Gessie, a 20-year-old living in New York, began her struggle with Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs) at the young age of 4. This is how she’s Conquering with Keen Awareness, in her own words.
I have been biting my nails, finger skin and cuticles for as long as I can remember. I'm not exactly sure when it started, but I was a thumb sucker as a baby and toddler, and I'm pretty sure my nail/skin biting started as a replacement for thumb sucking, when I was told by my dentist to stop sucking my thumb when I turned four years old. At age 11, I started pulling out my hair, which I later found out was a condition called Trichotillomania. It wasn't even until I developed "trich" and learned about BFRBs (Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors) that I realized how severe my lifelong nail biting was, and I was surprised to learn how closely related both behaviors are to each other. This wasn't just a "nervous bad habit" type of nail biting. It was so extreme to the point of regular bleeding and pain. I have vivid memories of my cuticles bleeding during dance class when I was a kid.
It wasn't until I started high school though that my hair pulling really started to affect my life. That was when it got to the point of bald spots. In a matter of only a couple months, I lost much of the density of my naturally thick curly hair and a baseball sized bald spot appeared on the crown of my head.
Being a teenage girl in high school is tough enough. Being a teenage girl and dealing with bald spots - in a society where so much importance is placed on appearances and hair defines femininity and beauty - is a lot harder. I hid my hair loss with ponytails, bandanas, headbands, barrettes, shake on powders; everything you can imagine. I eventually had to resort to wearing a glued-on hairpiece, and even shaved my head for a brief period.
We attach so much of our identity to our appearance.
Adolescence and high school is a time when you're finding out who you are and creating an identity for yourself. We attach so much of our identity to our appearance. It's unfortunate but that's just the way it seems to be in our society. I felt like my identity was little more than just a damaged “freak” who pulled her hair out. Of course, that's obviously not true, but that's how I felt at the time.
In April 2015, I finally went to my first TLC Foundation for BFRBs Annual Conference. I had wanted to attend for two years but I wasn’t able to until then. That was HabitAware's debut at the conference as well, back when they were in their very early stages - before they had even come up with the name Keen! So I guess you could say I've been a part of the “Keen family” from the very beginning!
I was really fascinated by the habit-tracking bracelet and tested a prototype they had. At that time, they hadn't yet started manufacturing and selling. I connected with Aneela, HabitAware’s co-founder, as a fellow trichster, and it turns out she grew up in the same town I live in!
HabitAware doesn't feel like a company; instead, it really does feel like a family.
It's been really, really awesome to see how much Keen has evolved into what it is today and how HabitAware has grown as a company. What I love though is that it's very “human.” HabitAware doesn't feel like a company; instead, it really does feel like a family.
In 2017, I asked my parents for a Keen awareness bracelet for my birthday in December. I was thrilled when I finally got one! I will say that it did take some getting used to, as far as training it and making a habit (no pun intended) of charging and wearing it each day. I trained it for my scalp hair pulling and my nail biting (Onychophagia).
After working out the initial kinks, it finally started to work. I progressively became more aware of my pulling. I would press Keen’s button whenever I pulled to track my behavior, and would try to redirect my hands elsewhere. If I was home, I would get up and grab a fidget toy. If I was out, I would fiddle with my rings or other jewelry. When I felt the urge and caught my hand start to go up to my mouth or head, I would press the button as a substitute to letting my hand go all the way up. Eventually I became so acutely aware of my pulling that I would catch myself even if I wasn't wearing my Keen bracelet.
I was finally able to let go of the shame that had been weighing me down for years
I feel that it's very important to note that my goal has never been - and still isn't - to be “pull free.” I don't hold myself to standards that I feel are unrealistic and cause too much pressure. At the end of the day, all I can do is try my best, and simply love and accept myself for who I am, hair or no hair. By the time I finally got my Keen, I was already at a point of peace with my trich. After attending several TLC conferences (I have been back every year since my first one) and realizing I'm not alone, I was finally able to let go of the shame that had been weighing me down for years. Quite frankly, I had pretty much stopped caring about whether or not I pulled. Like I said, I made my peace with living with trich and I accepted it.
That all said, Keen has changed my life in more ways than I imagined. Never in a million years did I ever think I would be able to get my pulling down as minimally as I have with Keen.
I didn't believe it was possible for me to have a full head of hair without bald spots. My hair texture has changed so much over the years, but finally my beloved curls are coming back! I want to stress again that our worth is not tied to our hair or appearance. But I do have to admit, it has been a really awesome unexpected perk to have my hair back. I feel more in control of myself, which gives me a sense of freedom.
I feel more in control of myself, which gives me a sense of freedom.
The changes for my nail biting have been especially remarkable. Nothing has ever worked as well for long term abstinence from my nail biting as well as my Keen. No more are the days of ashamedly trying to hide my fingers when they started bleeding in public or avoiding people from seeing my micro “nubs” for nails. I can finally get manicures at nail salons (something I absolutely LOVE) without fear or embarrassment. I enjoy pampering and treating myself!
I remember just a few days before I received my Keen for my birthday, I was out shopping at the mall and I bit my fingers so bad that I got blood on my beautiful white coat.
That was a particularly low point and I felt so much guilt and disappointment towards myself. Keen has been SUCH a relief and I've been able to leave those days behind!
As much as Keen has helped me, I want to add some important things to keep in mind.
I'm so grateful for how much HabitAware has changed my life. I’m really proud of how far they have come as a company, and I am proud to be part of the Keen family.
Well these days, after having so much success in my recovery and taking back control of my trich, I now focus my energy towards other people. I'm incredibly proud to be an advocate for the BFRB community and I am a "Triumphant Trichster" - as I like to call myself. I've recently been working on enhancing my personal "branding" and I have some exciting projects in the works.
It's always a joy witnessing the young girls at the TLC Conference each year blossom throughout the weekend. It melts my heart seeing them run around the hotel with each other, laughing and playing and just being kids. Sadly, Trichotillomania often strips kids of their childhood - but connecting with other trichsters and knowing that you're not alone makes a world of a difference and helps shed some of the shame that comes along with having trich and hair loss as a young girl.
Upon returning home from my fifth TLC conference, and connecting with many new remarkable little girls, I feel a strong calling by God that I just can't ignore telling me that I need to do more, especially for girls who may not have the opportunity to attend the annual conference. I absolutely adore children, and have found my life's passion to be working with kids. In my everyday life, I work and volunteer with children in many capacities, between teaching classes at my church and being an after school caregiver. That's why I'm combining my love for helping kids and my dedication to being an advocate for the Trichotillomania community to create a mentorship program for young girls, so that they won't have to feel alone.
I am SO excited to announce my Trichster Sister program! I will send personalized care packages to girls ages 13 and under with trich. These packages will consist of things like hair accessories, fidget toys, a special teddy bear, and more. Through Trichster Sister I aim to foster confidence and self-love in girls, and provide them support and friendship from a big sister who has been on the same journey and understands. I hope to be the kind of person I needed when I was younger. I want kids to grow up knowing that they can still lead fulfilling lives even with Trichotillomania & Excessive Nail Biting - I am proof of that!
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Together with Abbe Greenberg and Maggie Sarachek, of the Anxiety Sisters, and Lauren McKeaney of PickingME Foundation we recorded a podcast to share treatments for body focused repetitive behaviors like trichotillomania and dermatillomania, along with our mental health stories.
It's important that Keen fits snugly. Here's a quick guide to help you decide which bracelet size to order: