The Big Reveal

Groucho Marx couldn't even make this look good, and I'm not as funny as him by half.

Remember when I told you I was getting new eyebrows? And then, if you follow me on Facebook*, you know that some people asked me for pictures of said eyebrows and I said no no no and threatened to wear a paper bag over my head for the rest of my life?

The woman who did the eyebrows told me several times (and the Google machine confirmed) that they would be much darker at first than they would be after they healed. My sister reassured me, as did my mom and my husband. My dad was kind enough to say they looked just fine the way they were, but I remained unconvinced.

So I panicked a little and put a ton of makeup on them for a few days and wore the hugest sunglasses you have ever seen, and then I woke up on Saturday and I looked even worse, because the peeling had begun and if you’ve ever had a tattoo you know that part is always gross.

But as the peeling and flaking and general eyebrow-dandruff-on-crack phase progressed, I could see that the color underneath was much softer than it was at first, and I started to breathe a little more and freak out a little less.

Now, it turns out this eyebrow-getting business is a two-step process. I go back 30 days after the initial appointment to have them touched up and adjusted, which is good because (oh, irony, how I love you!) my eyebrows are now a little too light. That’s OK, though. It’s kind of like salting your food: you always want to err on the side of not enough. I want to adjust some things about the shape and etc., etc., etc. Because it’s my face and I guess I can be picky about my face.

But holy crap, can I just tell you that face tattoos hurt like a beast? Oh, man. I didn’t think I would have any trouble. When the cosmetician (is that a word?) left the room after she put all the numbing goop on my face, I told my sister, “This is kind of stupid. I have five tattoos and there’s no way this is going to hurt. This numbing stuff is probably for wimpy old women who paint their poodle’s toenails.”

Yes, I actually said that. Famous last words because by the time we were halfway finished I was practicing my childbirth breathing and giving myself pep talks like, you will look like a complete ass if you leave here with one eyebrow, and begging my mom and sister to rub my feet to distract me from the pain on my face.

It’s been a week now and they’re well on their way to being healed and, while they still need some fixing and they’re a little too light and it will definitely take some time for me to get used to having eyebrows when I get out of the shower, I’m kind of (OK, totally!) in love with them.

I wrote about trichotillomania at Postpartum Progress today, so come on over and say hello! Whether or not we can stop pulling, plucking, or picking, we can lay down our shame. Little by little, I’m learning to forgive myself and if you have trichotillomania or dermatillomania or another body focused repetitive disorder, I want that for you. It’s not your fault and you’re not alone.

*If you don’t follow me on FB, you can. No Points for Style has its own page, or you can follow me, the actual person. The awesomest, of course, is if you follow both.

Broken People in Baskets

I was 19 when I got my first full-time job as the teacher for a group of school age kids in a daycare center. It was summer and I took my class bowling a lot.

Those kids were weird, all wild for bowling. There weren’t enough lightweight balls to go around, so we spent most of our time waiting for one of the two balls to pop up in the ball return, which was fine with them because there was that fan that would blow on their faces.

Like I said, they were weird kids.

My classroom was right next to the two-year-old classroom, and in that classroom was a little boy named we’ll call David (which is not his real name because DUH).

I fell in love with David, and the feeling was mutual. He had no words; in fact, he rarely vocalized at all, but he ran to me every time he caught the tiniest glimpse of me through the big accordion curtain between the two rooms.

David was broken.

He was also perfect. Painfully, acutely perfect. He had fetal alcohol syndrome; a not-yet repaired cleft palate; severe asthma; and a deep sadness that didn’t cover up his pure and perfect soul.

Did I mention I was in love?

Every day after lunch, he had to have a nebulizer treatment. Getting a two year old to sit still for a 20 minute nebulizer treatment? Not easy, and the teachers in the two-year-old classroom struggled with getting him to finish the neb while getting the rest of the kids down for their naps. So the kids in my class and I developed a system; I got the medicine ready while they emptied our basket of dress-up clothes. Next? We put David in the basket.

I have no memory at all of how we discovered David’s love of that basket, but as soon as he saw it, he reached and struggled until I set him inside. In that basket, David sat for his nebulizer treatment while I read books and sang songs with the older kids.

For his part, he gazed at me adoringly.

Who doesn’t love that?

I fantasized that, by some fluke of the law, the state would give him to me.

Oh, shuddup! I was 19, remember?

At the age of two, David was living in his fifth foster home after spending the first 9 months of his life in the hospital. He needed love. He needed speech therapy and surgery and all kinds of other things, too, but mostly, he needed love. An infusion pump of love.

He and I were like two puzzle pieces that fit together without a seam. David was the first person who ever needed me. He was my first experience of loving someone with abandon, in spite of 100% certainty that it would not end well.

When you fall in love with a child who is in protective custody, it almost never ends well. The system won’t let you follow them when they move. They just……disappear.

When David disappeared, we had no advance notice, no warning, no opportunity to give a kiss and a squeeze and a wish for a bright, bold, odds-defying life.

I knew David 20 years ago, but he still owns a bit of my soul. When he was moved on to his next family (ohpleaseohpleaseohplease let it have been a warm, open, wildly generous forever-family who have loved him like no other all these years), I wept for days. He was my friend and my teacher.

He taught me about baskets.

Wasn’t that thoughtful of him, to give me a convenient metaphor that I could save for later?

I couldn’t fix anything for David. I couldn’t rescue him from a difficult life in foster care; couldn’t reverse the devastating effects of his biological mother’s alcohol use during her pregnancy; couldn’t give him a voice or repair his palate.

I could put him in a basket, give him a feeling of safety and comfort for a little while.

I gave him love; he returned that love and so much more. I learned what unconditional love feels like; I got a taste of some of the feelings I wouldn’t fully understand until I had children of my own.

Did I change his life? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. The love and connection that traveled like electricity between David and I was important.

Giving love and kindness to him changed my life. It changed me.

Reading the comments that many of you left on my recent post about trichotillomania, I couldn’t stop thinking about that basket. Your words were a safe place; an embrace and a reassurance and I am gazing up at you with adoration.

I’ve thought about blogging and the community around it a great deal in the past few weeks because of the dozens of post-BlogHer* posts I read.

I am never going to that thing. Almost everyone seems to have had a wildly emotional experience, much of that emotion being pain, shame, and fear.

Sheesh. I have more than enough of that right here at home, and for free!

But mostly, I’ve been thinking how much my online life has changed me, changed how I live my 3-dimensional life.

I have a place to put all these words that were crowding my head, to give the little girl in me (who never wanted to be a ballerina or a fire fighter or a doctor) the chance to live her dream of being a writer. And amazingly, some people come read those words.

Turns out that living my dream is good for my soul.

I have new friends, people who I love and who love me. For me, somewhat isolated by Carter’s disabilities, that’s like digging in the garden for a potato and turning up a giant diamond.

I’ve learned to laugh again; head thrown back, tears streaming down my face, stomach-hurts-the-next-day laughter.

That is also good for the soul.

There is much angst and drama in my online world. This is not, after all, a homogeneous group.

Also? Some people are assholes.

The internet is not a safe place. There are potholes in the road and muggers in the shadows; terrorists are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to terrorize. This is not a risk-free enterprise, any more than loving David was risk free.

For me, the risk is worth it.

You people have some pretty great baskets, and sometimes I get to offer some love, comfort, and laughter to you, too.

Brooke said in her comment on my last post:

[C]ompassion born of shared experience [is] priceless. And the feeling when you’ve found it, unexpectedly, in what you thought was hostile and unforgiving territory? Unspeakably precious.

What will remain truly, and quite literally, marvelous to me about the internet is that it allows and creates exactly those kinds of encounters, multiplied exponentially, every second. We’re here, if we wish it, to be in the business of multiplying compassion in this world.

Yes, that.

Multiply compassion.

Multiply laughter.

Multiply honesty.

Multiply kindness.

Multiply love.

You didn’t rescue me from trichotillomania, but you shined love into a dark place. That’s a big deal.

Thank you.

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.