Pulling Out The Truth

Obsessive compulsions. What do we think when we hear those words? OCD? Obsessive cleaning? Switching the light on and off eleven times before leaving a room? Everything always being straight and in order? These are the things we associate with when hearing the words obsessive compulsions, or OCD.

But what if I told you my obsessive compulsion was to pull out all my hair, strand by strand? Or pick at my skin until it bled?

Would you believe me?

It’s not a weird quirk, or a nervous habit. They are disorders, closely related to OCD. Their names are Trichotillomania and Dermatillomania. A mouthful, right?

Trichotillomania is a compulsive hair pulling disorder. Sufferers can pull for hours on end, trying desperately to feed the urges that overcome them.

Just one more hair, we think, one more and I’ll stop. But it’s always a broken promise, an empty lie and before we know it there is a pile of hairs on the floor and a cool breeze on our bare scalp.

My trich started a few months after I was discharged from a mental health unit when I was 14 years old. It started out unnoticeable, just a few hairs here and there but it quickly escalated. No more than a few months later I had lost almost all of my long, thick hair. I wore a hat every single day, even when it was boiling hot. I was embarrassed, ashamed, disgusted with myself. Bits started growing back while others became bald. It was patchy and thin and horrible. Sometimes when I look back I laugh at how ridiculous I looked; the only bits of hair I did not pull were my fringe and a small chunk at the back that stayed the same length — I used to plait it but it looked more like a rat tail!

I suppose it didn’t help that I was in the clutches of anorexia at the time. My hair fell out in chucks because of my lack of nutrition and it was weakened and thinning.

You may think me mad. You may think me crazy. You may not understand why I did it and that’s okay, because neither do I. Although, I can explain the feelings that leads up to this nightmarish behaviour.

It starts with a tingling of the scalp and the twitching of fingers. And then the intense rise of anxiety builds up and it’s everything you can do not to yank out every single hair on your head right there and then. One hair at a time and with every hair comes more relief. And with every bit of relief comes the craving for more.

It’s an endless cycle, a carousel ride of dead hairs, anxiety and overwhelming shame.

I stayed indoors. I hated being seen. I wore a hat but that did not hide my shame. I hated myself and the way I looked. I was underweight but wanted to be smaller. I was slowly disappearing yet I was more noticeable than ever. I had no hair on my head and ugly scars on my arms. It was an endless nightmare that I never seemed to awake from.

You may think it was not that bad. I suppose it never seemed too serious, it wasn’t life threatening and I hadn’t been suffering for long but I had been it the grasp of another, very similar disorder for much longer.

Compulsive skin picking disorder, or otherwise known as Dermatillomania.

I was four years old when I first had blood on my hands. My blood.

I remember when my mum told me off for always scratching my head. I remember her telling me to stop when I would pull off bits of my skin and eat it (disgusting, I know. But that’s the life of a sufferer) — of course she doesn’t remember this but I suppose kids do all sorts of disgusting things, right? But it carried on, well into my teens.

I would — and still do — tear my finger nails down the what I have always thought of as the passages of my scalp. The corridors between lines of hairs. I pull up the skin, make it bleed and when it scabs over, I just open it up. I know there will be many people saying now, ‘oh, well I always pick at my scabs.’ Yes, but do you do it every single time it heals? Do you have an uncontrollable urge? Are you completely unable to concentrate on anything until you have pulled off that dried skin? I got a small injury on my arm months ago that should have healed within days. Five months later and it still looks like I received it last week. I can never let a wound heal.

I used to bite at my knuckled and fingers until the fresh flesh peeled away. I would leave them bare and they would always become infected but I was too ashamed to go to the doctors. I paint my nails but minutes later they are chipped and broken because I cannot stand to not scratch and pick.

When scabs appear on my scalp, I pull the hair off and around them. When it’s bald, I scratch and pick more. And then more scabs appear and I pull even more hairs out. It’s an endless cycle of scratching, picking and pulling.

You may still think I’m mad and I wouldn’t blame you. You may still think I’m crazy and that’s okay, all the best people are.

As I sit writing this a 1am, 2 days until my 17th, my dog twitches beside me as she dreams about the deer and birds she wishes to chase. I hear the rain outside and sit in my mum’s old jumper from Shetland and under the cover of my fluffy throw and the steam from my coffee swirls in the air. Through my struggles I have come to appreciate the smallest of things and see the beauty in the most insignificant.

My hair has grown back, not as thick as it once was but it’s a start. I wish it was longer but I know it will get there someday. My skin slowly heals but my mind never allows it to do that easily. My anxiety likes to haunt me still but most days I can manage it. I am a healthy weight which some days I despise and some days I love. At least I have the energy and concentration to write this post. At least I have the strength to move my fingers across the keys. At least I can smile and mean it. At least there is a twinkle back in my eyes.

This is the first time I have ever truly opened up about my struggles with these disorders and I have tried to convey the brutal truth. With awareness comes support and with support come happiness and that’s all I really wish for the world.