This is the incident that started a lifetime of pulling hair out. Chapter one from Urges, hope and inspiration for people with trichotillomania and other mysterious compulsive disorders, begins here:
I’m a hair puller. I’ve lived with this mysterious urge since the age of six.
I enjoy it. I get a rush from doing it. It’s euphoric.
I hardly realize when I’m doing it. It happens when my mind has gone on autopilot or when I’m reading, watching television, or bored. I’m in a virtual trance.
It begins with movement of my left arm and hand toward my head. I’m right handed, but my right hand isn’t the perpetrator. It’s the left hand that’s the bad boy.
I feel for textures. I like to touch the raw scalp from where I’ve most recently pulled. The skin is so soft. So innocent. No stubs. So smooth. It’s perfect. And as I touch the hair surrounding where I’ve previously pulled, I start to twirl hair. I’m searching for the perfect hair to pull. Maybe it’s extra curly. Or coarse.
Sometimes I twirl a few strands of hair. The twirling action knots the ends of the hair together. Ah, I have a small bunch. And I twirl and twirl, maybe ten seconds.
Then I tug them, but don’t pull them out just yet. My heart races with anticipation. I tug again. Then I suddenly yank them out. I can hear it! There is no other sound to describe it. The sensation is exhilarating! It stings yet I feel a cool sensation from air touching my raw scalp. It’s exposed! To air! To light!
But the prize is between my index finger and thumb of my left hand. I look between my finger and thumb and there it is: the newly pulled hair.
There’s more to my hair pulling ritual. I gaze at it. Almost lovingly. I look at the root. White. With a dark spot at the end where the hair was closest to my brain. The root has a sticky substance on it and it clings to my finger.
Sometimes I strip the root from the hair. Sometimes I press the root to my lips, but I don’t ever put the hair in my mouth.
Then, with the hair having served its purpose, I drop it. As my spent hair cascades to the floor, my euphoria crashes to earth.
But I can’t stop now! Not yet! I have to keep going. I have to recharge the exhilaration. So I continue pulling to lift my spirits, revive my euphoric feeling, and silently bring me joy. I must pull again and again, repeating the twisting of my hair, tugging it, pulling it, looking at the root and dropping it to the floor. Am I crazy? Who in their right mind does this and thinks that this is a good idea?
But at some point I have to stop. And when I look at the dozens and sometimes hundreds of strands of hair on the floor, I can’t believe my eyes. I’ve gone from euphoria to emotional devastation in seconds. I don’t understand why this is happening to me.
Over the years I’ve asked myself every question imaginable.
Why do I pull my hair?
Why did God instill in me this urge?
Why didn’t God answer my prayers when I cried out for help?
Was God listening?
Were my prayers ignored?
Or were they not loud enough to get God’s attention
Or are there two of “us” inside my mind attempting to win control over who I am?
There have always been more questions than answers. But today I know that my hair pulling urge has a name: trichotillomania. What a word. It makes me sound crazy. I’m not. I’m actually quite normal. I thought I was the only person on this planet who had urges to pull my hair for most of my life. It turns out I’m not alone. Now I know that perhaps 10 million other people in the U.S. have hidden their hair pulling urges and have suffered in silence. This disorder is sometimes thought of as an obsessive compulsive disorder, although trichotillomania isn’t scientifically defined as OCD.
“Trich” (pronounced “trick”) is a highly focused repetitive action that after a lifetime of hair pulling has become deeply grooved into my psyche. It’s a part of me that’s deeply woven into the fabric of who I am. And it will never go away.
It was after noon the day it first happened. I remember it like it was yesterday. A warm fall day in 1962 — probably in October, and probably about the time of my sixth birthday when I was in the 1st Grade. It was harvest season on the farm. That time of year when Dad would bring out the combine to harvest the crops. When it was harvest season, there was urgency in the air because the crops were ready and the weather could turn any day, making it difficult to bring in the fall harvest — the paycheck that we had waited for so long to be able to collect.
We had a 1951 GMC pick-up truck. We called it Jimmy. We also called it the Red Horse because it had been used many times in the pasture to help round up cattle.
During harvest, neighbors helped each other if they could. A neighbor named Bill, who was nearing retirement, was helping Dad that day. I don’t know what he was doing, or why he was driving Jimmy, but I do remember that he invited me to ride along to the field to watch Dad combine milo, a crop grown to feed to livestock.
I climbed in the back of the truck. There were boards on the side and across the top so it was completely enclosed. The back of the truck had been cleaned out, so perhaps I rode there for the novelty of being in back and completely surrounded by the boards. I couldn’t possibly get out. There must have been a fascination with riding in the back. Who knows? I was only about six, doing illogical things that small children do.
Bill drove into the milo field that had just been harvested. The field was rough. There were ruts in the earth from rainfall during the spring and summer after the crops had been planted. Jimmy didn’t have shocks, or if it did, they were completely worn out.
The field was bumpy. But as we drove through it, one rut was apparently deeper than most and as we hit it I was thrown and hit my head on the boards above. It wasn’t enough to knock me out. But it was enough to cause a welt to appear on my head, on my left side, above my ear.
It hurt. But a few days later, I discovered that gently touching it gave me a sense of peace. It felt good to feel it. Soothing. Calming.
Touching the welt was so peaceful, so serene, that for motivations and reasons I’ll never know, I suddenly pulled a hair. Maybe I was experimenting just to see how it would feel. Maybe it was accidental. It doesn’t matter. Pulling that hair felt good. It gave me a tingling rush.
Pulling that hair was soothing to the welt and it gave me an emotional lift. It felt so good that I pulled another hair. And another. And I continued pulling. I don’t know how long I pulled, but time became meaningless as I pulled my hair.
In just a few minutes I had pulled enough hair to leave a circular shaped bald spot about the size of a dime. It was on the left side of my head, above my ear. The welt was exposed. The skin was smooth to the touch of my fingertips and I was fascinated with the
sensation. I couldn’t see the damage until I was back in the house and looked in a mirror. I was stunned to see what I had done. I had to hide it so I combed my hair over the bald spot. Even though I was only six, I knew that pulling hair wasn’t natural. That day was the start of a lifetime of emotional turmoil, zigzagging from the highs of hair pulling euphoria to the depths of devastation for what I had done. It would be a day that I wish I could take back and have never experienced — a day that would forever alter the fabric of my soul.
That fall day was a defining moment in my life. How I wish it could have been taken back and started anew.
What if Bill hadn't asked me to ride along to the field that day to see my Dad?
What if I hadn’t been adventurous and sat in front of the pick-up instead of in the back?
What if Bill hadn’t hit that rut? And if I hadn’t hit my head?
What if I just wouldn’t have put my fingers on my head and yanked out a hair?
Why did God allow this to happen? I didn’t ask for a life of torment and shame from pulling my hair that would consume me. Why didn’t God answer my prayers? Jesus healed the sick and performed miracles. I need a miracle! Did the devil step in instead and guide me along?
I could blame the series of events from that fall day in 1962 for a lifetime of anguish. It’s so easy to rerun an incident over and over again in our minds with the “what if” question.
But I now accept and believe that I was destined to pull my hair. If it hadn’t been the incident of the whack on my head and the welt that appeared, it would have been something else. It just would have been another day. With a different trigger.
Research tells me the thump on my head didn’t cause it. There are so many other people like me who pull hair. Other hair pullers have been interviewed on ABC’s 20/20 where trich has been called a medical mystery. Trich has also been featured on the A&E television show Obsessed. There is indeed something different about the composition of the brain of a person with trichotillomania.
But I didn’t know that as a child. I believed I was the only person in the entire world who pulled my hair. While it’s relieving to know there could be as many of 10 million of us in the U.S. — and an unknown number worldwide — who pull hair, that fact doesn’t change the emotional havoc of dealing with trichotillomania.
My life has been molded by trich. But I refuse to let it consume me in a negative way. I’m determined to co-exist with trich and accept it as part of how God created me. It’s in my DNA. I’m determined to shift from being a victim to discovering how it has shaped me into the human being that I am today.