I’ll never forget the first time I realized I was different from many of my fellow peers. I was maybe eight years old, and I showed a friend this little white box I had used to store some of the eyelashes I would pull out.
“That’s not normal,” my friend said with wide eyes. I knew my recent eyelash pulling was new and different to me, but I hadn’t yet realized it wasn’t necessarily normal. I wouldn’t find out for another six years that what I had been doing had a name, trichotillomania, which is a hair pulling disorder characterized by the repetitive pulling of one’s hair.
Although it is often referred to as an obsessive compulsive disorder, trichotillomania is classified as an impulse control disorder. The area a person with trichotillomania pulls from will vary depending on the person; I have been pulling my eyelashes since age seven or eight, and my eyebrows since age 11 or 12. According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, 1 or 2 in 50 people will experience trichotillomania in their lifetime.
As I have been pulling off and on (more on than off) for the last 24 years of my life, I really don’t remember life before trich. Although I have become more accepting of the condition as I have gotten older, life with trichotillomania hasn’t always been easy. I learned from a young age how cruel, judgmental, and unsympathetic others can be in regards to things they don’t understand or make them uncomfortable. I have dealt with name calling and bullying from fellow peers, as well as shame and disapproval from family and loved ones.
For as long as I can remember, “to stop pulling” has always been my number one goal on any goal setting list I have ever created. I had always measured my entire worth based on that goal, and felt I could never be truly whole, worthy, or successful without first achieving the goal of being completely pull-free. These ideas were perpetuated by the usual comments I was used to hearing from a young age: why don’t you just stop, you just need more willpower, but you would be so pretty with facial hair, it’s weird.
When my husband and I started trying for our first child, I decided I wanted to stop hair pulling for the 2,000th time. At the time, I felt that my disorder would hinder my ability to be a good mom. Hair pulling has always consumed a lot of my time and energy, both physically and emotionally, and I couldn’t imagine a world where I could be an attentive and mentally stable mom and a hair puller at the same time.
As shame was one of my first learned emotions with trichotillomania, I also told myself that my future children deserved a normal mother who didn’t pull their facial hair (I laugh now thinking about what I had told myself a normal mother should be; I know now there is no such thing). A mother who truly loved her children would stop pulling, I used to tell myself. A part of me also worried that I would pass on undesirable genes to my children and in turn, that they too may suffer the same hair-pulling fate.
When I became pregnant with Maverick, I had partial eyebrows and although I was actively pulling, my pulling was not in an out of control state. From pulling completely and having next to no facial hair, to only pulling sometimes and having some facial hair during this phase, to completely stopping with almost a full set of eyebrows and eyelashes, the severity of my pulling has always varied over the years. Although my pulling wasn’t at its worst, I had a goal to become completely pull-free before our child’s birth. With the regular stress and ups and downs of pregnancy, I quickly realized completely stopping would be harder than I thought.
When Maverick was born, I had managed to grow my eyebrows and eyelashes to about 3/4 of their growing potential (I say growing potential because my facial hair does not grow back completely after the damage the hair pulling has done to the hair follicles over the years). As I have always pulled more in higher stress times in my life, it wasn’t very long after his birth that I began pulling full-time again.
It started innocently enough, with my hands wandering to my face during our often long and stressful breastfeeding sessions. Before I knew it, I had no eyebrows or eyelashes and was back to penciling my eyebrows full-time again. One particular night, I sobbed to my husband about how my pulling had become out of control again and how ashamed I was that I couldn’t stop pulling for the sake of Maverick. During my pregnancy, I naively thought he would, and should, be the motivation I needed to stop pulling once and for all. A mother who truly loved her children would stop pulling. It was absurd to me that I could stare into the face of a baby I loved more than life itself and would jump in front of a train for, but I couldn’t manage to stop pulling out my hair for him.
During our conversation, my husband asked me, “What are the reasons you want to stop pulling more now that you’re a mom?”
I started listing my reasons: I don’t want my kids to see me pull because I don’t want them to develop the habit, I worry they’ll think I’m weak, and I worry that they’ll be ashamed and embarrassed of me for it. With my last point, Adam then asked, “Are you worried their friends will tease them about it or something?” (This question came from a genuine point of confusion over what I meant about my worry that they’d be embarrassed).
I thought long and hard about this question. I realized that I was not the slightest bit worried about other kids teasing Maverick about his mom not having eyebrows or eyelashes. For one, we live in the time of microblading, makeup tattooing, and bold makeup looks; gone are the days of viewing a woman who draws on her eyebrows as shocking or different. Second, what if I could use my hair pulling as a teachable moment for my kids and write my own rules on what it means to my life? Just because I learned to attach shame and embarrassment to my disorder does not mean I have to teach my children to do the same.
A light bulb went off in my head and my sadness turned to motivation, but this time, it wasn’t motivation to stop pulling. Instead, I was motivated to use the disorder as future teachable moments for my children. It has always been important to me that I model inclusiveness, acceptance, empathy, and compassion for others and that in turn, my children do the same.
My son is still young, only nearing three, so I still have some time before he starts asking questions about why I don’t have eyebrows or eyelashes. When he asks, I want to tell him that every single person in this world is different and has something about them that makes them unique in their own way. I want him to know that it does not matter if someone has no eyebrows, one bushy eyebrow, or purple eyebrows, because we are all so much more than what we look like on the outside. I want him to know that mommy is not perfect and has things she wants to learn and get better at, too. He will hear that I love myself even though there are things I would like to change about myself. Above all, I want him to know that he will always be loved and accepted for exactly who he is, too.