Shame, Secrecy, and Trichotillomania

I’ve never liked my hair.

I was about eleven when I started pulling my hair out. I remember doing this at the school library, sitting at a table alone reading a book and compulsively pulling out my hair, strand by strand. Sometimes I would take a strand and pull it through my clenched teeth, like a vegetable grater, until the strand snapped under the tension.  Or I would take the black, sticky follicle and tear it apart with my nails. When I would do this I was in my own little world. It was like a trance: I was oblivious to the piles of hair I would leave on the tables and floors around me. The strands people were always pulling off my clothing. It wasn’t until my grandmother, visiting from out of town, started picking at the thick layer of hair surrounding where I sat on our living room couch that it even registered to me that this was a noticeable thing to others. She looked disturbed as she asked me, “where did all this hair come from?” I said I guessed i was just shedding, and laughed–as if that was some sort of joke that explained it all. For whatever reason, she didn’t push it and after that, I started cleaning up after myself better. That bought me some time, but soon I developed a large bald spot in the back of my head from where I would pull out the most hair. I couldn’t see it looking at my reflection in a mirror, I only noticed it after kids in gym class started pointing it out. I could feel it when I reached my hand to the back of my scalp. It was about the size of my fist, completely devoid of hair. One of my classmates started calling me Friar Tuck–I guess that’s what it looked liked.

Finally, my mom asked me what happened–my teacher had mentioned it to her. I lied the best way I knew how: I blamed it on my little brother, who was probably two at the time. I said he pulled the whole chunk straight out. The lie was unbelievable even to me, the bald expanse on my head was too big, and my hair was thinned in other places as well. My eyelids had swollen because I would pick the lashes out, and my eyebrows were uneven for the same reason. But, the lie did its job. After that, I promised myself I would stop pulling out my hair, and I did stop. In a perverse way, it wasn’t even that hard–the deep degree of shame and embarrassment at my public self-disfiguration were powerful enough. Eventually, mercifully, my hair grew back, although it’s always been more unmanageable, as if it grew thicker and more obstinate in response.

I learned later that year that this behavior has a name: trichotillomania. It’s an impulse control disorder often appearing alongside depression, anxiety, and OCD. As a kid, I was comforted to learn my behavior had a name, that other people experienced the same thing. That context helped alleviate some of the shame and disgust I felt. But some things still lingered, things that continue to bother me to this day: why didn’t anyone help me? Why didn’t they see past my secrecy and unbelievable lies? Back then, I assumed that it was because of me. I thought there was something deeply, inherently wrong with me and I carried that notion around for far too long. It ballooned into the depression of my adolescence, the reckless anxiety of my twenties.

It’s significant to me that I developed trichotillomania right around the time I started puberty. It seems like a no-brainer that the increase in anxiety that comes along with being newly minted and fixed in the male gaze could manifest in compulsive bodily mutilation, especially in regards to hair, which is culturally associated with sexuality and beauty. It inadvertently turns that dynamic on its head: Hair can also be a shield. It can be a deterrent.

Women and Anger: The Psychology of False Bodies

I’m currently reading “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach–a wonderful book first published in 1978 that remains tragically relevant today. Orbach talks about how our cultural obsession with obesity and thinness is a mask for more complex psychological phenomena. That is, it’s about more than how much you weigh, instead it’s about what your weight signifies. This is practically common knowledge these days, as people talk about how their food intake (or lack thereof) makes them feel “in control,” or of body image as a way to take up more or less space.

One particularly compelling idea is what Orbach calls the “false body.” This is an extension of David Winnicott’s concept of the “false self.” Winnicott posited that the false self is sometimes developed in early infancy, when a parent (usually the mother) is depressed or otherwise withdrawn from the child and so the infant learns it must cater to the parent if it is to receive attention, care, and safety. The child internalizes the needs of the caretaker and becomes separated from and eventually unable to access its own needs and desires. Growing up they might feel this sense of emptiness that they can’t place. It’s a mask you might wear, but remain completely unaware that you’re wearing it.

Orbach says that this happens, not just with the mind, but also with the body. A woman might internalize a false body image that is based on external expectations. The practical result being a separation from the body, an inability to feel and live in the body authentically. The false body is a barrier that disconnections us from our feelings and our true sense of self.

Image by ernie from Pixabay

Of course, this is all bound up in cultural attitudes towards women. We are taught to take up less space, physically and emotionally. We repress or channel our emotions into societally acceptable venues, maybe we re-direct it at ourselves. In particular this line about women and anger struck me: “When we rebel or show dissatisfaction, we learn we are nasty and greedy. ” To be dissatisfied as a women is to be selfish. And to be selfish is almost anti-woman, isn’t it? It’s antithetical from the nurturing, other-focused mother, wife, community member. Whenever a man calls me selfish, it sounds like a slur. It sounds condemning, unnatural, disgusting. It’s meant to put you in your place. It’s meant to secure your compliance.

Culturally, we don’t handle angry women very well. To be angry as a woman is to be bitchy or shrewish or nagging. Women are shamed out of their anger, talked out of it, bullied out of it. To be angry as a woman is to be unattractive. So what do we do with the repressed anger? We take it out on ourselves and our bodies–through the violence of extreme diets, through outright starvation, through the “selfless” focus on others at the expense of our well-being.

Today, do the opposite of what you’ve been told. Express your anger. Take up space. Be selfish.

We Don’t Know What “Normal” Is

I, like many others, suffer from anxiety. Often, it is just a generalized buzzing, a pervasive feeling of dread, this excess negative energy. Other times it is acute, sharp, and dangerous-feeling. These are panic attacks. To me, these feel way worse than the generalized anxiety, which typically starts in my head and stays there. Panic, on the other hand, hijacks my body. My heartbeat feels impossibly fast, my throat feels like it’s closing, my vision narrows and darkens. My chest feels constricted. Sometimes, I can’t feel my hands. I can feel myself spinning out of control. In those moments, I feel horribly damaged. Broken. Like there is something really wrong with me.

I haven’t really found a great solution for the panic attacks. For me, the best plan of action has been to avoid situations that tend to lead to panic attacks. But, once I’m in the middle of one, the only thing to do is ride it out, pray to a god that I don’t really believe in, repeat some positive affirmations that I don’t really believe in, lie through my teeth and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Eventually, it passes.

Afterward, I still feel shaky and weak. It’s like I’ve seen a part of myself and I can’t go back.  I’ve seen myself for who I really am: frail and fragile and struggling to keep it together, and usually failing. I don’t always see myself this way, but there’s something about the aftermath of a panic attack that makes me feel vulnerable and flawed. This feeling can last for days or weeks. I feel depressed and, ultimately, anxious again.

That’s when I try to remind myself that I don’t know what normal is. Not really. Have I ever been normal? How would I know? So, what am I striving for? Most of the time, I tell myself that I should be different or how I shouldn’t have this problem. I compare myself to some imaginary person who has all their shit together. Deep down I know it’s a fiction: to think you know about someone else’s interior life. We don’t know what normal is. All we have is our own lived experience. Start from there. All those shoulds and should’nts just end up giving you an inferiority complex.

Solitude and Fear

This weekend, I went on a one-woman writer’s retreat. There’s a cabin on Whidbey Island that I found listed on Airbnb a few years ago. It’s a single-occupancy dwelling nestled in the woods, complete with a strong wifi signal and three thesauruses. It’s designed specifically for writers. I bookmarked it and periodically came back to it, thinking, one day, I would go there.  Not today, though. Not this month.

I told myself it was because of my toddler. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave her behind for three whole days? How could I explain my absence to her?  It seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. But truthfully: I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, for vast stretches of time. I thought I might die of boredom, or of missing my daughter. More realistically, I thought I might have a mental breakdown being alone with my thoughts. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread the specter of my own company. So I avoided it for many months.

My husband kept bringing it up, every so often, but I always had a good reason why now wasn’t a good time. Eventually, my sister told me I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like that. Of course, she was right. It was a little counterproductive, me standing in my own way. So, I booked it, even though the decision itself was made with much trepidation. Even, at times, regret. But the cabin had a very strict no refund policy, and so it was decided.

I cooked three day’s worth of food ahead of time and braced myself for solitude. If I was going to do this, I was really going to do it.  I didn’t want any distractions. (I didn’t even pack wine.) Instead, I packed several notebooks and several more books. I wanted to brainstorm my next writing project, journal, and read. Maybe do some yoga and meditation. And I did all those things. But mostly, I just sat around and thought.

I thought a lot about fear and how difficult it can be to express when you are afraid. It feels somehow humiliating, an infantilizing admission. I also felt a bit unreasonable in my fear, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity if I was only going to be angsty about it. (Funny how the mental admonitions of adult-me sound like echoes of emotionally neglectful parents.) Of course, it’s not patently unreasonable to be unnerved at spending three nights alone in an unfamiliar cabin in the woods, away from everyone you know, without so much as a car or reliable phone service.

Regardless.

I was able to parse through my thought processes and really analyze the fear that I hold inside of me. The fear wasn’t the problem so much as the denial of it was. The avoidance, the minimalizing. That’s what people have been doing to me my whole life, but it’s weirdly terrifying to realize that I do it to myself.

But fear is so human. When we avoid our fear, when we attempt to will it out of existence, we only succeed in diminishing our own humanness.

There are a lot of things I fear, many of them I don’t even think I can acknowledge properly. Some of these feelings have been forced down for so long that I no longer recognize them for what they are. It’s a long process to unravel the knotty threads that kink and bind your perception. Solitude helps. Facing yourself–your true, human form–honestly and gently, is perhaps the best antidote for fear.