Why I’ve Made Myself Nearly Bald
By Jennifer Purdie
I know I will probably suffer from trichotillomania for the rest of my life.
M y bedroom mirrors a cosmetology school. With mannequin heads and wigs nestled in all four corners, you would think I either like to play dress up or moonlight as a hairdresser. Perusing my collection, it appears I tend to favor short, blonde bobs and longer, curly brunette ones.
But these wigs do not serve as part of a costume or for spending an incognito night on the town; my wigs hide the part of myself that I am most ashamed of. I have an obsessive compulsive disorder called trichotillomania, and I cannot stop pulling out my hair — to the point that I’ve made myself nearly bald.
Approximately 1% of the U.S. population experiences trichotillomania at some point in their lifetime. The disorder involves pulling out hair not just from the head, but from the eyebrows, eyelashes, and other part of the body. Causes vary: Most “trichsters,” as they are called, contain abnormalities in natural brain chemicals and likely have other disorders such as depression and anxiety. Trichotillomania usually develops in the early teenage years and serves as a calming mechanism to deal with negative feelings and stress.
My wigs hide the part of myself that I am most ashamed of.
For me, hair-pulling provides a texture-based stress relief — I love the feel of my hair and cannot keep my hands out of it. When my hair is covered with a wig, I pull out the wig’s strands instead. When I pull a substantial amount out of one wig, I simply buy a new one and keep the old ones as reminders of my embarrassing habit.
Trichotillomania started when I was young, barely above a two-figure age. My babysitter was over at my house, and I noticed her pulling out her eyebrows. Curious, I asked why. She curtly responded, “It feels good.” She then explained she pulls out the hair on her head, too. “I pull out the split ends. You should pull a split end out from the root to get rid of it. Otherwise it’ll continue to split up the hair shaft.” I followed her advice and began pulling out the split ends. It felt both weird and comforting, like an itch I suddenly could scratch.
In high school, I would pull for hours at a time. It became this rewarding hobby, an escape from my ongoing depression. It also came with consequences: I always looked like I had a bad haircut.
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I remember one particularly harrowing instance. As a member of my high school’s all-girls choir, we were to maintain a uniform appearance at our performances — hair down and pushed back off the shoulders. I tried to skirt the rules by tucking my small amount of hair underneath my choir robe to conceal its unfortunate shape. But one choir member across the room noticed and yelled, “Jennifer, pull your hair back.”
Everyone stopped to stare; the worst part of me was abruptly thrust into center stage, my most unattractive feature called out in front of a hundred catty teenagers. The choir teacher waited for me to pull out what little strands I had from underneath the robe, and to push my hair back behind my shoulders. Girls around me snickered; I blushed and looked down. At 6’0”, I couldn’t hide. They all could see my weirdness on display.
In my high school yearbook, which should have contained wishes of Have a good summer and See you next year, I received a number of “Why do you play so much with your hair?” and “No offense, but you twist your hair a lot. I’m not trying to be mean.” (I’ve found that when a sentence starts with “no offense,” it is usually followed by something totally offensive.) After reading these comments, I still haven’t opened my yearbook after all these years. It sits in a box in my garage. I don’t even know why I keep it.
In college, my stress level increased and my pulling elevated. I concentrated my pulling on the lower back of my scalp and after a few months, I looked as though I shaved off the back of my head — which was a style popular with hipster/drifters. As a Seattle resident, people thought I merely traded my Ann Taylor look for something grungier and funkier. Obviously this wasn’t the case, but instead of revealing the truth, I played along. Working part-time in a department store, I purchased flannel shirts, combat boots, and dark purple lipstick to appear more goth than my typical style of black pencil skirts and low black heels. I felt ridiculous because I didn’t feel like me; I was disguising my disorder by disguising all of me.
With dating, I remained surprisingly upfront about my trichotillomania; I didn’t want to start out any potential relationship with a lie. “Do you know why I look weird?” is how I would broach the subject. Most men shrugged their shoulders and thought I liked odd hairstyles. They were far more blasé about it than I was, but I still felt tremendous humiliation.
I was disguising my disorder by disguising all of me.
My trichotillomania intensified in my thirties when I moved to a bustling new city in California and accepted a high-pressure job with a boss I referred to as FHL, an acronym for Female Hannibal Lecter. She got inside my mind and, more and more over time, ate away at me.
“Jennifer, you’re stupid,” she would either say or type in an email, depending on the time of day. “Jennifer, why aren’t you as good as I am?” With each insult, more hair got ripped from my head.
The cleaning lady at work left me a note on my desk one day that read, “You are clogging up my vacuum with your hair.” I felt badly — but I couldn’t stop pulling.
A few months into the job, I noticed large bald patches forming. I had moved my pulling from the back of my head to the top. My hairdresser sighed every time I walked through her doors; I really tested her abilities to work with what little hair I offered her.
I tried to stop pulling using everything from stress balls to hats to latex gloves. I even took up hobbies like crocheting to keep my hands on the needles instead of in my hair. Nothing worked.
Three years ago, my dad, who never makes comments about my appearance, looked at me and said, “It’s time for you to get a wig.”
So I did. Now I own multiple wigs, and I still pull out the strands from each and every one of them. But at least it’s not my own hair.
Though therapy and emotional support can help, there is no known “cure” to trichotillomania, and I know that I will probably suffer from it for the rest of my life. The urge to pull has a hold of me, and I can’t let it go. I’ve cried many times at this woman in the mirror and the bald patches over her head; I’ve tried to dissociate myself from “her,” the trichster, and become more “me” when I put on my wig.
I haven’t made peace with my disorder, but over time, I have become more tolerant of it. Every day, I work hard to try to live with this part of myself, rather than trying to fight it; the fight is too exhausting.
For now and maybe for the rest of my days, I’ll just make friends with the wig shop staff. I’m one of their best customers.