Kate Lechler teaches British literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. She also writes speculative fiction and watches too much television. Her fiction has appeared in Podcastle, NonBinary Review, and Metaphorosis; her poetry has appeared in Arsenika. She is currently at work on a novel about a theme park featuring genetically-engineered mythological animals and an essay series about leaving the Seventh-day Adventist church.
"The Breathtaking Sting of the Pull," by Kate Lechler
The Breathtaking Sting of the Pull
When I was 12, I wanted to pluck my eyebrows like the other girls in my class, to get the perfectly tapered, arched Drew Barrymore brow.
My dad said no.
“That’s vain. Make-up, plucking your eyebrows, shaving your legs ... Those are all attempts to cater to your vanity, or”—he said this like it was worse—“to make yourself sexy.” Lipstick, he explained, was invented to mimic the post-coital flush, to make boys think about sex. “You can’t do any of that stuff until you’re at least sixteen.”
I surrendered the tweezers I had taken from Mom’s toiletries. And then, bending toward the mirror in my own bathroom, I tried to yank out the errant eyebrow hairs with my fingers, splashing cold water on my face to cool my blotchy skin.
I liked it. Running the soft pad of my finger over my skin until I found a hair. The challenge of trying to pinch it tight enough between my nails that, when I yanked, it came out, root and all. The breathtaking sting of that pull. The dull burn of irritated skin afterwards.
Every day on the bus ride home from middle-school, down winding North Georgia roads, I pulled out my eyebrows. And then I started on my eyelashes.
My friend Christina, a wide-eyed freckle-faced girl, noticed my hand trailing up the side of my face to pick a hair and jerk.
“Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know. Is it weird?” I hadn’t thought about it, but now that she mentioned it, I hadn’t seen anyone else doing it, either.
She shrugged, dropping the subject. I turned my face to the window and yanked another hair.
All I understood about my new habit then was that it felt good, and that it probably wasn’t supposed to.
My hair-pulling got worse in high school. I switched from my brows and lashes to pulling out on the hair on my head, then examining the gummy roots, white and soft. This hair had come from my own body, from inside my skin. I sucked and chewed on the ends, and then spit them out. Someday, I hoped, I would pull the ur-hair, the hair that spawned my desire to pull hair in the first place, and then all of this would go away and I’d be normal again. I wanted it to happen. I didn’t want it to happen.
This habit created uneven bald spots that I usually hid by pulling the rest of my hair up into a ponytail over the patches. When my parents noticed, they initially threatened to cut my hair off. They wanted to protect me from maiming the way I looked, but their response was to control the way I looked. And, as with the proscription against make-up and eyebrow maintenance, I suspected their response was a little bit about teenage vanity, too. You want to mess up your hair? Fine, we’ll help. That’ll teach you to stop caring about your appearance.
But they didn’t follow through with that threat. And when I kept pulling, my mom asked me to wear a rubber band around my wrist and to snap it against my skin every time I felt the urge to pluck.
“That way, you’ll associate the urge with something painful,” she explained. “It’s called negative feedback.”
I didn’t know where she had heard of this but it sounded shockingly New Age for my parents, who were strict but psychologically pretty hands-off. It also didn’t make a lot of sense. If the problem was me hurting myself, wasn’t this just another way to do it? It was like saying, “Here, do this with your anxiety, not that,” instead of trying to understand the root of the urge itself. Nevertheless, I tried it.
It didn’t help.
Some days I wore my hair down, minimizing the bald spots by coiffing it with Trumpian care. Kids at school asked about my haircut, mystified by the ragged hair framing one side of my face.
A pair of friends I’d been close with banded against me, mocking the most obvious spot, a nickel-sized patch on the crown of my head, in the coded language of teenage girls.
The dental hygienist asked my mom why I had bits of hair stuck between my teeth. My mom shocked me again with her answer.
“She’s just gotten a haircut. Maybe some of the cut ends got in her mouth?”
The dental hygienist nodded as if that was a common occurrence.
It was so unlike my mom to lie. Was she doing it to spare my feelings? Or because she was ashamed of me? Or did she really not know how bad my hair-pulling had gotten? Regardless of the answer, I was grateful for her lie because I wouldn’t have known how to explain the truth.
I was at a Barnes and Noble when I learned the word for my problem in a book about kooky phobias and manias, a sort of “can you believe this?” book of facts about people with odd compulsions or irrational fears that ruled their lives. I picked it up off one of the tables of featured books near the front of the store, thinking that it would be amusing enough to pass the time while my family shopped. When I got to the page about hair-pulling, it was covered in silly illustrations about the disorder. I was fascinated and horrified. Part of me wanted to learn more. Another part wanted to hide the book under a stack on the table and run away, in case someone came up behind me reading it and guessed my secret. I hated that book; it took a deep, shameful part of me and made it into a joke, a cartoon. But it was also the only time I had any suggestion that I was not alone. There was a name for what I did, seven syllables I immediately etched into my memory: trichotillomania.
What I’ve learned since then is that trichotillomania, or trich, is an impulse-control disorder often associated with anxiety and depression, both of which I suffer from. Along with other body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), like nail-biting or skin picking, it is poorly understood and often misdiagnosed. Some experts think it has to do with the way our central nervous systems regulate our responses to stimulation. When a trich sufferer is either overstimulated or bored, they might compensate by pulling hair. Like other BFRBs, though, trich stumps many clinicians because it doesn’t respond consistently to drug therapy or behavioral treatment.
After I graduated from high school, I finally took the plunge my parents had threatened years before, chopping my ragged shoulder-length hair off in favor of a pixie cut ala Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. Cutting off hair doesn’t always work for people with trich, but it helped me. Feeling the blunt, uniform ends of my freshly-cut hair—no broken ends, or crimped brittle baby hairs teasing my fingers—I was less tempted to pull. My bald spots grew back.
But the pulling has never entirely gone away.
So I keep my hair short and fantasize about long hair the way I used to fantasize about Drew Barrymore’s eyebrows. My parents wanted to kill vanity in me, but what ended up happening is that I became obsessed with pop-culture images of femininity, specifically the hair that often accompanies that femininity. Hair that billows and blooms in the water, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Hair that unfurls like a Pantene commercial. Hair that is protean, infinite in its variations, like Beyonce’s or Lady Gaga’s. It was a physical pain, watching Eowyn’s hair ripple like the flag of Rohan in the second Lord of the Rings film.
I wished I could have her hair, disregarding the fact that no one, not even the actress who played Eowyn, actually has hair like that. That’s fantasy hair, like most of what we see on TV. But I’m still surrounded by film and magazine images—all the versions of media-celebrated womanhood that I’ll never be—and I dream of bouffants, donut-shaped buns, twists and braids and cascading waves.
In spite of this, I’ve found a way to love my hair. It’s bleached silver-white, sometimes with a streak of aqua or hot-pink. People stop me on the street to comment on it. I commiserate with cashiers on hair-products and DIY techniques. My hair has become my primary signature.
Which, to be honest, is no small victory.
For many people, hair-pulling affects their life for their whole life. They have to date, to interview for jobs, to attend parent-teacher conferences, with the signs of trichotillomania evident. I’m lucky; trich doesn’t impact me much. None of my friends since high-school has ever commented on my nervous habit of fiddling with my hair, twisting it, or playing with individual strands. To my great astonishment, my partner of 7 years says he only noticed me doing it after I told him, probably 2 or 3 years into our relationship. I still pull my hair out, sometimes around other people—but apparently it is no longer obvious.
It’s like that question about the tree falling in the forest. If I pull out my hair but no one notices, do I actually have a problem?
And why is it that now, when I’m older, have a loving partner, and actually feel good about my hair, I don’t finally seek treatment? I have the resources now to try to kick the habit once and for all. So why haven’t I?
As a high-schooler, I would have loved to join a trich therapy group, to feel that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t a freak. But now the effort of seeking treatment seems more exhausting than rewarding. I’d rather put my mental energy into treating my anxiety, which is a large enough beast.
I feel an instinctual guilt about this. If there’s something wrong with me, even something invisible, shouldn’t I be trying to change it? I’ve always grown up believing that that’s my job—to make myself the best person I can be, as if I’m a kind of life-long fixer-upper, a belief that may stem from growing up in the Christian church. This effort comes with associations of purification. Even if it’s not technically my fault, trich is a stain that I should scrub from my mind, my scalp, my seeking, plucking hand. The rubber band is an apt tool for this kind of correction, the new self-flagellation. A little bit of pain now, and I’ll be better later.
But isn’t there something compulsive, too, about feeling that every little oddity about myself should be smoothed away? Given the number of self-help books for sale, I wonder if self-improvement is its own compulsion. What’s really wrong with how I am?
On the other hand, I worry about whether trich is a manifestation of something deeper, something insidious, a mental malady that might strike at any time? At their worst, BFRBs seem like a self-annihilation impulse. The urge to cut, scratch, and peel away what doesn’t fit until nothing is left. I imagine futures where I have descended farther into the dark, where nothing about my body pleases me and the only joy I get is from pain.
But if my hair-pulling is, as I believe, a manifestation of my anxiety, then that particular mental malady has already struck. Along with hair-pulling, I battle with insomnia, eye-twitching, back and shoulder pain, heartburn. Every one of these symptoms of anxiety ramps up in times of stress and recedes when that stress goes away.
Hair-pulling can actually help with stress. There’s physical pleasure tied to it, the wince and relief so immediate it’s almost euphoric. It’s also a mental stop-gap. When the speed of my thoughts overwhelms me ... when the brain-weasels tell me that the gap between my goals and my abilities is too great to bridge ... when even my favorite memories or sensations fail to raise a spark of joy ... my hand goes to my head, the source of my problem. The search—sometimes conscious, sometimes not—for a hair that feels right occupies just enough of my brain to focus and relax me. Instead of removing the thoughts that are troubling me, my hand pulls hairs, each tug and jerk a symbolic seek-and-destroy.
I think trich still frightens me because, unlike anxiety, it feels like aberrant behavior. Anxiety gets a fair amount of airtime in today’s discourse. Although I’ve had older people look at me quizzically, saying “Well, everyone gets stressed from time to time,” my admission of anxiety is generally understood, even empathized with. But trichotillomania? It has that suffix “-mania,” which makes it sound like an obsession, a psychosis. I have to explain it and then suffer the (real or perceived) flare of shock and concern in my confessor’s eyes before they tamp it down to speak softly, kindly, as if I’m a wounded squirrel. “Ah, that’s so …” Freaky, I mentally fill in, or Weird or Crazy. “That sounds difficult,” they finish. I nod.
So I keep it a secret. I haven’t identified publicly as a “trichster,” the self-applied term for people struggling with hair-pulling. Even the term makes me recoil in much the same way that the book in Barnes and Noble did. It seems put-on. Cutesy. It’s as if someone is digging out this part of me I’ve worked for years to hide from the world and turning it into a superpower. Witness the Trichster as she tugs and pulls. Marvel at how she wears her bald spots in defiance of social convention.
But nothing about trichotillomania feels courageous to me. It’s too big a mental shift for me to make in my attitude towards my own disorder. Even writing this essay is difficult because I’m imagining the reactions of friends, students, future employers who might Google me. I still have so much shame about this, I hardly know how to address it.
If high-school me could have read this essay, I might not have felt so defeated, broken, afraid of my own body. I would be able to point to a description beyond the one in that book in Barnes and Noble, and recognize myself. Maybe I’d claim the term “trichster” as an identity, and seek out a community. Get treatment. Grow my hair out. Shave it and wear a wig.
I’m writing this because I still feel shame and fear. And I think those feelings are wrong.
The more I research it, however, the more I normalize trichotillomania to myself. I read about how common BFRBs are—as much as 5% of the population may suffer from them—and suddenly I’m noticing more people with BFRBs around me. A friend who chews her nails down to the quick. Onychophagia. A relative who sports spots like bruises on his upper arms, areas where the skin is roughened and reddened by compulsive picking at the skin. Dermatillomania. Someone on the bus, reading his phone, absent-mindedly biting the backs of his knuckles. Dermatophagia. (I refrain from suggesting the rubber band method to strangers.)
Each time I discover another of the odd quirks people share, I confront my own trichotillomania the way I used to examine the roots of my hair, simultaneously desiring and satisfied, wondering and comforted.