By Aneela Idnani, HabitAware co-founder.
For more than 20 years I hid my hair pulling (trichotillomania) out of shame and fear of judgement.
My compulsive hair pulling actually started as thumb sucking as a baby. My parents and grandma did everything in their power to get me to stop – including handmade knitted mittens. My thumb found a way through those holes but eventually I stopped and graduated to hair twirling. Every night, I drank a warm glass of milk & twirled my hair as I fell asleep, all cuddled in my pink comforters.
A few years later, we moved to a new town and I felt lost. I became insecure in who I was because I was surrounded by kids who just weren’t nice and told me new, untrue things about who I was. Their eyeing me up and down looking at my boyish, frumpy clothes ate away at my self confidence. My brain had to find new ways to cope with the stress of it all.
Enter hair pulling, medically known as trichotillomania.
What is trichotillomania?
Trichotillomania is a mental health condition characterized by the recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop. Hair pulling is a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, boredom and other triggering states of mental discomfort.
While hair-pulling sounds painful, many report a sense of relief, even enjoyment, and satisfaction, making it very difficult to stop. In fact, we can’t “just stop” because trichotillomania is a chronic health condition.
Approximately 1 in 20 people lives with trichotillomania. There are likely people you know and love that are living with trichotillomania, just like you.
Many of us with trichotillomania feel intense shame and guilt, often hiding our condition from family and friends for fear of being judged and fear of receiving no support. The result of this secrecy?
TRICHOTILLOMANIA IS ONE OF THE MOST COMMON HEALTH CONDITION YOU’VE NEVER HEARD, AND NOBODY WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IT.
My trichotillomania story
My insecure, socially anxious and restless mind triggered my restless hands to groom my bushy eyebrows. With tweezers I strived to make my eyebrows perfect. Despite my desire, they lacked balance as I tried to calm the imbalance in my brain.
Trichotillomania fed a vicious cycle of negative self speak: “Aneela, what is wrong with you?…why can’t you stop? You are so ugly. Who will love you?”
Even though I struggled with compulsive hair pulling disorder, I succeeded with hiding it. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, the hair pulling behavior became uncontrollable. But still, I made sure no one knew, or could identify the issue. By college I was getting compliments on my eyebrows, even though they were mostly drawn in with a black eye pencil!
Everyday I lived in fear of being found out. I avoided swimming in fear the black eye pencil would wash away. I avoided looking people in the eye when talking in fear they would realize my eyelashes were missing.
By the time I got married, I had spent nearly 20 years hurting in hiding. I was so good at pulling just enough from each eyebrow and eyelash bed to ensure no one would notice – not even my husband.
And then one day my fear came true. I was caught after a bad night of pulling. As I entered the bathroom to assess the damage, I bumped into my husband and he asked “where are your eyebrows?”
I froze like a deer in headlights. Filled with shame, I finally summoned courage to share my condition. “I pulled them out,” I said meekly.
I was afraid of being found out, of not being loved simply because I pull my hair out. But the opposite happened. My fear of rejection did not come true. Instead, I was met with compassion.
Instead my husband took time to sit and understand the condition with me. We talked about why it happens and he did online research, reading story after story of people trying desperately to stop hair pulling. He understood immediately the shame and guilt I was harboring for all these years.
He showed me the love I deserve. One evening as we sat on the couch watching TV, I felt my husband gently hold my hand. He noticed me pulling out my eyelashes, when I didn’t. This simple act of love by hand-holding was trying to help me stop pulling. Trichotillomania is often subconscious and I didn’t even realize it was happening until he took my hand.
In that moment we came up with the idea for HabitAware, a smart bracelet that uses custom gestures detection to bring awareness to unwanted behaviors of hair pulling and skin picking and nail biting.
Looking back, I realize guarding the secret wreaked havoc on my mental health, my confidence, and my ability to be present in social settings. **It is the secret that makes us sick.**
I am grateful I was able to release my secret because it set me on a journey to healing and opened the door for me to help thousands and thousands more.
Though I believe everything happens for a reason, there is a part of me that wishes I shared my hair pulling secret with my loved ones, to seek help and support earlier in life, on my own terms, instead of being caught.
If you are still hurting in hiding here are 5 things to prepare for when talking about trichotillomania with a loved one:
1) Decide who you are going to tell about your trichotillomania, along with when and where
Secrets make us sick. But secrets in the wrong hands can make our lives miserable. This is why it is important to choose a person whom you trust. You don’t need to tell the whole world about your trichotillomania, but try to find one person you feel safe with. This could be a parent, a best friend, a teacher, a spiritual leader, a mental health treatment professional, a coach, or someone else in your life.
It’s also important to share your trichotillomania condition in a place you feel comfortable. This could be a private space, like your living room, or a public space, like a coffee shop, depending on your personal preference. Even a video call may be an option.
One of the best ways I’ve found to have hard conversations is by walking outside together, ideally in a park. There is something about being in nature that creates a sense of calm. Also walking side-by-side eliminates the need for potentially uncomfortable eye contact. It makes it easier for conversation to flow!
When you free yourself of the burden of secrecy, it makes it easier to receive support.
2) Tell your loved one what you need.
Once you decide who to let into your world, and where you want to tell them, set them up for success for how to react to your trichotillomania news.
I recommend starting the conversation with:
You want them to be in a good mindset to receive this news, so follow it up with,
“If now is not a good time, please let me know when you might be available.”
If your loved one keeps pushing the conversation off, it is a clear sign they are not the right person to tell.
Once you find someone who is right,
3) Tell them, “I HAVE trichotillomania.”
Language is important not just here, but in all the words we speak. Our words have power.
When we tell our loved one “I pull out my hair” or “I am a trichster” or “I am a hair puller,” we assign blame for this medical condition. Remember that a medical condition like trichotillomania is something you have, not something you are.
Try to avoid words that label you and box you into an identity that is not even close to true. You are NOT a hair puller — you are creative, kind, loving, etc. In fact, take a moment to write an “I AM…” list of declarations to show yourself and remind yourself of all the amazing things you are with or without this baggage.
Instead of labeling and closely identifying with the condition, you could share, “I have trichotillomania, which means my hands pull out my hair in a trance-like state as a response to mental discomfort.”
Notice, again, the language. I did not write “…which means I pull out my hair in a trance…” I wrote “my hands…” Why?
Because again, trichotillomania is our brain on autopilot. When our mind gets restless, so too do our hands. There is a perception that because it is our hands, it is our decision and our fault. It is not a conscious choice we are making when our hands engage in the hair pulling behavior. So when I deliberately say “my hands” I am distancing my conscious SELF from guilt and blame.
This is not to say that you cannot stop hair pulling. It is very much achievable by learning to shift the behavior from the autopilot brain to the consciousness so you can CHOOSE to take back control of your hands. This is the process we teach at HabitAware to help tens of thousands stop hair pulling, or get really darn close to pull free – and shame free!
4) Use examples that your loved one can understand.
Often, when people with trichotillomania share that they pull out their hair, they are met with a confused response of “Why don’t you just stop?”
This is sort of what one psychologist asked me when I went in to talk about grieving the loss of my father to cancer in the mid-2000s. She basically said, “just stop that” and then went into the typical “and how does that make you feel?” spiel, as it related to my father’s death.
This response occurs because other people don’t know enough about these conditions to know that a statement like that is hurtful. Of course we would stop…if we could!
If I asked you to stop your heart from beating for a second, you would not be able to do it. It’s the same thing with stopping hair pulling – The reality is you cannot stop a subconscious action. BUT, you can learn to shift the hair pulling behavior to your consciousness and then take control!
So to help our loved ones better understand what is happening, we can compare it to something they might more easily understand.
COVID-19 changed our lives and brought with it a way for others to understand our struggle: Face Touching!
You may find using face touching as a conversation starter can build compassion around this common truth that we are not always consciously in control of our hands!
In fact, when I shared this insight with our Keen family (that is what I lovingly call our customers), a reader responded:
Wow! What an insightful connection you made about our BFRBs being a ‘parallel’ to No Face Touching! I read your post to my husband, who, while listening, scratched his nose and cheeks about 5 times!!! I told him to stop, and he said, “I can’t, I had an itch.” Ahhh – now he knows what I feel like when I get a ‘feeling’ in my scalp! As always, thank you so much for what you and your husband have done for people like me.”
5) Tell them how they can help.
If you are ready to share with someone, it likely means it is because you are ready to take the steps to overcome & that process should not be a lonely journey.
By sharing with someone, you are also opening the door to allow them in & support you. The number one thing a loved one can do to support you is simple: SHOW YOU LOVE.
When they see the hair pulling behavior happening, ask them to simply encourage you to engage in a healthier WANTED behavior instead, without bringing up the unwanted hair pulling. In this way, you will reduce that sense of feeling caught and instead build your confidence in your ability to take control by turning your energy to healthier soothing strategies.
I want to help you overcome trichotillomania
As someone with trichotillomania, you’ve likely been holding on to a lot of shame, guilt, anger and frustration. This heavy baggage doesn’t have to weigh down your life. You can find freedom from trichotillomania and it just might start with sharing the secret that is making you sick. Free of the burden of concealing, we know you can start healing.
If you feel like **you can’t be yourself** or find yourself hiding because of your hair pulling, skin picking or nail biting sign up here for our 3-step strategy guide to kick start your trichotillomania recovery.
I’m wishing you love ♥️, strength , & awareness ,
Aneela (HabitAware cofounder in trichotillomania recovery)