“You can’t keep the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” – Sharon Creech
I struggle with a disorder called trichotillomania (“trich”) – the compulsive pulling out of hair. People with trich can pull out the hair from anywhere on their bodies, but I mostly pull from my eyelashes and eyebrows. I would love to share the story about the first time I ever pulled out an eyelash, a moment that is vividly emblazoned in my memory, but that is for another day.
Trichotillomania isn’t the socially-sanctioned hair pulling, where people pluck their eyebrows into pre-planned shapes or pull out a few eyelashes because they are uncomfortably poking into their eyeballs. Like most disorders, people cross the line into trichotillomania when it starts taking over their lives and wreaking havoc on their self esteem.
(This is my poetic definition – if you want the technical stuff, contact me and I can direct you to more official resources.)
Sometimes I don’t realize I am pulling out my hair at all. I fall into a trance, and suddenly I snap back and my eyelashes are scattered in front of me – my fingers controlled by an invisible puppeteer that I don’t understand. Other times my picking is more calculated – I see a crooked eyelash and everything else in my world freezes into slow motion. In these moments, I am a cat transfixed with a dancing red laser on the wall: nothing feels more important than pulling out that crooked eyelash, whether it’s mine or someone else’s.
I have spent 16 years either pushing against my trich or falling straight into it, tumbling into a hard-to-describe madness. I have clung to it like a weary blankie, defined myself by it, radiated it to the world so I could be The Girl Who Pulls Out Her Eyelashes. Special. The Most Unique. Lots of people had depression like me, but if power came from being different then I needed my trich to sustain me.
If I found a way to let go and let my eyelashes grow, who would I be? If my trich falls away and I “get over it,” doesn’t that make the years of struggle trivial? As if this was a childish phase to be gotten over. As if the people who looked at me blankly and said “… so why don’t you just stop pulling them out?” were right all along.
The possibility is emerging in my mind that my trich is not a problem to be solved but a deeper truth waiting to be unlocked. I have never stopped and listened to my trich because I have been so committed to getting rid of it, but what if it holds a big pesky lesson that has been trying to get my attention for all of these years?
Whenever pushed to sit still for long periods of time, my eyelashes are gone in a flash. I have always seen this as a reflection on my inadequacy, my lack of discipline, my failure. But what if my trichotillomania is actually my illumination, my guide post, my fire alarm that alerts me when I am deviating from Me? What if my trich is part of my intuition?
I have always either fought it, clung to it, or, in the most responsible times in my life, managed it. Made wellness plans. Set goals.
I have meditated on it, tapped at it, Reikied it. I have squeezy balled it, acrylic nails-ed it, short nails-ed it, gloved it. I have medicated it, I have medicated it heavily, I have stripped mirrors away from it, I have bragged about it, I have hidden it. I have cried over it, I have laughed at it, I have been bullied over it.
I have New Years Resolutioned it away, I have therapied it, I have affirmed it. I have kickboxed it, yoga-ed it, Kundalinied it. I have even had a friend bless my brain to release it.
Once, I tried to make a list of all the places I’ve pulled out my eyelashes. Every public restroom, every room in every place where I have lived, every friend’s house, every classroom. I wanted something like Diane DiPrima’s “What I Ate Where” to dive into and find liberation.
I stopped making this list after a few minutes – what good would it do? Nothing could encompass every single place where I have left my eyelashes. I have sown my seeds, shed my hairs all over sinks and mirrors and pillows and textbooks. Pieces of me are literally everywhere.
Maybe it’s time to let them go. To stop tracking them down. To bless every little stub of an eyelash or eyebrow that I have destroyed and let them scatter freely – an enormous cloud of black dandelion puff.
Maybe it’s time to let my trich teach me.
I have been trying to write a memoir about my experiences with OCD and trichotillomania, but memoirs involve the same narrative arc that novels do – which includes a resolution. My hair pulling has intensified tremendously in the past year, and my eyelids look like raw swaths of skin with a few tiny pockets of eyelashes. I have not yet found my resolution.
But I am holding out hope that in this radical act of diving in and listening, my resolution will begin to bob its way to the surface.
Love & Vulnerability & Resilient Follicles,