This Is What It’s Like To Have Trichotillomania
Inarguably, one of the most common challenges faced by those with a mental health condition or disorder is that unshakeable feeling that they’re alone in their experience. That everyone else is “normal” and they’re the only one with a “problem”. Thankfully, as relatively evolved and compassionate human beings, most of us now understand this to be false. But that doesn’t change the fact that some conditions aren’t as widely understood or acknowledged – conditions like Trichotillomania, a panic disorder characterised by the pulling of body hair which is estimated to impact 4% of New Zealanders.
Below, I’m humbled to share with you Sophia Doak’s decade-long experience.
Research shows that Trichotillomania typically first appears in children between the ages of 10 and 13. Was this the case for you? Describe what it felt like in those early years.
Yes this was the case for me, I developed Trichotillomania at the age of 9 or 10. I think it was school that triggered it, in particular issues with friends. Girls can be mean when they’re young and no one really knows any better. I also experienced really severe homesickness on Year 6 school camp and remember puling my hair a lot when I was there. Telling your mother you’ve pulled out all your eyelashes is not something that goes down well, and at that point no one understood why I was doing it and why I couldn’t stop doing it. So I was basically just very embarrassed and confused.
Talk me through your diagnosis and what that process was like.
My parents took me to see a psychologist when I was 10 or 11, which unfortunately didn’t help at all and was frustrating to all parties. Essentially we believed at that time that the urges were entirely stress-related (I didn’t receive a diagnosis of Trichotillomania at this point) so the psychologist took me through a range of stress-relieving exercises and sleep exercises which, in practice, sound like they would be extremely helpful but in reality they made no difference. I also had to sit and talk about my feelings a lot which I hated. Trichotillomania is still not widely understood or treated and I don’t think my psychologist had any experience with the disorder prior to me, which meant the methods she prescribed didn’t do much to relieve my symptoms. My family and I then tried all of these whacky methods to try and stop me from pulling out my lashes and eyebrows: covering them in Vaseline, cutting my nails really short, playing with dental floss, pinging myself with a rubber band when I had an urge, buying dolls of which I could pull eyelashes off, and putting socks on my hands. It wasn’t until my mum undertook her own research and discovered that what I had was a diagnosable problem with a name that we finally understood what Trichotillomania was. There was a big “ah ha” moment for all of us.
In those younger years, do you have memories of specific experiences that triggered the compulsion to pull hair?
I struggled a bit in school, socially. I mean, everyone does but clearly this triggered something deeper in me and resulted in me pulling out my hair. I had friends but I felt excluded a lot, and I’ve always been quite sensitive and my mind processes situations differently which, in the context of school, would often result in typical “teenage” drama. Being human is hard work: we feel emotions like anxiety, we go through high and lows all the time, and everyone has their own way of coping and this is mine. Trichotillomania is essentially a habit, so after that initial period of struggling in school and using hair-pulling to cope, it just stuck.
Psychologists show that there is a close relationship between compulsions and anxiety, with some even saying that acting on a compulsion (i.e. pulling hair) can actually suppress/relieve feelings of anxiety. Has this been the case for you?
That’s absolutely true for me, it’s always been a feeling of relief when I do the physical action of pulling. This was something my psychologist understood when I was younger and so I was taught a lot of stress-relieving exercises and exercises to help me sleep because lying in bed at night was when it most frequently occurred. It’s like biting your nails when you’re nervous or stressed, I just do a different thing.
Can you describe the compulsion element of Trichotillomania; how strong is the urge when it arises?
I would describe it as overpowering – that’s why it’s something I’ve been unable to overcome for almost 12 years now. It’s honestly infuriating, having no willpower or control over your own action. Imagine having an itchy bite and trying to talk yourself out of scratching it even though you know you’ll feel immediate relief once you do. And because I’ve now had the condition for so long I don’t even think twice – my hands are just suddenly on my eyebrows or my eyes and I’m pulling.
How does your condition, and more specifically the effects of having sparse eyebrows and lashes, impact your relationship with your physical appearance? I’m particularly interested in this as I know you’re a model, so I wonder how you conflate these two realities.
This is definitely something that’s evolved over time. I wore eyeliner every single day of my life until I left high school, and even then I wouldn’t let anyone – except my family – see me without it until much later. I hated how I looked without my brows and lashes filled in. I just felt so incredibly unattractive. Eventually, I took the step of not wearing eyeliner around some people and it felt like walking around naked, it was honestly terrifying but also one of the best things I have ever done for myself. I walked my second year of fashion week castings without eyeliner and it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. In fact, I think I was lucky to be in the modelling industry at that stage of my life because the fashion industry is generally encouraging of those who have a point of uniqueness in their appearance, so in a lot of ways I felt accepted and “cool” because of my weird look. I go sans-eyeliner a lot these days, especially in summer because who can be bothered to apply winged liner when they’re going to the beach? Of course, I feel more attractive and confident with liner on but that’s how makeup is meant to work, right? In saying all of this, I don’t think I could ever go out in public without my eyebrows done. I mean, I literally have recurring dreams (or maybe they’re more like nightmares) of waking up in a public place without my eyebrows done.
How has your condition changed and evolved throughout early adulthood?
The only way my condition has evolved is by gradually getting worse; it’s scary to me that I now pull my hair without even thinking about it – I’m just suddenly doing it. But what I’m most proud of is the way in which I now think about my condition and how I let it affect my daily life. Growing up without lashes or brows, intermittently, made me feel like an absolute freak. It wasn’t something I was bullied for but it was definitely something the other kids would point out through high school to the point where I was unable to look people in the eye or sustain eye contact out of fear that they’d comment on my appearance (ten years later I still struggle with this). Being able to open up to my friends about my condition has helped significantly with how comfortable I feel – it’s no longer a secret to disclose but rather a story to share. Instead of making me feel like a freak, my friends only seem to love and respect me more which just makes my heart inflate a thousand times! When we’re out socialising, my friend Louise is always the one to touch up my eyebrows at a house party at 2am without me even needing to ask. The truth is, we all have something we’re insecure about or dislike about ourselves, and in my being honest it allows others to share their own challenges – knowing that I will listen, understand, and accept them because that’s exactly what they’ve done for me.