Trich-O-Till-O-What?

By: Brigid Hannon

I was nineteen the first time I saw a counselor. I was going through some stuff and having a really hard time, and my two friends dragged me to our college’s mental health department and made me talk to someone. That was the beginning of a long and amazing journey to wellness for me (not that I consider myself well; I consider myself well-managed.) At first, I was ashamed. I think we all feel that way a little when we admit there’s something wrong in our minds. We think we are less-than, that we have something unfixable in us that others will judge and misunderstand. I despise this idea.
Eventually, I started to think of my mental health in the same way I think about my physical health. I have diabetes, which I manage, and when people hear that they don’t think of me as a lesser person. Ergo, I do not expect people to respond that way about my mental health. If they do, they are telling me two things about themselves: they are uninformed, and they are scared. So many of our bad reactions are done out of fear, and that is probably the biggest problem that people with mental health issues face. I might cry at weird times, and I might have days where it’s hard to get myself out of bed, but I’m not going to go crazy and murder you with an ax. That’s not how this works.

The only way I can think of to combat this fear is with information, and I am going to use this as an opportunity to talk about mental health, specifically the rarest of my disorders, Trichotillomania.
I have a friend who always called it “trich-o-till-o-what?” but most people refer to it as Trich, or TTM. Trich is a chronic disorder where one pulls hairs from the body. Classified as an impulse control disorder, this body-focused repetitive behavior affects 1-2% of the population, predominantly women. Its onset is usually during puberty, and is on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. (Statistics via Mental Health America and Trichotillomania Learning Center.)

For me, it began young. I was in maybe second grade when I started pulling out my eyebrow lashes durng Math class. At the end of class I would have a neat little pile of hairs on my desk and wonder how they got there. In fourth grade, it was eyelashes. In sixth grade, it was the hair from my head. Each time I would observe the growing pile of hair, unsure how it came to be.
It was in sixth grade that a small bald spot started to appear on my head. My mother took me to a doctor, who believed it was alopecia and that my hair was falling out on its own. I was instructed not to pull my hair back as my penchant for ponytails must be the root cause of the problem. Of course, it was not. It had come to my attention around that time that I was the one pulling my hair out. I had done so in a sort of trance before, but the attention the spot on my head garnered made me realize I was the real culprit.

My Fortress of Solitude as a child was the local library, so I spent some time researching what was wrong with me. This was a dead end, as there was little to no information on why a person would pull out their own hair. I stopped pulling after a bit, likely out of sheer embarrassment. It is said that the biggest side effect of Trich is the anxiety it causes over one’s appearance, and when you are in middle school that feeling is palpable.

In high school, when internet access became a thing, I found the Trichotillomania Learning Center, which helped me understand what had happened. It was the only resource I could find about Trich, and remained as such for a few years. I was no longer experiencing symptoms, and thought those days were behind me, until I turned nineteen. I began pulling again, this time worse than before. This led me in pursuit of a doctor who was aware of Trichotillomania, which was rare at the time. I had one licensed psychiatrist flat-out accuse me of making up an illness, so finding an understanding physician at the time was a daunting task.
Eventually I came to a clinic, with a lovely psychiatrist who took me off the fourteen pills I had been prescribed at the time and put me on a singular medication. My symptoms stopped almost immediately. It is now 15 years later, and I have not had another relapse.

I am still very self-conscious about my hair, and I still pluck my eyebrows almost daily, but otherwise I leave it be, and am thrilled to never find tiny piles of hair lying around.
In my life, I have encountered many people who have had Trich. I have had friends confide in me, and I have had others who didn’t know what it was be so grateful to put a name to the weird thing they were doing. In fact, this is the rarest of my disorders, but it is the one I have identified the most with other people. I have a personal opinion that much more than 2% of us suffer from this disorder, it’s just that research is only now catching up. I hope that my story can help others who are struggling to figure out this disorder, and shine a little light on it for those who have never heard the word before.
Brigid Hannon is a writer from Buffalo, NY. Her poetry and short fiction have been featured in various online journals including the San Antonio Review, Ghost City Press Review, Soft Cartel, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Currently, Brigid can be found asleep at her desk or online at hamneggs716.wordpress.com and on Twitter and Facebook @hamneggs716.

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