Picking My Battle: Dealing With Trichotillomania

It starts with a pain so sharp and slight, it might not even be real. Then the pain builds, as if it has its own personal volume knob, until it’s screaming at me: aching, throbbing, begging to be soothed. My muscles tighten. I resist. I know if I ease this particular pain, I’ll pay for it.

I blame my neurons.

Apparently, those are the cells responsible for the rapid-fire signals in the brain that result in body movements that are so thoughtless, you could call them involuntary. Like when a nail-biter suddenly snaps to attention to discover they’ve bitten their nails down the quick, without even noticing. Like when a tooth-grinder wakes up in the middle of the night with a sore jaw, completely oblivious to the damage they’ve done.

When my 86 billion neurons go to work, it takes only one five-hundredth of a second for them to guide my arm up to my face. They push my hand to my forehead and they force my middle finger to brush over my eyebrow, first in the direction the hair grows and then against.

Against the grain is where I pinpoint the pain. I repeat the motion a few times — brushing back and forth, back and forth — until I identify the offending hair, the single strand that’s causing the pulsing. It’s so obvious: It needs to come out. 

I secure the eyebrow hair between my thumbnail and the pad of my pointer finger and tug. Sometimes, if the hair is new, a soft tug is enough. But if the root is deep and strong, it takes some work to get it out. It hurts like hell, but the pain of the pull is worth it. Relief floods my body afterward; it’s an adrenaline rush I can’t even describe.

I did it. I felt the pain, found the pain, and stopped the pain.

Except... fuck. It was the wrong hair, or it wasn’t the only one, or something — whatever the reason, the throbbing is back, calling my fingers back to my brow to begin the process all over again. By the time I’m done, the ache finally dulled, my eyebrows are nearly bald.

A Google search a few years back informed me that the medical term for this is trichotillomania; “mania” meaning obsession or addiction. And it is like an addiction: In the midst of an episode, picking my eyebrows is the only way to feel better. At the end of an episode, I feel ashamed, weak, stupid, ugly. I tell myself, “This is not who you are. You are stronger than this.” But really, I'm not.

Trichotillomania falls under the umbrella of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, and it’s not exclusive to eyebrows (that’s just my personal poison). It’s usually accompanied by some sort of social disorder or anxiety and is at least partly genetic. Trich is not curable, although some therapists have seen success through cognitive behavioral therapy. It usually manifests in early childhood or puberty.

I started pulling 12 years ago, in the fall of my junior year of high school: that tornado time of college applications and auditions — I was hoping to study music — that requires building a resume of extracurriculars and charity work and a glowing GPA. On top of all of that, I’d developed a lower back issue that 1) put me in constant pain and 2) caused me to walk hunched over until I could have surgery. In short, I was pretty effing stressed, and felt betrayed by my body. I wish I could explain — to you and to myself — how I discovered pulling and the relief it brought, but I just don’t remember. Suddenly, this was a thing I did and I couldn’t stop.

I spent months preparing to audition for my first-choice college, which consisted of performing two jazz standards in front of a panel of judges and interviewing with the admissions board. But on the day of the audition, none of the practicing or voice lessons or run-through interviews mattered. My eyebrows and eyelashes were completely gone.

Looking back on that morning — waking up, looking in the mirror, sobbing — is a full-body memory. I still feel the shame. I still feel my stomach roiling and my chest heaving. This was the most important day of my life, a day to determine my entire future, and I hated myself.

I pulled out my stash of eyebrow pencils and powders, fake eyelashes, and eyelash glue and got to work. The glue wouldn’t stick through the tears, causing another flood of salt water shame. It must’ve been an hour before I calmed down long enough to secure the fake eyelashes and pencil on two cartoon brows. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but I did end up nailing the audition. See?, I convinced myself later. It’s not that bad.

When my mother or friends would comment on my sparse brows, I feigned ignorance and claimed it was stress that made them fall out. So weird, right? I knew that admitting I was pulling out my own eyebrows, one by one, to alleviate a phantom pain would make me seem crazy, so I did my best to hide it. I still do.

I’m something of a Vogue-obsessed fashion and beauty junkie, so hiding it isn’t necessarily hard — although it is expensive. Over the years, I’ve probably spent thousands of dollars on pencils, powders, gels, and eyebrow brushes; and even more on knock-off versions of Latisse, growth serums, and organic castor oil (supposedly the secret weapon of hair growth). 

More than money, though, I’ve spent time. I’ve dedicated brain space. I touch up my eyebrows — with pencil, then gel — at least three times a day, even when I’m not wearing any other makeup. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning (especially if I’m waking up next to a guy) and the last thing I do at night (only if I’m sleeping next to a guy).

Exercising is awkward, because I know after a sweat-drenched session my brows will be basically non existent. In the summer, I avoid going to the pool or the beach at all costs. Everyone has shit they go through; but it feels unfair that my shit is on the surface. The shame of going out in public with my secret literally stamped across my forehead is enough to trigger a fresh episode.

Honestly, most people probably don’t notice my trichotillomania — even my fiancé has no clue. My eyebrows aren’t always bald. For the past few years I’ve managed to keep the inside corners of each brow full and bushy, relegating my picking to the area of the brow that’s naturally thin. It’s manageable.

I lead a normal life: I’m engaged to a great guy, I have a great job, I make great money. I have hobbies and friends and ideas and dreams. I think that’s why it’s hard for me to admit my trich or seek treatment… Who am I to complain? There are people out there whose disorders make normal life impossible; I’m just a girl who doesn’t have the willpower to stop picking her own goddamn eyebrows.

If only it were that easy.

Of course, I’ve tried to stop. I’ve felt the pulsing begin and quicken and sharpen and I’ve sat on my hands, or slathered my eyebrows in Vaseline so I couldn’t grab on, or scratched the area until it’s red and raw but still full of hair; but those fixes only last for so long. Eventually, inevitably, the hair has to come out.

I signed up for a 30-day spiritual challenge called the “Choose Yourself Challenge” in the hopes that having someone hold me accountable for my disorder would give me the push I needed to actually quit. The instructor documented each participant’s personal challenge on her website — another layer of accountability, I’m sure — including desires like, “I want to meditate for 20 minutes every morning” or “I want to eliminate sugar from my diet to give my body the love it deserves.”

I sent my challenge in.

“I compulsively pick my eyebrows out until they’re bald, and I want to stop.” 

I received an email back.

“I’m assuming you don’t want this up on the website, right?”

It was true — if given a choice, I didn’t want my disorder documented and cached on the World Wide Web for all to see. But at the same time, the response reinforced my shame. It reiterated what I already knew: This was not a normal challenge to take on. This was not a normal problem to have. The group thing wasn’t for me; I tapped out on Day 3.

One night while lying in meditation, a mantra popped into my head: “I am beautiful on the inside, and it pours through the outside.” Even though it was cheesy as hell, it stuck; and as I repeated it in my mind, I focused on my eyebrows. I saw them as full, dark, and lush; I felt a pre-trich calm in my chest; I energetically willed my body to release the urge to pick. 

I fell into this mantra almost every night for three months and, miraculously, I didn’t pick. The compulsion was still there, but I felt strong enough to resist it. I watched my brows grow back, slow and patchy, and I felt like I was growing, too. 

I wish I could say that was that and I never picked again — but that would be too easy. The urge eventually won, and I pick, pick, picked my way back to bald brows in tears. 

Falling back into my old pattern forced me to admit that trichotillomania is a real disorder that’s beyond my control. It’s not something I can just quit — it’s something I’ll have to deal with, head on, for the rest of my life. Meditation is bringing me farther from pain and closer to peace; it's bringing what's on the inside into closer alignment with what’s on the outside. And for now, that’s enough.

This article first appeared on endpain.com in 2016.