I first started pulling out my hair in August 2014 and looking back at everything that happened that summer, it’s probably not surprising that I developed a compulsive behaviour. I was already struggling with my mental health and then, in the space of a few weeks, an important relationship fell apart and I had to have my cat (who I’d had all my life) put to sleep very suddenly. And I was just about to start university. I was overwhelmed by my anxiety and depression and in the lowest place I’d ever been. I was probably desperate to regain some control and when something started affecting the texture of my hair (my money is on the new medication, Phenelzine, which I’d just started taking), my inner perfectionist went into overdrive, tearing out the hair that felt different. At first I was fixing the problem – getting rid of the hair that felt different to the rest – but, of course, it grew back, creating a whole new problem. Then I was tearing out the regrowth, as well as the rougher stands, and the whole thing snowballed. Very quickly it reached a point where I felt like I physically couldn’t stop pulling, as much as I wanted to.
At that point in time, I didn’t know what Trichotillomania was and I’m still not entirely sure how I came across it but for those of you unfamiliar with it, I’ll give you a little summary. Trichotillomania is a condition where the person feels compelled to pull their hair out (whether it’s from their head or any other part of their body) and is unable to stop themselves from doing so. Although there are different theories (including mental illness, self harm, and addiction), there is still no known cause and there has been very little research into treating it. While checking my facts to write this, I came across a description on the NHS website which, for me, is very accurate to what it feels like: “They will experience an intense urge to pull their hair out and growing tension until they do. After pulling out hair, they’ll feel a sense of relief.” It feels like there’s electricity under my skin and it builds and builds and builds until I can’t bear it anymore; the only way to stop it is to pull out my hair. Then I can breathe again.
I tried to stop but I always ended up pulling again. It honestly felt like it would’ve been easier to break my own fingers than to stop pulling out my hair. It was only the discovery of a bald spot that shocked me into stopping. I don’t know whether it was vanity or anxiety about how out of control it had become but somehow that gave me renewed focus and motivation. I tried everything I could think of: sheer willpower, sitting on my hands, wearing a hat 24/7 (which, bizarrely, has become part of my image as a singersongwriter), fidget toys, jewelry that I could fiddle with. Ultimately I think it was a combination of these that helped me stop pulling.
I managed a whole year. The first few days were awful. The feeling of electricity under my skin magnified, so strong that I couldn’t concentrate, and I’m not sure when that started to fade. But it did. And slowly my hair grew back. But the urge never went away and just passed the year mark, I started pulling again. The relief was huge. And now, over a year later, I’m still struggling with it.
What I think many people don’t understand about this condition is that it’s not voluntary. I’ve had so many people tell me to ‘just stop pulling’ and that’s really upsetting to hear because I don’t want to pull out my hair. I don’t want to sit, surrounded by strands of my own hair. I don’t want this. I can feel myself doing it and I can’t stop. Sometimes I can stop that action but as the tension gets worse, I end up pulling again – it feels like an endless cycle of trying to stop but knowing that I’ll inevitably start again. It’s so hard. And if the bald patches, uneven length, and permanent damage to my hair weren’t enough, that’s only part of it. There’s an emotional impact; it’s not just ‘pulling out hair’. There’s shame, embarrassment, guilt, and frustration. I hate that I can’t stop, that I can’t seem to control my own body. (It’s also worth pointing out that I also struggle with physical pain in my arm and shoulder from the repetitive motion.)
But I’m not giving up. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next but I’ll find something new to try, a different angle to tackle it from. I won’t give up. I can’t, because I don’t want to live like this.