by Rachel Norotsky

I think the most difficult thing for a teenager to carry with them at all times is shame. The discomfort that comes from utter humiliation from your peers. The sense that you are being judged or whispered about. Or worst of all, the overwhelming disappointment in yourself for being the bearer of this guilt. Facing shame as an adolescent is a constant battle that every teenager experiences in their own unique form. For me, my shame comes from compulsively pulling out my hair.

I have the rare, unspoken mental disorder known as trichotillomania; the hair pulling disorder. When I was 12 years old and struggling with the stress and social anxiety of middle school, I began pulling out my hair to help cope with my overpowering emotions. I found relief in this, which was visibly noticeable one year later when my hair grew to be abnormally thin and frail. I was always a loud spoken and fearless kid before I grew shy and insecure about my trich. I would hide in hats and hair extensions, yet everyone still knew there was something undeniably strange about my hair. I was constantly running my fingers through it and then yanking out individual hairs, and when people would ask me what I was doing I would curl into a bright red ball of mortification and discomfort. Before I knew it, I was finding myself pulling more often than not. I would never notice that I was pulling until the waves of disappointment and frustration hit me as I snapped out of a 10 minute trance and realized how I was continuing to dig myself into my own deep and interminable hole of anxiety.

The toughest part for me about having trich is the pure rarity of it. Statistically, 2-4% of the world is affected by trichotillomania. Having to deal with any mental disorder is a battle all on its own, but facing one that lacks research and cures is one of the most frustrating things I’ve had to deal with in my 16 years and counting. The alienation that comes from thinking that you must be the only person in the world who can’t stop doing this freakishly abnormal action lead me to feeling a burning sense of hatred towards myself and my inability to simply just stop pulling. I felt weak, defeated, and virtually hopeless.

I struggled for 4 years, but I do not struggle anymore. There was no burst of insight or climactic moment where my pulling magically disappeared. In fact, I still pull my hair today. The difference is that I learned through the process of self-acceptance that having an anxiety disorder is both normal and curable. I don’t consider myself to be struggling because I’m no longer ashamed of my situation. I don’t go shouting my disorder from the rooftops, but I’m also not afraid to open up to my friends and family about it anymore. I am still a trichotillomaniac, but I am also still progressing. I’ve come a long way from being the insecure 12 year old girl who secretly pulled her hair. I have tried many different approaches to curing my trich, and I am incredibly grateful to have received benefits from some of them. What helped me more than anything was the moment when I realized that I wasn’t the only one suffering. When I joined the support groups and the Facebook pages and read the autobiographies and felt like I had just gained a new friend with each of them who truly understood my situation. I have learned to love myself for all that I am and to appreciate my struggle for making me stronger in the end. I have trichotillomania, but trichotillomania does not have me.