This is a story that I dreamed I’d one day be able to tell. A story that I hoped would one day mean that it was all behind us. And a story that I prayed could help other parents that may experience what we did.
You see, this time two years ago I was in a very different place. Things should have been great. We’d moved into a new house and just given birth to our sweet little girl, a baby sister to our two-and-a-half year old.
The difference with our story is that our big boy, the centre of our universe since the day he was born, was self harming.
How could we let him do this you may ask?
Well, at first we noticed he enjoyed playing with hair, his own or a stray he’d find somewhere, while he sucked his thumb. Then one day we noticed in a photo that he had the tiniest of bald spots on his right side (he sucks his thumb with his left). This was around the time that I was six months pregnant.
We cut his long messy mop of hair short to try and prevent him gripping his hair, and this worked for about three weeks. Then he started to pull at it again, and cutting it short didn’t help the second time. When I was eight months pregnant, we moved into our new home, and when he came “home” to the new place for the first time after 24 hours of being in “moving mode”, his little bald spot was now a long strip down the side of his head.
We sought out a counsellor, who told us to avoid giving it attention and to try to distract him when he pulled. She sent us a Google article to the name of the condition, Trichotillomania. In hindsight this advice was not helpful, and didn’t set us up to deal with the emotional side of the problem.
Two weeks later our little girl arrived. Our son seemed to respond like any normal big sibling. He was excited to come to the hospital to visit us, wanted to ignore his baby sister at times, and at others wanted to touch her and sing to her. All the while, his hair continued to disappear.
It wasn’t slow, it was rapid. At its worst point, over 50 per cent of his hair had been pulled out. There was hair in his bed, on our floor, in his car seat. When he was happy he pulled his hair. When he was tired he pulled. When he was bored in the car he pulled. The entire right side of his head was near-bald.
We took him off to his first day at a new daycare with our six-day old baby at home. I dreaded the thought of him walking into a new room looking like he did.
The look on everyone’s faces when they first saw our little boy was obvious. They tried not to stare once they got over the initial shock. Some people didn’t know what to say, so they’d comment on his beautiful eyes, or the first thing that came to mind, others would ask straight out what was wrong. I was holding back tears inside. One good friend came over to kindly drop dinner off for us one night and called me out of the room. She had to talk to me about it.
She said that she had a cousin who was a bit older who pulled her hair and continued to do so because the parents had never managed to deal with the psychological side. She meant well. But little did she know, that was the night I stopped sleeping. I’d come to the conclusion that this wasn’t a phase that would pass, and was worried about the thought of this being what defined him, that he would never stop, that his hair would never grow back. And that he’d walk around bald forever.
I was a mess. Any time I had the opportunity to sleep, whether it be day or night, I would be too anxious to fall asleep. And with a newborn, boy did I need to! One night I sobbed into my pillow so much I called my husband into the room and told him we had to act now.
We trawled the internet, emailed experts overseas, called psychologists around Sydney. After much research and consulting, the school recommended we meet with the psychologist they worked with.
It wasn’t an easy meeting. I was very defensive. I felt like she was looking for a reason or somewhere to place blame. But how could someone say that about my child? I was a mum who walked away from my job because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice evenings with my young family. My husband was one of the best, most hands-on dads I knew.
She told us in no uncertain terms that this was considered self harm, it was a sign of clinical anxiety and that if we didn’t fix it now, that he would grow to become a teenager that cut himself.
And so began our journey to heal our little boy. With the psychologist’s advice, we taught him that it wasn’t OK to “hurt himself” by pulling his hair, and that we were there to help him instead. My husband would look after our baby in the evenings, and I would focus on our son. I would stroke him through the cot bars. Eventually, we took the gate off the cot. I would pat him, usually climb in and lie with him.
In my head, I said to myself “I have to be his security blanket, his blanky, his everything. He needs all of me”. And with that we started to heal. From that point on I gave all of myself to him. Some nights he would be lying on my arm, which was totally numb. Or I was busting for the toilet but too scared to leave him. At one point, he even started pulling my hair out.
My husband and I would sit down to dinner at 10pm most nights, with both kids finally asleep. We were drained, exhausted, emotional. But we were confident we were on the right path. And we were thankful our son was physically healthy. We had a good friend whose baby was undergoing heart surgery, and that helped us keep perspective.
We hired a nanny to look after the baby so that I could be totally devoted to our son every afternoon after school. Our parents and family were very supportive, doing whatever they could to help. My husband worked from home to help out as often as possible. This certainly wasn’t what I imagined life would be like with a second baby.
With the eventual hair progress, came huge behavioural challenges. It was like we’d broken our son’s coping mechanism down and now he had nothing to help him cope with the smallest of things. The tantrums were epic. Our lives revolved around him. Our friends and social life fell by the wayside.
Mamamia Out Loud talk about the simple rituals that can perk you up when you’re having a rough time. Post continues after audio.
After about six months, the pulling eventually subsided and his hair had really improved. We no longer needed to shave it every two weeks. It was still uneven, but it was growing. His behaviour was still difficult. I think it still is. But I also know it’s healthy. He is healthy. And we are better parents for it. We are in tune with our son, and with our daughter, with what they need and with how we can be the best possible parents to them.
We were surrounded by an amazing support network of educators who looked after our son in the way he needed. A psychologist who turned it all around, and then continued to recognise that I needed to be rebuilt too. And a family who have supported us and our decisions all the way through.
We are fortunate. And I want other parents who may face this challenge with their children to know that I understand. Understand what it’s like to feel so helpless. To feel a knot in your stomach that doesn’t go away. To know that you can do everything for your child, and still feel like it’s not enough. Everyone’s journey is different, so seek out your own. Do your research on the best professionals to support you and find who and what works for you.
Have faith in them. There is hope.
If you or a loved one suffers from Trichotillomania, Mamamia urges you to contact Beyond Blue here.