I can still remember the panic when I’d get ready for a night out with the girls at uni. Whilst they’d all be excitedly plotting how they were going to style their hair that night, I’d be worrying about how I’d style mine in order to hide my bald patches from them – ones I’d inflicted on myself.
Moving miles away from home for the first time and adapting to a new routine hit me far harder than I thought it would. I was overwhelmed by the changes in my life: balancing the demands of academic and extra-curricular commitments and a brand new city, coupled with leaving behind the familiarity of my hometown.
I was too ashamed to confide in anyone so instead, I’d cope with the stress by picking out my eyelashes and the hair on my scalp till they felt raw. But once the initial relief and pleasure had disappeared, I was left feeling guilty and disgusted at the bald spots, sometimes the size of 50p coins.
While I’d briefly suffered from trichotillomania at school, without the watchful eyes of my parents, my condition had gone undetected at university.
Before long, my compulsion had escalated, (especially during stressful times like in the run-up to exams and essay deadlines) and I’d be counting down the minutes on the clock in lectures until I could tear out clumps of my hair in the safety of my room. What I didn’t realise at the time is that I certainly wasn’t alone – trichotillomania affects 840,000 people in the UK, approximately the same number affected by bulimia.
Once you no longer have hair, you realise how much of a powerful symbol of femininity it is – it’s hard to feel attractive when there are bald patches on your eyelashes and scalp. There were times when I’d even reject nights out as I didn’t want to have to constantly re-arrange my hair in the right way for fear of someone noticing.
I was anxious to avoid being labelled as the ‘freak who pulls out her hair’ so would find different ways to hide my condition. While my flatmates could enjoy lie-ins before lectures, I would wake up earlier to hide the ever growing patches on my head. And if I was talking to someone for the first time, I’d avoid eye contact so they wouldn’t notice the bald patches between my lashes. At one point, I even considered hair extensions so I wouldn’t have to go to the toilet every half hour in lectures to check if a bald patch was visible.
I realised that it had spiralled out of control in my second term after discovering there were more bald spots than hair on my head. The shock gave me the motivation I desperately needed to stop pulling. And with my end-of- year-ball on the horizon, I was adamant that I wouldn’t be snapped in photos with my hands self-consciously on my hair all night.
One of the most devastating effects that trichotillomania can have is the overwhelming loneliness. I often thought I was the only one going through it as I didn’t know anyone else who suffered from it and felt there was no one I could turn to for support.
For male ‘trichsters’, the experience can be just as isolating. Psychology graduate Sebastian Siewec says: “The fear of having my hair loss exposed in uni was one of the most shameful, anxiety-provoking and frightening experiences I have ever gone through.”
Unsurprisingly, it took me a long time to get close to guys as I was afraid of rejection once they’d find out that I was pulling my hair. Luckily, I’ve found someone really understanding.
I’m incredibly thankful that I now have a full head of hair, as in some extreme cases, some trichsters’ hair follicles have been permanently damaged by years of pulling, so chances of growing hair is slim to none.
Although for the most part I feel I’ve beaten the disorder, trichotillomania is similar to eating disorders in that it’s not something you can stop at the click of your fingers. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have said ‘why don’t you stop?’ It’s like telling someone battling bulimia to stop making themselves sick – much easier said than done.
While to outsiders it may seem as if trichsters such as myself are doing it on purpose, the reality is anything but. It’s like having one too many glasses of wine after a hard day – it’s simply a way to relax and distance yourself from stress.
It’s fantastic that celebrities such as Sam Faiers and Olivia Munn have chosen to publicly speak about their battle with trichotillomania. Not only is it helping to make the disorder less taboo but sufferers like me know we’re no longer am alone in our daily struggle to combat it.