair. No one mentioned it, no one stared, no one ever treated me badly. They welcomed me in as one of their own. I found myself able to relax around these people and allow a silly and mischievous side of me come out at rehearsals every Monday. I loved it!
They accepted me as I was and taught me to be a better musician- and made fun of me for being a HUGE band nerd. Not once did they ever judge me for my hair or treat me different because i was the kid of the group. Before long, this band because my second family- a second home. I mention this because it's important: This is when I realized that there were people out there that didn't care whether or not your hair was perfect or a ratty mess from all the pulling. Most importantly: They were adults. It gave me hope that as I grew older and got through college, that people would stop caring about what I looked like and cared more about who I was and what I could contribute. It was much needed hope- there was a light at the end of the tunnel called 'High School' after all. I had been shown that people COULD accept me with or without the trichotillomania. It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Suddenly, all the crap I had to put up with in high school seemed so insignificant. I could deal with it each week knowing that at least once a week I could be myself and that in the future, things could and would get better.
They did... and didn't. Senior year came and it was college application time. I applied for my dream school for a very small but well-respected animation and game-design program. Unfortunately, being the top 11% in your class with above-average SAT scores wasn't enough- I got rejected. For a brief time, I think I panicked about my future. It was brief. I buckled down and told myself I'd get there sooner or later. Better late than never. I had applied to a few back-up choices as well, so I had a plan. I'd go to a university closer to home (but still at least an hour away- my parents wanted me to learn to be independent) in a art program so I could work on my portfolio, get some core classes out of the way, and re-apply to the university/major I wanted to be in.
A lot of things changed in college. For starters, no one seemed to care anymore about my hair. This was a huge relief. I still got the occasional stare, but people were more open to talking to me and spending time with me. There were still a few bad eggs about, but I was getting better. In addition to this, I'd drive an hour each week to go to rehearsals with my community band. I wasn't being made fun of anymore- that's where things got better.
Where things got worse? College is hard. Surprise! I was never the best student in High School. Certainly above average- but I never studied enough to get straight As in my AP classes. I got by with minimal studying cause I'd rather draw, play games, or play music. I spoke to a transfer councilor about what classes I'd need to take in order to transfer into the animation/game program at the university I wanted to be at. He named three classes: Calculus I, Calculus II, and Physics. My worst nightmare. I did Calculus first and after getting the first D in my life. I don't know why, but this fact didn't set in for a few months... but when it finally did- I had a major meltdown. Part of me had finally begun to fear I would never get accepted into the university I wanted to be in. I cried in bed for an hour thinking that it was over. No program would take in someone who got a D. The stress of this realization made the hair pulling worse than ever. For the next year and a half, I continued- retaking Calculus (with a tutor this time), taking Physics, and working on my portfolio, all the while so certain in my mind that it would all be for nothing.
Semester 4 came and I had to make a decision. The only class I needed before applying to transfer was Calculus II. I had never been so anxious in my life. Halfway through the semester was time to send my transfer application in. I remember the essay prompt being something along the lines of describing notable personality traits that you had and writing that my strength wasn't that I was the smartest or strongest- but that I was a highly determined person. It was true, even if I was mortified at the thought of being rejected a second time, I knew I would re-apply as many times as it took. For me, giving up was the worst thing I could do. Of course, it was immediately rejected because I had yet to meet the Calculus II requirement. I was told that would happen and that as soon as I got the spring transcript, to send that in and they would re-evaluate my application. I don't think I had ever been more terrified to see a grade in my life. All the extra stress didn't help with my trich. I remember screaming and crying a little when I finally got a B in Calc II (a miracle for someone like me) and immediately sent in the new transcript.
On June 17 (my lucky number!) I woke up to an e-mail, sleepy and without my glasses, I read it and realized that I had been accepted for transfer! I remember crying so much I couldn't form the words to tell my mom the news, so I just handed her my phone with the e-mail open. I had done what I previously thought was impossible. Despite all my fears and my certainty that I would never get in, I did. I said my goodbyes to my band (my new university is too far for a weekly drive) and immediately began prepping for the next semester.
The first few months were tough. Everything was new. All my classmates already knew one another, I no longer had the support of the band behind me, and I felt strangely out of place. As soon as I stopped being so shy and uncertain, I began to realize that my class was small- maybe about 70 of us- and very much like myself. I mean, it shouldn't have come to a surprise at the time- but I never expected to meet so many people liking the same nerdy stuff I did in one place. I mean, people wanting to be animators/game designers liking cartoons and video games? Who would have thought! The major was full of misfits and former outcasts like myself, and I found many new friends that first semester. Suddenly, I felt like I was where I was always meant to be...
... but I was still pulling out my hair in record amounts.
Now, this whole sappy story has a purpose. Right before the second semester a sudden and amazing realization hit me. I had accepted the trichotillomania as a permanent part of my life. I had believed that there was no fighting it- that under no circumstances would I ever be able to overcome it. Wasn't that exactly what I told myself about getting into this major? And yet, I still didn't give up- I fought tooth and claw to transfer- it wasn't easy getting my GPA high enough (especially after Calculus I killed it) to be a worthy transfer candidate... and yet I did it. My entire essay was about how I refused to let failure keep me down... but wasn't that what was happening with my hair pulling issue? I had given up on solving that. Realizing this abhorred me. Surely if I could survive Calculus and transfer into my dream major, I could fight the trichotillomania?
It was time to make a stand. Time to set new goals and finally win the battle I had been losing for nearly a decade.
- Overcoming Trichotillomania -
It's now been just over 19 months since I last pulled out my hair. I won't go into an entire story like I did above- but instead, I'll list everything I did below in the form of tips and advice for anyone out there in hopes that I may have at least one other person in this world overcome their trich. It's not an easy fight- but it's certainly not impossible. Please, to any other hair-pullers out there: Don't give up. Don't give up hope, don't give up on yourselves. The world may be a tough, cruel place- but if you let it keep you down, things will never improve.
1. Determination is Key
- You won't be able to stop pulling your hair if you don't set your mind to it. I know it sounds obvious, but it's easier to hope for a miracle cure than to take matters into your own hands. Let me tell you this: Hoping for a miracle insta-cure is probably not going to happen. If you want this to stop, you must make the conscious decision to fight it. No more accepting it as a part of life, no more just going through the motions. You will have to fight, struggle, and stay strong through the good and the bad. If you do not -really- want it and don't set your mind to stopping, you won't win this fight. You may not be ready to fight this yet- that's fine. But hopefully, one day, you will find the strength and motivation to finally stand up and say 'Enough is enough!' For me, that came before my second semester at my university. For others, it may come sooner in life, for others- maybe later. Only you will know when you're ready to fight.
2. Track Your Progress
- Find a way to track each day you've gone without pulling. I got a small fish-bowl and a bunch of decorative pebbles that you'd see in a fish tank. Each day I went without pulling my hair, I'd put a clear white pebble in the bowl. On every 7th consecutive day, instead of a white pebble, I'd put a blue one in to mark a week. On every 30th day- a purple one. This way, as it fills up you feel a sense of accomplishment whenever you toss another in. Part of me became a bit excited at the prospect of filling up the entire bowl- it was added motivation. You look at that first pebble and think "I've got a long way to go" - but over time that changes to "Look how far I've come!"
If you have a bad day and pull, you can do one of a few things depending on your preferences.
- Take pebbles out. Maybe take a number out proportional to how bad you think the day was. Did you pull out just a few hairs? One pebble. A LOT of hair? Take out a few pebbles.
- Add in a red pebble or some other indicator of a bad day. Maybe replace an existing pebble with it. This will help you visually see the proportion of good days vs bad days.
Remember: A bad day or two doesn't mean you're back at the start. There may be set backs- that's fine. Don't let it discourage you. In my experience, the longer you go without pulling, the easier it gets. Don't give up!
- For every week you go without pulling, treat yourself to something nice. It doesn't have to be anything fancy- just something to look forward to at the end of the week. For me, it was my favorite meal: home-cooked Salmon! Every Sunday, if I made it the week without pulling, I'd cook some up for myself. This was something I normally wouldn't do because of time/cost- but as a starving college student, having real food WAS motivation. You do have to be honest with yourself though! It should add an extra bit of motivation to get through each day. Short term goals are great to have- little milestones to work for.
- Some longer term rewards are great too! Again- doesn't have to be fancy- just something else to work for. Rewards are great. While the ultimate reward is being free from trich, it never hurts to add in some extra prizes along the way to make the journal seem less daunting. For me, I added in either ice cream, a movie theater trip, or a road trip to one of the near-ish cities to go to the zoo or something for each 30th day. For my 6 month mark, I got a new 3DS as a bigger reward. My parents gave me my one-year reward in the form of a nice dinner out with them. Don't be afraid to involve family and friends! Rewards can certainly be more fun with others!
4. Keep Busy
- This can be the hardest for some. We all know that you can't pull your hair out if your hands are occupied- so try to keep busy whenever possible- ESPECIALLY when you feel the urge to pull. Play video games, start doodling/drawing on a piece of paper. Type a story or I don't know- knit! This would be a good opportunity to pick up a hobby or join some clubs/local groups. Find something you enjoy doing, and go with it! For me it was art, writing, and playing my instrument- all of which occupy my hands. You don't need to be good at it, just so long as you enjoy it! Bonus points for anything you can do while watching TV so you don't pull while enjoying your favorite show. Heck, start some projects. Like to draw/write? Start a webcomic for fun- or join in National Novel Writing Month and write a novel! Pick up an instrument and teach yourself to play.
5. Don't be afraid to ask for Help
- We all know that it is difficult to ask for help- especially for something we may consider embarrassing like trich. Tell your close family and friends what you're doing. Ask them to let you know if it looks like you're pulling- or maybe just to distract you on a particularly rough day that you're worried will result to pulling. There is no shame in seeking emotional support from those close to you. They would probably be more than happy to help you better your life however they can.
6. Be Healthy!
- While there is no confirmed cause of trichotillomania, it is believed that it is caused by a 'chemical imbalance in the brain.' What this means is that there may be some underlying issues like depression, anxiety, OCD, etc. that may be contributing to your hair pulling. In addition, many of us pull when we're stressed- and poor health can result in us being more stressed than usual. So try to be healthy- I'm not saying go on a never-ending diet or go to the gym every day- but you know, take the healthy option from time to time. Maybe park at the back of the parking lot when getting groceries.
- Most importantly though, get a doctor's check-up. Get a simple blood test to look for anything abnormal- especially if you've got a family history of anything. My mom's side of the family has a history of Hypothyroidism, thyroid cancer, and Hashimoto's. I went to get checked last spring for Hypothyroidism just because of the family history- and sure enough, I've got a mild case of it. It's a fact that Hypothyroidism is a highly common and undiagnosed issue amongst women. Amongst its symptoms can be hair loss, anxiety, depression, mood swings, weight gain, memory issues, etc. At the very least, the depression and mood swings can help worsen the hair pulling urges. Treating any medical conditions may not cure the trichotillomania for you- but it will probably help improve your health and mood and make it easier to fight the urge to pull.
7. Don't Give Up!
- It's easy to get discouraged when you have a bad day. It can feel as if all the progress you made is gone. That's understandable, but giving up is the single worst thing you can do. If you fall, get back up and keep going. The scrapes and bruises along the way will heal in time. Some relapses will take longer to recover from- but just keep pushing forward. I promise that it gets easier to fight the urge over time. I won't say it will go away completely- it may never leave you entirely- but it will get to the point where you can ignore it- even as you twirl a strand of hair around your fingers.
To the family of friends of those who suffer Trichotillomania: Be supportive! What your friend/family member is going through isn't easy. It may seem simple to just stop pulling out hair, but it's not. Trichotillomania- or any Impulse Control Disorder- is like an addiction. Don't try to force them to stop pulling. You cannot force an addict to stop until they are ready to begin the healing process. When they take that first step, offer your support and help them along the way. Be patient and understanding. The best thing you can do is be understanding and supportive at their best and worst. My parents didn't understand my problem in the first few years- they tried everything to get me to stop before realizing it had to be a choice I made. When I finally made that choice, they were behind me 100%. Without that support, I don't know if I'd have made it this far.
Since I stopped pulling my hair, it has grown back to very full uncontrollable wavy mess. And I love it. I could have sworn I had straight hair growing up, but now that it's back, I've embraced the mess as I continue to get used to dealing with my full head of hair. However, it did not grow back without signs of damage. Over the last few weeks I have noticed a number of white hairs scattered about. Just a few- 4 pure white hairs and at least two with white roots near where I part my hair. I assume this is the result of about a decade of pulling my hair out, as the white strands are all in the areas where the pulling was worse. I am strangely okay with this. I consider them reminders of what I had been through. They are white because I had trichotillomania... but they are THERE because I had the strength and determination to stop. I would not even considering pulling them out because it would be to deny my past and destroy what I had worked to achieve.
When things look their worse: count your blessings and look on the positive. Trichotillomania may be a huge burden, but it's one that can be fought and overcome. So don't give up and keep moving forward. I have faith that all of you have the strength to win against this- you just need to find that strength within you.