health

'I've lost control': I can’t stop pulling and plucking out my hair.

As told to Shona Hendley.

I was seven years old when I started pulling my hair out. I remember exactly because it was the year that my parents separated, and the year that I started to feel anxious (not that I knew what anxious was then).  

When my dad left our home, I remember, just like a movie scene, running to the front window to watch his car pull out of the driveway. After I couldn’t see his car anymore as it drove away, I ran to the bathroom crying and locked the door.

I looked at myself in the mirror, grabbed my hair, pulled handfuls of it in frustration and screamed. It felt good. 

In the days and weeks following, I began to twirl my hair around my fingers. It was the only way to rid some of my nervous energy; my anxiety. Then after a few weeks of doing this, I realised it wasn’t helping anymore, so when I brushed my hair before school, I would pull out any hair that wasn’t neatly in place. It was only a hair or two, I thought at the time, but after a while, a hair or two adds up.

Watch: Five lifestyle hacks to help with anxiety. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

A few months later, on my eighth birthday, I had a Disney Princess dress-up party where I went as Rapunzel. I had been obsessed with her for as long as I could remember and with my own naturally long blonde hair, I felt like I was her. 

By this point though, instead of just accessorising with a tiara, my real hair had to be covered with a cheap, blonde wig because there were bald patches at the back of my own head from where I had been pulling my hair out.

After this, my mum took me to a doctor and then he referred me to a child psychiatrist where I was diagnosed with Trichotillomania. In simple terms, Trichotillomania is a body focused repetitive behaviour (BFRB) which most experts believe is linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.)

While my BFRB saw me pulling my hair out, other people can bite their nails, chew their cheeks or pick their skin. The nail biting was something my own mother does even now, as did my grandma when she was alive. This family link is common because BFRB is believed to be genetic.

After my diagnosis continued to see a therapist on and off – throughout my childhood, into my teen years and still now, in my twenties. My long-term psychologist specialises in OCD using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help me, and generally speaking it has been pretty successful, although at times of stress like breakups or exams, I have had small relapses.

When I had these relapses, I would find myself beginning to play with my hair more frequently, usually inadvertently, sometimes just while I was sitting watching TV, then I would start to pull at my eyelashes as well. 

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By this point my mother or sisters would usually notice, and that is when I realised that I needed some more support and my psychologist visits and CBT would become more frequent. 

This is how it went for nearly 15 years, up until this year when it all changed.  

With COVID-19, my Trichotillomania has become the most severe it ever has been. Living in Melbourne’s lockdown for months meant my OCD has intensified tenfold, and it happened rapidly. 

The reality of everything in my world changing – work, my social life, even visits to my psychologist – meant all the support mechanisms I had put in place were uprooted, and as much as I tried to help myself, I got drawn back in. 

Not having my mother or my sisters around me also meant that my relapse went unobserved for a long time, and all those elements together were like the perfect storm.

This relapse began with the hair touching and twirling and eyelash pulling like usual – but then I began to tweezer not only my eyebrows, but the hair on my head, my underarm hair, bikini line, leg hairs, any hair I deemed to be out of place. It soothed me. 

Each time I plucked one it felt as if endorphins were released into my body. The anxiety of living and working in my apartment, of not seeing my support network, of COVID in general, seemed to dissipate. So, I just kept going.

When I noticed there were bald patches forming on my scalp, I started parting my hair in a different way to cover them. Then I tried to just focus more on the back of my head, underneath layers of hair, so I could hide it.  

It wasn’t until some restrictions eased and my mother could visit that the severity of my Trichotillomania relapse became known by anyone else but me. 

Seeing her expression when she first saw the extent of my relapse was incredibly embarrassing. Although it was my mum, and I knew she would understand, the fact that I had lost control of something I had been in control of for years just made me ashamed. But ultimately I am thankful, because straight away mum interrupted my downward spiral and began to take charge of my recovery. 

She set up appointments via Zoom with my psychologist, making her aware of my deterioration which I had been hiding over our Telehealth appointments. 

While my condition is by no means resolved, I am definitely in a much better place with it now and my hair has started to grow back. 

The easing of restrictions has also helped, because as I head back out into the 'real world', I can’t hide it as much. And I really don’t want to have to. 

Feature Image: Getty.

Shona Hendley, Mother of cats, goats and humans is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education. She is an animal lover and advocate, with a morbid fascination for true crime and horror movies. You can follow her on Instagram.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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