In our first interview for "Love, Strength, & Awareness," Aneela is joined by Christina Pearson, the founder of The TLC Foundation For BFRBs. Christina shares her story as well as ways to work toward recovery from body focused repetitive behaviors like hair pulling disorder (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatillomania) and nail biting.
We are so thankful for all of the work Christina has done for the BFRB community, without her, who knows if there would even BE a BFRB community today. Christina's warmth and wisdom is infectious, and we hope that you find her experience inspiring, too.
And immense gratitude goes to Jackie Biederman, co-founder of StoryPop, who brought our podcast to life! Learn more about how she can help YOU start your own podcast at storypopmedia.com or find her on LinkedIn!
Also included is a short "Mindset Reset" from Aneela, inspired by her conversation with Christina. This quick recording will encourage you to realize the power of awareness.
Episode 2: Christina's Trichotillomania Journey
Episode 3: Mindset Reset - Take a Moment of Pause
Christina: I was thirteen years old and I was reading a book in the living room it was like about 2:00am and I reached over to put the book down and I saw this pile of hair and it was mine. And I was really stunned because I was like, “What is that?. Oh my God that's my hair. I pulled it out.” And so, some fifteen years of my life, or maybe twenty, I really felt like I lived in an altered universe because I must be the most affected, the most disgusting, revolting person because not only did I pull my hair out, I would eat the ends and I thought, “I can't share that with anyone”.
And I didn't.
And it wasn't until I was thirty-three that I found out there was even a name for it and that there might be one other person who did this. So, I get this phone call, I'm at work I'm running a small telecommunications business, I'm thirty-three years old, I've just bought a new house, I'm you know trying to build the company, and my mother calls and says remember that thing you used to do? I said, “No, what are you talking about?”. She says, “You know, you used to pull your hair.”. Of course, I was, as I was speaking to her, I was missing about forty five percent of the hair on my head, but I had hidden it from her of course for years because it was so devastating when she first discovered it. She says well there's a name for it and I just wanted you to know when I wrote it down because she couldn't say it. She spelled it out for me and the first thing I thought was Tricho-tillo-mania; what a dumb name. That was my first thought, because of the “mania”. When I got off the phone I, rushed down to the local library and looked for that article, it was in August 1989 Journal of the American Medical Association. I read it, and it was like a kick in the stomach because I was so excited to find out that there was not only a name for the disorder but they were doctors that we're looking at. But what I felt when I read that article, was it basically said prognosis was poor, there was a minimal but slightly okay response to this particular med. Well much, much more research is needed, and I was like, “What? They don't have an answer for me?”.
At the time I was four years sober, just getting close to four years sober. In my twenties I had found that if I drank a lot of gin, gin straight gin, I could knock myself out. Not just black out where I might go out and do something foolish but knock myself out, well I wouldn't pull my hair. So, I was trying to self-medicate pulling away and it didn't work it just got me worse into trouble with chemicals. So, I got sober at the age of thirty.
Thirty-three I find out there is a name and then I find out that there's really no treatment and there's no medication and it's been indicated for and there still isn’t. And I thought to myself, “Well that's what they used to say about alcoholics. We were "untreatable.”
I'm sober today as a result of other people sharing their strength, experience and hope and that in taking that information to heart, my life is different. And I think this can happen with hair pulling. I called a woman named Audrey who was running an OCD group in my area and asked her if she had any people the pulled their hair, picked their skin. She said, “Well they don't really do well in our group.”. I said, “Okay, I'll set up a group. Send me any pullers, pickers.” and she said, “Okay”. But then, like a couple weeks later I get this recording. It’s a recording and it's a woman and she says, “My name is Janelle and I'm from KOMO Channel Four News in Seattle. We'd like to know, we understand you have Trichotillomania and might be willing to talk about it. Please call me at this number.” Well, my whole world was shocked because I was like, “How do they know when: how do they know my deepest, darkest secret and they’re calling me from a news station. And, I was like, “What?”. But it turned out that because I had been in touch with the OCD woman, anyway calls had gone around the country. So, I did this little TV show. I took a telephone number with me and I said, “Okay, here's a hotline.”. I came home that night to over six hundred messages. People crying, sobbing, saying their lives have been ruined, and they needed help and I started calling people back. And that week I spent over a thousand dollars calling people because those days you didn't have national plans. By the end of the week I was so shocked, so altered by the experience of hearing my life come out of other people's mouths. I cried so hard that it seemed to take me to a place of release where I was, began to release pain that had nothing to do with that. It just was this huge cataclysmic release. I went home and all I could do was crawl into bed. It was the middle of the afternoon. I crawled into bed and I had a vision. And it was phenomenal. And I, it was like I looked down into my own nervous system and saw this miracle unfolding. And then I lifted my head and I looked around and I saw all these stars, I was like in outer space. It was really wild. And they were these brilliant stars. And I looked around and I said, “Oh my gosh.”. They're just like me. And that’s you. That’s you guys. That's the BFRB community. And in that moment, I knew, I was like, “Oh my God, I've got to make a pathway for this to unfold.”. So, I set up TLC because I thought that the first step in dealing with something that was so ridiculed and nobody wanted to talk about was creating an institution that would be viable and the reason I named it TLC, or Trichotillomania Learning Center was because I understood that, underneath this problem there's a huge reservoir of love, and that has to be acknowledged, freed, along with the grieving that needs to occur and that will help us move forward. So, I used that acronym because I wanted people to consciously have that connection
Aneela: For sure.
Christina: So, I did and I said I'd give it twenty years and then I’d reevaluate if I was still needed. That’s it. You know, I was very, very motivated to see something changed, because I did not want the next generation to go through what I had gone through. And, I think that, I really, I talked to specialists all over the country and all different kinds of fields and those that were interested in these disorders, I asked them if they would be on our scientific advisory board. And every single one said yes. The amazing thing though was that nobody could give me real answers. Nobody seemed to be able to help me so I said to myself, Well, I guess I'm just gonna have to learn this myself from the inside out.”. And what that meant was, I began to watch myself, watch myself all the time, and I stumbled into what is called being mindful. You know, I've been exposed to meditation and all kinds of different states of being you might say, but I've never really done any serious investigation. By watching, by observing non-judgmentally. And it allowed my inside awareness to slow down to the point where I began to see. See because this is kind of what happens you have your stimulus and you have your response. The way they feel is there so automatic that there's no space. But the truth is there is a space. There's infinite space between everything that we do. By the time that I stopped pulling, which was through this whole process of becoming much more mindful, I tried lots of medications, I tried all kinds of therapies, I tried a lot of things, but the bottom line was, is that I had to come to terms with it was my decision. My decision to pull every single time. But I didn't understand that because I wasn't aware of it.
Aneela: Right. People will say it's a disorder not a decision and that's, which is an interesting take which is, you know is my brain making me do this, but to your point, right, it's if you can take that moment of pause then you have the control to choose. Then you do have that control to decide.
Christina: And you know what you may not have that in the beginning, I didn't.
Aneela: It takes time to develop it.
Christina: But that here's the thing. Because our brain is neurologically so plastic that there are some things you cannot change. But around awareness itself is probably the greatest individual tool we have. Okay? And your nervous system is Dr. John likes to say, he says, it's the greatest laboratory you'll ever have to experiment. Your own nervous system, and rarely do people stop and just be, to investigate what is happening within them. Here's what I learned. I needed to understand that an urge would come at any time. I needed to understand that I was not prepared in those seductive moments when the urges to engage would just come up and I'd be like of course I would of course I got to pull because it's scratches the itch. But in acknowledging that an urge could come up at any moment that meant I had to be present in any moment. And I came to discover, the more willing I was to get back to basics in awareness terms the less the urge is needed to arise and that the more willing I was to walk through them, really walk through them in fact there came a point where I was like, “Okay, come on. I'm ready for you.”. You have to remember I would spend an average of six hours a day.
Aneela: Yeah. But by being more aware sort of all the time right, heighten your awareness, heighten your presence all the time, it reduced the urges because you were more in the present moment which means your mind wasn't somewhere else.
Christina: And here's what I also learned my urges don't respond to my logical thoughts. I can tell myself, “You cannot think your way out of this. You have to behave your way out.”. But you also need to have the cognitive understanding of what you are doing. So with intentional conscious movement, I started changing my behaviors and my intention was to be free of the entrapment. Not because of shame anymore. But because it just took too much of my time
Christina: What I know is this. Is that once I learned that it was about my emotional translation into behavior, and then I began to give myself the permission to experience what was actually arising without responding. Because you know when you get anger or anxiety, it's always a feeling that you have to do something because that's the nature of those different, those emotions, but the truth is you don't have to do anything. And if you don't act it out, you discover things by going a little deeper. And what I found was that my nervous system over time, it expanded its ability to tolerate what used to be in intolerable to me.
Aneela: Can you give an example.
Christina: Yeah. Walking through leaving TLC. Worst experience of my life. It was like losing a baby; my baby. And I was suddenly a ghost and I like couldn't communicate with my baby and that's how it felt. And my heart was shattered for many reasons. It triggered every abandonment issue I had, every self-value issue I had and I did not pull, I did not pick my skin and I did not get loaded and I learned something. I learned that humans are humans. We all make mistakes. Were all incredibly fallible and that the miracle of life itself needs to be celebrated and also grieved. We live in a culture that does not allow us to grieve fully. It does not. “Oh, don’t feel that way.” Your grandma died. No, don't be wailing in the street. Yeah, you can cry in the back room but you can't walk down the street with tears on your face because that’s not socially acceptable. Why not? What I learned is that great love deserves great grief, and TLC was born out of great love, so when it left my domain, the grief was overwhelming. And now, now I'm just trying to engage in where that's taking me which is some place very exciting.
Aneela: Are you willing to share more about what you're working on?
Christina: Oh yeah, so you know I teach these online classes and I'm taking a break so I could write a couple books and I'm writing a workbook on the process I call mindfulness based impulse reduction. That's what has worked for me. And you know I take Prozac. I still take it because it does help with my depression. People say, “Oh, you can't take that and be pure.” I’m like, “Pure? What is pure?”. Because ultimately who am I to say in what form relief will come? If you try to presuppose or make assumptions about how your own recovery will unfold, you'll probably be awhile. And that, so it is about throwing out old assumptions.
Aneela: You need that open mindedness.
Christina: Yes, that's, that's one. Patience, willingness, transition tools, acceptance; you know all the classic stuff. Being willing to practice. And this is where something like Keen comes in. Keen is part of a multi-level approach to learning about what is happening in your world…
Christina: …inside and outside. Now see, I really get that and I commend you so much because I've practiced being willing. And I am ready to engage in pulses no matter what or when. I have decades of strong recovery and that's different because it steps over. It steps over some of the stuff of, I need somebody else to fix me. I need to be open to learning from other people but ultimately, I'm the one who takes the responsibility for my own recovery. Really, and that, that pushes buttons sometimes, so. So, I have a workbook coming out and I have the story about the evolution of TLC and then I'm also working on a kind of semi memoir about my personal life. Yeah, it’s pretty exciting.
Aneela: That's awesome thank you for being so willing to be a voice of support for anyone going through this from the nineties till today.
Christina: We’re all in it.
Aneela: Absolutely. I mean all of your time and your energy and your passion and your understanding for what this behavior is and how people can sort of find their way to a place of compassion with themself and understanding, I think it's just, you’ve just on such a tremendous job.
Christina: It’s been an honor. It's been an honor.
Aneela: Thank you all for taking time to listen to Christina’s inspiring story and wisdom. If you are in need of more soul-fueling stories, or tips for overcoming compulsive hair pulling, skin picking, or nail biting, please check us out at HabitAware.com/blog and be sure to subscribe to get notified for the release of the next HabitAware Love, Strength and Awareness Podcast.
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Hi everyone this is HabitAware’s Love, Strength and Awareness Podcast. I’m Aneela here with the short mindset reset. When recording was Christina Pearson she shared a universal truth. Awareness is our greatest tool. And she went on to encourage us to stop and investigate what is happening within us and around us. Only in this way can we truly make change. I've used this power of awareness now to overcome Trichotillomania and I believe it transcends condition. I'm now leveraging awareness to practice being a kinder and more present parent to my two young boys. I'm trying to actively create a moment of pause between my kids doing something I just don't want them to be doing and my reaction to it. This pause creates space for me to take back control of my automatic brain and choose healthier strategies and solutions. And we've really designed our Keen bracelet to help do this too, especially when it comes to hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting. When Keen vibrates, it's giving you that permission to take a moment of pause for yourself and ask, “What are you doing? What do you thinking? What are you feeling?”, and use that information to choose healthier coping strategies. For example, while using Keen’s data logging, I was able to figure out that I pulled mostly when I was stressed, when I was thinking about and doing work on the computer, all while sitting on the couch late at night. My strategy to stop pulling was to simply close the computer and go to sleep. I hope the next time you find yourself moving too quickly, that you will take a step back, take a deep breath and press that button. Please check out HabitAware.com/blog for more inspiration. I’m wishing you love, strength and awareness on your BFRB recovery journey.