What it means to suffer from trichotillomania: A chronicle of one woman’s journey with hair-pulling disorder

What it means to suffer from trichotillomania: A chronicle of one woman’s journey with hair-pulling disorder

Road to recovery

Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @anyaholdstock

Road to Recovery is a collection of personal essays surrounding the debilitating effects of obsessive-compulsive disorders — and how victims are able to show compassion to themselves despite it. All stories as narrated to Beauty Editor, Emily Heng.

TW: Graphic descriptions, blood.

I can pin-point the exact moment when I began to pull my hair out. Ironically enough, it started after my first dye job. I was eighteen, and I remembered requesting a balayage style that was all the rage. And while I loved my new look — it soon became clear that my scalp wasn't a fan. It revolted in a matter of days, leaving me with a severely itchy hair line that soon evolved into hard, silvery scales.

This led me to check in with a doctor, who informed me that it was scalp psoriasis; a mild condition easily managed with topical treatments. The trick was to (gently) remove the hardened skin using the prescribed medication before following it with an anti-itching cream. It sounded easy enough, for the most part.

As it turns out, it became the catalyst of my obsessive behaviour. At first, I was merely scratching and picking to get rid of the scales. There was an immense sense of satisfaction to be gleaned every time I dislodged a flake; I felt as if I was a snake slowly shedding its skin. A reptile moulting in hopes of a smoother, shinier surface beneath.

I picked at my scalp when I was bored; when I was fresh out of the shower; when I felt remotely irritable or distressed or irked. I likened it to a bad habit, of sorts — other people vices went along the lines of cigarettes and alcohol. Mine involved gouging my scalp bloody. In the grand scheme of things, I wasn't too bad off.

Things didn't change when my psoriasis cleared up. I envisioned a return to normalcy, the habit banished in light of my busy work schedule. No such luck. Instead, I found comfort in tugging and yanking strands of my hair out. The sharp jolt of pain grounded me during difficult situations, made me feel calm and more present. It soon reached a point where I began to keep score of the hairs I plucked — the higher the number, the better I felt.

This soon applied to my lash hairs, too. The pain was so acute that it would disrupt any train of negative thoughts. I would tally the number of hairs I've jerked free in a day so as to justify my reasons for continuing. 47 strands? Well, an odd number was bad luck. Might as well make it 48, or perhaps 50, to round things out. I pulled and tugged and wrenched in the privacy of my room, my skin growing itchy and hot whenever I was in a social situation that required me to stop. Sometimes, I'd duck into the bathroom just to relieve the urge, shame and obsession warring throughout my head the entire time.

It registered that this had become a full blown problem when my regular hairdresser pointed out my numerous bald patches. My relationships with family and friends were suffering, too, when I'd check out mid-way through conversations because I was too consumed with the urge to pick and pull. I experienced an intense period of self-loathing and despair, where I even resorted to wearing gloves in the house to curb the impulse. Nothing worked.

A turning point came when I decided to confide in my sister about my issue. She didn't dismiss my fears straight off the bat, and looked into treatment options for me whenever she had time to spare. Her kindness — and empathy — compelled me into being more forgiving towards myself. I found some solace in TikTok, too. More specifically, in a community of people who recommends anxiety-relieving tips and tricks. Some worked, some didn't. Whenever I began to berate myself for slipping into old habits, I'd put a sliver of salt on my tongue to divert my thoughts. Holding onto ice cubes helped, too.

I'm still looking into seeking professional help for my condition. In the meantime, I'm working on being more kind towards myself. Every time I find myself spiraling, I'd ask myself if I'd ever voice any of these toxic thoughts to a loved one, or heck, even a stranger on the street. If the answer is a resounding no, then I know that I shouldn't be thinking it of myself, too. There's no easy way through this — but I aim to figure it out with the same measure of grace and benevolence that was shown to me. Here's to hoping.