I'm guessing that's not a particularly unusual statement. But I don't mean because I was the only redhead in my family and at my school. Or because of the styles I've chosen. I mean because I started pulling it out when I was a kid, and almost 20 years later it's a habit that still engulfs me.
I can't remember the first time I pulled out my hair. Or any of the early times really. I remember reading, and looking down and the pages of the book being covered with strands. I remember my mum brushing out my long hair and noticing the parting was wider. I vaguely remember how hotly embarrassed I was at the doctors, listening to my mum tell the GP I was pulling my own hair out. But not how it all began.
People look at me now and see a woman with a full head of thick, long hair. I'm in the privileged position of being able to pay a huge amount of money to have a full hairpiece created for me, the small amount of my own hair left is blended in and attached: there's no chance of it getting ripped off by a gust of wind as with a wig. I discovered a hairdressers that was set up specifically to help people with any form of hair loss â and especially that due to pulling - about 4 years ago and it's been amazing. It's also taught me a lot about how people respond differently based on your appearance.
The medical name for what I do is trichotillomania. I usually refer to it as trich. Hey, if something is in your life for this long, it needs a pet name. It seems almost impossible to get any reliable data on the prevalence, treatments that actually work, or even how it should be categorised. It's described as being characterised by "a high level of tension and a strong urge to pull" followed by "pleasure, gratification, or relief when pulling out the hair."
I wasn't even aware how used I'd become to people staring until it stopped
I know it sounds bizarre. Who pulls out their own hair? Why not just...not? But I think lots of us have something similar, a behaviour we can't quite get a handle on, somehow. Nail biting. Picking at spots or scabs. Some people with trich pull from their heads - others only pull out their eyelashes. Lots of people confine their pulling to one area on the scalp. I pretty much just pull from everywhere. Without my lovely hairpiece I am almost bald; you can see the shape and shine of my skull through what little ginger fuzz I do have.
I'm glad I shaved my head. I enjoyed the look. But I wish it had been my decision. And I wish I'd been able to grow my hair back properly when I wanted to.
How you look affects the way you move through the world. I was read as queer most of the time with a shaved head; with long hair it's often assumed I'm out of place in gay bars. I had several men react loudly to my shaved head, because apparently they couldn't keep their disgust to themselves. The first time I got my new long hair, I was shocked by how different it felt to walk down the street. No one was staring at me. I wasn't even aware how used I'd become to people staring until it stopped. Men smiled at me. I had doors opened for me. I'd like to say I was appalled by the change, but I didn't have that reaction. I know, objectively, that it sucks people do this. But I enjoyed it too much to think like that. I don't notice the difference now; I've had hair for 4 years and my experience feels normal. Just like people staring at me in the street, pointedly NOT asking me about my headscarf and then asking my friends if I had cancer used to be normal.
The few times someone asked me directly, I would answer them. But I didn't feel like explaining my appearance constantly. The relief of looking normal is massive.
I've tried everything to break this habit and nothing's ever stuck. But I'm back in counselling, trying new things. Wish me luck. And if you see someone who looks a bit different, stop staring at them. And maybe talk to them. I wish more people had. I hated finding out people thought I was ill but hadn't approached me. And I'm always scared people notice me pulling and think I'm a freak. I know it can upset people to see - it looks like I'm hurting myself - but if anything, it's pleasant. It's a habit. It doesn't hurt me. The best advice I can give if you see someone doing something like that is not to draw attention to it - don't tell them off, or make a massive deal about it. Just distract them. As k them a question. Hand them something. Maybe ask if they want to talk about it.