People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Naked Eyes and Angst

Trichotillomania [trik-uh-til-uhmey-nee-uh]

tricho – hair
till(ein) – to pluck or pull out
mania – madness

When I have trouble writing, the cause is usually a story right behind my eyes that’s clogging up the works.

Not always; sometimes I just don’t have anything to say, but often, I’m gutless and full of fear and…stuck. A writerly constipation, if you will.

I have to tell the story that’s right behind my eyes, but I can’t find my way into that story. The cursor? I wish it would quit blinking at me in that nagging, accusatory way it has. Tell your truth. Expose it to the light. Don’t let it fester. Tell your truth, dammit!

Or maybe I’m projecting.

The story that is right behind my eyes is also ON my eyes, right there on the front of my face. My teenage-angst poetry was full of references to “naked eyes,” which is not an uncommon metaphor for the teenage-angst-poetry writing set.

For me? Not a metaphor.

I was eight years old in October, 1979, when my Aunt Nadine (my dad’s younger sister and only sibling) took her own life. Her sudden death and the week we spent at my grandparents’ house (where I was steeped in my family’s horrified grief) were traumatic.

What followed was worse. My parents, unable to find the support that they desperately needed, began to disassemble a few months after Nadine’s died.

This story? It might have nothing at all to do with that story. I don’t know.

But sometime in the year after Nadine’s death, I started pulling on my eyelashes and eyebrows. Pulling them out.

I don’t know exactly when I started because there was no way for me to know then that this little habit would become an important layer of suck amongst many layers of suck. A Dagwood sandwich of suck.

Why I did this thing was a mystery, and in the beginning no idea that it was anything other than a pleasurable habit. I did learn in a big hurry to keep it a secret; in fourth grade, a friend saw the discarded hairs in a tiny heap on my desk and cried out, “Ewww, gross! Quit doing that!”

Already, I couldn’t quit doing that.

And pleasurable? Yes. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t hurt. It never hurt. The after hurts; the swelling and the rawness and the styes. Windstorms? I’m here to tell you that eyelashes are more than ornaments; they serve a function and without them, even a breezy day can hurt. But the pulling itself? Never painful.

If I pull hair from my head or any other part of my body, there is pain. I imagine it feels the same for me as it does for other people, but for the lashes and brows, no pain.

It’s not because I’m used to it, either, because it never hurt. Not when I was nine or 16 or 25 or 32 or now.

If it had, I don’t guess I would have kept going.

I wish it had hurt.

No one really knows what causes trichotillomania (usually called trich or TTM). Right now, it’s technically classified as an impulse control disorder but among the twelve gazillion and nine proposed changes to the DSM5 is one that would move TTM to a new class: anxiety and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders. The most recent research indicates that TTM’s closest relative is Tourette syndrome since both disorders have been linked to a mutation of the gene SLITRK1.

Way back in the beginning, though, I had no idea that I wasn’t the only person in the world who did this strange thing.

Ashamed?

Oh, yes.

Why couldn’t I stop pulling the same way I had stopped biting my fingernails?

I pretended to have trouble with my eyesight so that I could get glasses. I thought glasses would camouflage the missing parts of my face. I told ridiculous stories about my missing lashes (the lashes are always a bigger problem; you can’t draw those on like you can brows). Usually I claimed that I suffered from bizarre allergies, but sometimes I claimed to have a form of alopecia areata that only affects the brows and lashes. (No such form of alopecia exists.)

The bald-faced and weird looking part was bad enough; that I was causing it myself? Exponentially worse. I was desperate for any explanation for my bald face that didn’t involve me, alone, reading books and yanking hair.

I was twenty years old when I finally put a name to the cause of my naked face. My mom came across an article about TTM in a women’s magazine – I don’t remember which one; LHJ or Women’s Day or Redbook – but the day she handed me that article was an important one.

For a dozen years, I thought I was the only one. Age and experience have taught me that the perception of aloneness is almost never true, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew that I was making myself ugly by doing something I didn’t think anyone else had ever done, and I couldn’t stop.

After I read that article, I cried for days. When I was done crying, I went to a psychiatrist for the medicine mentioned in the article, the medicine the author said showed promise in treating TTM.

That was a bust, as were several other medications, supplements, lots of non-medication therapies, and a long list of self-help attempts that range from somewhat reasonable to downright ridiculous.

A therapy that I created in the early 1990s, known as spicy fingers, is not recommended.

Not recommended.

The typical course of TTM begins in adolescence, though it can start earlier (as my TTM did) and, if not treated (or, as in my case, not treated successfully) waxes and wanes over the course of a person’s lifetime.

My TTM mostly waxes and rarely wanes. On the other hand, I have not developed other pulling sites.

I was on the hunt for a treatment that worked until Carter was born. At that point I decided that, as much as I hate this thing, as much as I would like to look and feel normal, it is, ultimately, a cosmetic problem.

With all of Carter’s needs, I don’t have time or energy to devote to cosmetic problems.

That right there? It’s a fancy, sneak-up-on-it way of saying I gave up.

I have to draw eyebrows and line my upper lids everyday. If I don’t, I look weird.

Weird enough that people stare.

I’m still ashamed. So terribly, acutely ashamed.

When I first read the research implicating SLITRK1 in TTM, I thought I would feel better. I thought the pain would dissapate and float away like magic.

Nothing ever works that way. When will I learn?

Trouble is, whatever the cause, whether I could control it if I really tried hard or not, whether I’m a person suffering with an illness or a person with a weird habit, making excuses to maintain it, it’s still me, still my hand reaching up from my book toward my face.

In that way, it is very much like Tourette syndrome. I can control the impulse for a little while; a few minutes, an hour, a day, but eventually, the cork will pop.

This thing? I almost never tell anyone about it. Brian knows, of course, and my parents. My kids know because they have watched me draw on my eyebrows hundreds of times. My ex-husband knows because I told him way back when we still liked each other.

I can’t think of anyone else I’ve told.

I doubt that there are many people close to me who haven’t noticed, but they’ve been gracious enough not to mention it.

Honestly? I don’t really understand my reticence to talk about this. I’ve been forthcoming about things that, objectively, are more shameful. Based on the dedication I have for keeping this secret, you’d think I was some kind of criminal and not a person who has a neurological disorder that causes me to pull out my hair.

Secrets are a burden. Ultimately, I believe that secrets will do nothing in the dark but fester and grow.

This is me, putting my money where my mouth is.

Maybe.

If I hit publish on this, it’ll be a miracle. Sitting here at my desk right now, I’m pretty sure this thing will never see the light of day.

I don’t know yet. If there is a picture of my naked eyes anywhere on this page, I found a heaping pile of courage somewhere around here and decided to use it.

If you want to know more about TTM, go to the Trichotillomania Learning Center.

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106 comments to Naked Eyes and Angst

  • radiogirl

    I followed your link here from the Postpartum site. I’m a trich too, since I was probably 9 or 10. I remember being caught by a classmate pulling my scalp hair and nibbling the root. I was mortified, but not enough to stop. I made bald spots then my parents noticed. Took me to drs to find out why my hair was “falling out.” My sister knew my secret and told. They got angry, punished me. It took everything I had to stop. I did, save some eyelash and eyebrow pulling for years, until right before college graduation. The shame returned. I had the wherewithal to not pull too much in one place. waxing and waning, and coming back with a vengeance in each postpartum period of my 3 kids. The shame of still there, and now fear has come in. I don’t want my kids to have this. They are still young, but have I condemned them with faulty genetics? Only God knows and I pray He keeps this away from them. Thanks for posting here and on the other site. Very few know my secret still. My parents and siblings don’t know it came back and lingers.

  • […] pretty open about myself only because my chief goal at my blog, Postpartum Progress, is eliminating stigma and creating a safe place for women with postpartum depression and anxiety, […]

  • Gwen

    When I was ten, I pulled all of my eyelashes out and told my parents it was probably an allergic reaction to the white hair spray dye from the school play. Somehow I escaped with only that one episode of trich, although I’ve recently realized that my anxiety still causes me to attack my body in other ways (nail peeling, etc).

    I’m living with my parents right now. My mother came home to find me tear-soaked and shaking- I hadn’t thought about the eyelash incident in years, but I remembered as soon as I read your piece.

    For the first time ever- over a decade later- we talked about the episodes of violence and abuse in my family that caused fifth-grade me to internalize so much pain. It was incredibly healing for both of us.

    Thank you. I appreciate so deeply every painful, terrifying ounce of courage that it took you to post this.

  • becca

    I started doing this in my junior year of high school when I went into foster care. Up until then I used cutting, but somehow I knew that would not be well received in foster care so I started pulling my eyelashes and eyebrows out.

    One of my foster sister’s saw me and told me it was a sign of mental illness, so then I had to hide it from everyone lest they think I was crazy.

    I never did it again after high school, even through more cutting and a failed suicide attempt during my marriage. I don’t know why I haven’t started back in the last year with all our stress, but I’m glad. You are right, it never did hurt, until later.

    I’m sorry you are still having to deal with this, I wish there were a way for you to stop successfully. Hugs!!

  • […] Life isn’t easy. Carter is stable but he remains (will always remain) seriously ill. My trichotillomania hasn’t improved, I continue to grieve for the years I lost with my two eldest children, and […]

  • joanne

    I just looked this up for the first time in my life and like many readers it sent me to tears. I have been totally ashamed and never been able to tell anyone. I pulled out all of my eyelashes for years and finally stopped during high school and they grew back lightly. I envied my brothers long thick lashes; the same ones that were in my chilhood pics before i started pulling them out when i was somewhere around 10, 11 or 12, around the same time my parents’ unhealthy marriage fell apart. I was an anxiety stricken child and now i’m an anxiety ridden 38 year old.. and just told my husband that i had this when i was young. it felt freeing to admit it and to know there are many out there like me.
    While i no longer pull my eyelashes (and i used to work on my eyebrows some), i was even more shamed and relieved to see that people do this with their pubic area too and legs. i feel crazy. but hopefully more yoga, deep breathing and time will take this away from me.. may all of us be happy, healthy and peaceful and support eachother in the process. thank you for this blog

  • […] stories, except we tell stories as if it’s a competitive sport. I got gifts, most notably new eyebrows, to be installed later this […]

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