Trichotillomania and me.


My usual pattern is to read through various newspapers and articles first thing in the morning and to write either in response to something I read, or something I do at work.

I haven’t got through many intensely personal posts and that is wholly intentional.

I titled my blog on the hoof – initially it was intended to be random mumblings mostly to myself and were I to go back to the start, I would have chosen a much more clear title like ‘The Blog of a Social Worker’ or some such thing. It would certainly have got more ‘hits’ from Google and less people searching for ‘monsters’, ‘fighting women’ or ‘fighting’!  I was though, when I created it, more than a little stressed from work and was acutely aware of the fine line that we place between mental health and ill-health.

A large part of my doubts and worries relate back to a particular point in my childhood when I was hauled in front of a child psychiatrist and asked to tell him about myself. I didn’t. Although I’m going back to about 25 years or so, I remember then at the age of – well, roughly ten or eleven – sitting in the room with the psychiatrist and being appalled that I might be ‘mentally ill’. It is amazing how the stigma permeates through to our consciousness.

I don’t remember seeing him much. I think there were a couple of family sessions but any time he saw me alone or with the family for that matter, I didn’t speak to him. I resolutely and consciously refused to engage.

So look where I am now. Eventually – or as I see it – the ‘services’ either gave up or we ran out of allocated time. I’m not sure how it worked back in the mid-80s.

But flash forward to today and I saw an article in the Times that brought these memories, thoughts and recollections which are, for the most part, dormant.

image Pushek on Flickr

It’s called ‘Beautiful Women who Tear their Hair Out’. While far from beautiful, that’s exactly what I did at that age. That’s why my father sought input from the doctor, the mental health services – that’s why the schoolteachers wavered between chiding me and worrying about me. I pulled all my hair out.  I stopped gradually, and feel wonderfully fortunate to have done so. Especially when I read some of the stories in the Times article. Looking at me now, noone would even have a clue – which is one of the reasons I feel safe writing about it here. But when people praise my long, thick hair – I still feel the pangs of the humiliation that I suffered and the shame of going to the hairdresser to have my hair cut when they would see the swathes of bald patches on my head.

And I still haven’t been to the hairdresser for over a year. I might manage to work myself up for it every couple of years or so.

I’m glad that there are articles to describe this. I know personally, that I never had understood there was an actual name to what I was doing at the time. Later, as I grew through it, I assumed and attested it as some kind of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with a particularly visible effect.

But to read, as noted in the Times

It is thought to affect as many as one million women in Britain today, or, according to other estimates, between 2 and 4% of the general population.

The figures are on a par with those for much more widely known conditions, such as anorexia, panic attacks and bulimia. But most people have never heard of trichotillomania. Neither have most GPs in this country, even though it’s estimated that every GP is likely to have at least 10 trichotillomania patients in a typical list of 1,000. Nor will most teachers have heard of it, despite the fact that 100% of them will at some point have a child with the condition in their classroom.

All I can say, in retrospect, is that if I had only known that I wasn’t the only person in the world who was experiencing this, I think that would have helped me enormously at the time.

Trichotillomania almost always starts at puberty and predominantly affects women. Classified as an impulse control disorder, it is thought to be triggered by anxiety. Some studies suggest a genetic link, others that it’s a neurobiological disorder. On MRI scans it looks similar to Tourette syndrome, which is usually a motor disorder. Others claim it’s an atavistic grooming instinct gone wrong.

Manjit Ubhi, a glamorous psychotherapist from Birmingham, suffered for 25 years before being treated successfully and now counsels other sufferers. She is convinced there is a link with trauma, in particular bereavement. Pulling, cutting or shaving hair, she notes, was an ancient act of grief and mourning. She started pulling out her hair when she was 10, shortly after her mother died

There are some uncanny links in the article to my own experiences. From the explanation of the rituals that surrounded it to the secrecy and the possible link to parental bereavement but in particular the shame that is engendered by an adolescent with a massively noticeable bald patch.

Of course, I feel enormously fortunate to have been able to ‘get over it’. I’m not sure I could go on to tell others how it happens. Personally, I think it’s when people – friends, teachers, doctors, family – stopped telling me to stop, I did. I relate it as being linked to the anxiety and telling me to stop increased my anxieties so I did it more. I never wanted to though. I hated myself for succumbing to the impulses. Of course, it might be a bit of a chicken and egg situation but somehow the chain was broken and particularly, looking back at the article, I feel incredibly fortunate in that.

But you know, as it says, in the article – it isn’t the same as the mental disorder that I am faced with on a daily level. Although I can’t really pin down how or why I stopped. I did. But those adolescent memories of being different – they do still remain. But it was never life-threatening. Just increasingly shameful experience that I tried to explain that I didn’t have any control over amid lots of disbelieving snorts and sniggers.

I have to say though, I was slightly tickled when I read this

Dr Gray and Lucinda Ellery agree that trichotillomania is most likely to affect women of above-average looks and intelligence. And Philip Kingsley notes: “Oddly, it is often women with naturally luxuriant hair who are more prone.”

– or rather caught between feminist outrages at having to justify conditions by physical beauty and just inward chuckles of the 12 year old girl who who just felt so very odd, awkward, ugly and different.

4 thoughts on “Trichotillomania and me.

  1. I guess trichotillomania is not so far from shaving ones head out of distress, or biting nails for comfort/distraction? I never realised it had a name until I started reading blogs, and it surprised me to find a whole webring of people suffering from it. I also read up not so long ago about dermatillomania, i never realised there was a name for that either.

    It never ceases to amaze me how so many people have experience of maladaptive coping mechanisms, but manage to break the habit. I’m glad you managed to stop, thanks for sharing.

    Lola x

    • It’s the interesting thing about labels really – sometimes they are incredibly damaging and sometimes comforting and it is to do with society’s ability to condone some types of illnesses and behaviours and to reject others. I wonder if these conditions are more prevalent now or if we just never knew what to call them in the past.

  2. Thank you for this post both the honesty and the humor. I have an 11 yr. old niece who struggles with mental illness. When she talks to me about it, I try to educate and normalize as much as possible so she knows that she is not alone. I think that is so important in regards to mental illness.

    • Thanks. IJ. I think those ages you are so aware of being different and wanting to fit in that ‘being normal’ is very important.

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