Warning: Contains descriptions of cutting and compulsive hair-pulling.
For some reason today I was thinking about waking up with people, and worrying about being seen.
I remember reading about transmen who sleep in their binders. My biracial friend told me about waking up before her white boyfriend did to make her hair look “whiter” for him. And I thought about the women I met online, who woke early in the morning to put on eyeliner, so their boyfriends wouldn’t know they pulled all their eyelashes out.
Trichotillomania is compulsive hair-pulling. It usually comes on in adolescence, and usually affects girls. It is characterized by a strong compulsion to pull hair out of the head, face, or body, and has nothing to do with grooming or beauty. Those affected usually pull from a specific part of the body; eyelashes are common. And, those affected usually want to stop, but can’t.
It’s difficult to describe this compulsion to someone who has never felt it. Why would you do that? Doesn’t it hurt? Don’t you think it makes you look funny? Yes, it hurts, but the pain is irrelevant next to the need. Yes, I’m worried about making a bald spot, but I can’t control my fingers when they go there. Lots of us report feeling a “trance” state when pulling. In this state I lost hours every day, unaware of time except for brief blips of clarity, too short-lived to pull myself away. My parents thought I was obsessed with my appearance, following some kind of extreme beauty regimen, but it was so much stranger. If I saw or felt a hair that had that special something, I HAD to pull it out. If I lost it, I had to find it. Isolate it. Sometimes I would hold it, stroke it for a few minutes, trying to satisfy myself without pulling it out. But the urge would grow, and the tension would rise, and there would be nothing more important to me than to pull it out. In the moment that I ripped the follicle from my scalp, the tension would release, momentarily, barely. It was not a long-lasting pleasure, because as soon as I pulled the hair in my grasp, I would drop it and search for another, needing another release. This was when I was aware, of course. Sometimes I would have the specific thought, “I am not going to pull my hair right now,” and my next moment of awareness was leaning into the mirror, hair parted, searching for the right one. I was not conscious of how I got there; I had dissociated and lost time.
For someone who hasn’t experienced hair pulling, it makes no sense. You might try to pull your hair out–maybe you’re hiding your early gray, maybe you’ve got something witchy in mind–and it hurts. You don’t want to do it. You probably don’t understand why someone would want to pull their hair out for hours every day. I feel this way about cutting. I tried it one time, to get blood for art. It took so, so long to get a few drops. I was repulsed by the thought of cutting myself. I could not drive the knife to my skin, or when I did, the pain was very discouraging. I cannot imagine pleasure or release in performing this activity. Except for me, I can imagine doing a thing that is painful, where the pain is not really noticeable under the OTHER feeling. I can certainly imagine the feeling that I NEED to do something unusual, or destructive, to my body, or else I won’t feel OK.
For me, hair pulling was a compulsion that came on at adolescence and mostly left by the time I left home. Say a solid six years. I still pull, but I don’t trance out, lose time, or worry myself about it. I noticed that I pulled more in situations of stress–and of course female adolescence is one big stressor. For some, trich doesn’t go away, and for me it did. Maybe because I stopped hating myself and got some good things going on in my life (accepted my weirdnesses, got some hobbies, got independent from my parents). Most sufferers are women, though. Hard to imagine, right? Patriarchy and all…
For many, when the stress goes away, when the underlying issue goes away, the trich goes away as well. Trich is a sign of something bigger at hand.
Just like I will never understand cutting, I will never understand binding, or transition. Not really. This is as close as I come. But I am still confessing this because I can’t help thinking that there’s something similar in what we do to ourselves, and why. Because I think I do understand a little. I am holding on to what we have in common. I want you to know that I am ok with you seeing me, and I hope you feel ok with me seeing you. If, one day, we wake up next to each other, please understand that we are in this together. You do not have to hide.