Trichotillomania began haunting me when I was ten. I was sitting in my fourth grade classroom when I found myself slowly pulling out my eyelashes, and piling them neatly on my desk. One by one. I felt horrified and confused by what I was doing, but also oddly satisfied. My nearby classmates, however, felt no satisfaction – only horror and confusion.
Same with my parents. I was a good kid, driven by innate sensitivity and conscientiousness, heightened by fear of my parents who took an authoritarian approach to raising me and my two siblings. I don’t remember how they asked what was happening to my eyelashes, I only remember the shame I felt when I lied.
They took me to the doctor and he told them what I couldn’t – I was pulling them out. And that was that. If it had been 1990 or 2000 instead of 1980, the doctor might have made a mental health referral and I might have begun therapy and medication. Even though “trich” is almost as common as bipolar personality disorder, much less was known about it back then.
And mental illness was much more stigmatized. It’s possible that my doctor did make a referral, but my parents didn’t follow through. We were conservative and Christian, and while both sides of the family were rife with alcoholism and mental illness, my parents didn’t have the support, much less the vocabulary, to properly deal with mine.
So they dealt with my first mental illness the way they dealt with most parenting dilemmas – through strict control and swift punishment.
Before I started pulling out my eyelashes, I’d picked my nails. Unable to make me stop through other means, my parents resorted to an autocratic strategy: inspecting my nails every Saturday night, then spanking me once for each nail that was “picked.” The spanking was meted out with the same tool as our standard spankings – with a long ¾-inch wooden dowel. One hid in the kitchen among the wooden cooking utensils standing stiffly in a large jar on the refrigerator. Another lurked inside the bedroom closet with a nifty loop hanging by a nail.
Some Saturday nights I got whacked 20 times. But I didn’t stop.
I would have stopped if I could. Again, I was a good kid – a very good kid. I got straight A’s. I was almost always awarded “Good Citizen of the Month”, and usually for the first month of each school year. I played classical piano, composed music, read voraciously, and wrote stories and poems. I was identified as gifted, and I always did my homework. I made things out of wood, mud, fabric, and yarn. I stayed out of trouble in the neighborhood, kept quiet in church, excelled in Sunday School, and did what grownups told me to do.
But I couldn’t stop pulling out my eyelashes. It felt like I was possessed. I was horrified by the way I could suddenly do this awful thing to myself that I absolutely loathed. Dark-haired and genetically well-endowed in the lash-and-brow department, I looked particularly horrible with no eyelashes – and as a girl, it was especially humiliating. Sometimes my pulling caused painful eyelid infections that got puffy and red, making me look even more like a monster.
But in the midst of the intense horror and shame, I noticed that I often felt relief after pulling. I also noticed that sometimes I pulled after something stressful had passed.
And although I wouldn’t have recognized it at the time, I was under tremendous stress. Research about the causes of trich is still ongoing; over my lifetime it’s been viewed as maybe an OCD-spectrum disorder, an impulse control disorder, an out-of-control grooming disorder, or self-harming behavior akin to cutting. The debate continues. But what seems to be clear is that trich is a genetic tendency triggered by environmental stressors.
As a trauma-informed resilience practitioner, I now understand that my parents didn’t meet my basic emotional needs as an infant and child. Such lack causes intense stress in children. Caught up in their own (intergenerational and personal) trauma responses, my parents were unable to mirror me, soothe me, or provide me with a felt sense of safety. Their nervous systems were chronically dysregulated, so I never learned to regulate my own.
Lacking healthier options, my genius body found ways to soothe itself when I became overwhelmed, even when they came at tremendous cost. When the strategy of picking my nails was beaten out of me, my body turned to uprooting my eyelashes.
But there was no one to explain my body’s adaptive genius to me or my parents. So they took my behavior personally, and relied on their default mode of control and punishment to make me change. Read the rest of the story on Medium!