Nothing Worth Splitting Hairs Over

I normally don’t share my creative writing that I do for fun, but this piece I want to share with you.  It’s a vulnerable one recently published in the spring 2022 issue of Please See Me, an online literary journal dedicated to health and wellness.  While the topic deals with an anxiety disorder related to hair pulling ( the technical name is Trichotrillomania) I’ve suffered with over the years, the deeper themes in the piece relate to things we all struggle with.  I hope you enjoy a humorous dive into an important topic, and how learning to laugh at ourselves and how ironically, sometimes surrendering and letting go can open the door to something very special indeed…

Nothing Worth Splitting Hairs Over

I remember the first time it happened. I was sixteen and it was advanced algebra class. It was our final exam, and I was struggling as usual. I’d never liked math. I looked down at the floor at the end of the period and there it was. A large pile of thick, curly, blond hair was lying innocently on the floor. I looked around the room, wondering whose it was—had some poor soul lost a wig? The confusion was quickly replaced with a sinking feeling in my stomach. It was my hair. But how? Why? I didn’t have time to make sense of it. My face flushed with shame, my eyes darted nervously around the room, looking for my nemesis, Shannon Clark. Had she seen? She’d be sure to tell everyone. I reached down to the floor with all the nonchalance I could muster, quickly grabbed the pile, and stuffed it into my backpack. I disposed of the blond wad later in the girls’ bathroom.

I wondered later how many pieces of hair it was. One hundred, two hundred? It was a lot. I didn’t think to stop and count each strand in my mad dash to destroy the evidence. And then panic set in. Did I have a bald spot now? Frantic, I checked my hair in the bathroom mirror multiple times for signs, searching for little patches of scalp peeking out from underneath my frizzy mop. But there were none. My secret was at least safe for now. Up to that point I had craved the long, straight, luxuriously silky-smooth hair many of my classmates sported, like the girls in the Pantene commercials: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” I hated them. But in that moment, I was secretly thankful for my big, blond mop, which Shannon often referred to as a blonde afro. I had more than enough hair to spare.

I was in my early thirties when I finally went in for treatment. I kept pulling out my hair all through the remainder of high school, all through college and my first master’s degree, all through my first job and my second master’s degree. Never enough to be bald. I always conveniently pulled from the underneath on the left side of my head. The result was the underneath of my mop on that side was significantly shorter, darker, and curlier than the topside of my hair. I then managed to train myself to pull from the right to try to even out the sides. If I wore my hair down, it was hard to tell. Over the years I adopted a short, curly bob. It was easier to hide the wispy bits that way.

I’d also become more proficient at hiding the carnage. I would pull in my office when I was alone. I would pull in my car while I was driving. A few times a week, I would vacuum and scoop up all the hair off the floorboard of my car. Having decided that lung cancer was a better alternative to baldness, I started smoking in my car to give me something to do with my hands. I had a daily ritual of cleaning my office. The turbocharged Dyson vacuum regularly hummed and hissed to the sweet sucking of my hair. I told myself I would pull less the next day. But the piles never seemed to change.

I didn’t always work from home. Years ago I had a private, coveted office in downtown Houston. I’d do a clean at the end of each day by picking up as much hair off the floor as I could before the cleaning crew would come in. It didn’t seem fair to leave them such a mess. Plus they never cleaned all that well anyway. One day in my office, I realized my chair would no longer roll with ease on the carpeted floor. I looked down and noticed that one of the wheels of my chair had fallen off, or more accurately, one of the wheels had been pushed off track by a large mass of hair that had formed around the joint of the wheel. It was incredible. I sat down on the floor and tried to remove the hairy rope. I tugged and tugged. I was sweating in my linen pantsuit. My boss popped her head into my office.

“Hey, Shelley!”

Oh, holy shit.

“Hey, Suzanne!”

“What are you doing on the floor?”

“Oh, I’m just fixing my chair. The wheel popped off.”

“I can call maintenance to come fix it.”

“Oh, no bother, I’ll just do it myself.”

“You sure?”

“Oh yes! I love to fix things. I’m very hands-on and kinesthetic.” Please go away, please go away, I silently prayed.

She eventually did with a strange look on her face.

There goes that promotion.

I got up, locked the door and got back to work. It took me over an hour to unroll the accumulated hair off the joint—my hair had formed an unbreakable rope. It must have been thousands of hair strands. All there, amassed together, sucked into that joint as the chair rolled over them year after year. Me all the time unaware. I was mesmerized by the sight, as well as slightly disgusted. But mesmerized all the same. Wow, I did have an amazing amount of hair.

Over all these years, no one ever asked about it. Boyfriends knew and kindly ignored it. Bosses, probably Suzanne, sensed it and gracefully dismissed it and the promotions still came. Denial being much stronger and more powerful than the proverbial river in Egypt, my parents never asked me about it even in my teenage years, and I never offered to tell them. We all conveniently pretended not to notice. I convinced myself that no one really noticed (not true) and the behavior was semi-invisible. When I did work up the courage to mention it to a few friends, they admitted they’d often seen me do it, noticed the shorter hair on the left side, and wondered about it.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Not really.”

“Why do you do it?”

“I don’t know.”

And that was the truth. I really didn’t know. I had, over the years, noticed a correlation. I tended to pull more when I was experiencing one of two emotions—stress or boredom. Unfortunately, I lived in a constant state of both. I’ve never been one of those people who is good at doing nothing. Given my family’s workaholic culture (which I had unfortunately inherited), boredom would send me into a state of panic because I felt guilty for doing nothing, wasn’t living up to my potential, and would need to fill the empty space. Contrast that with run-of-the-mill stress, which I had plenty of in my quest to become the world’s perfect daughter, sister, employee, girlfriend, and friend. Some days were worse than others; on a bad day I’d notice I was pulling a lot, and I’d berate myself for doing it, so I’d do it even more. Similar to an alcoholic who keeps drinking even when they know they’ve had one too many margaritas. It was like my hands were on autopilot. Half the time I wasn’t even aware it was happening.

“What does it feel like?”

“A release.”

“Why don’t you just stop?”

Okay, hold on. What kind of question is that? Think about that for a second. Does an overweight person not know they’re overweight? Does a smoker not know their cigarette is silently killing them? Does a promiscuous person not know their behavior is dangerous? Does an alcoholic not know that next drink will kill one more brain cell? And yet people say silly things all the time. If I could have stopped, I would have.

I remember when I told my fiancé, now husband, about it. We were on a road trip, headed back from a tour of southwestern national parks. I’d worked up the courage all day to tell him; I figured he had the right to know my deepest, darkest secret, considering our impending nuptials. When I finally mustered my nerve, I blurted something to the effect of, “You know, I have this nervous condition where I pull my hair out sometimes.”

“Oh yeah, that,” he said. “You’ve done it since our first date.”

I burst into tears. He’d never said a word. To this day he’s never mentioned it again, never asked me to stop, or criticized me for it. He’s a keeper for sure.

Obsessive hair-pulling is called trichotillomania, or trich for short. It tends to be classified in the same family as many obsessive-compulsive disorders, along with things like Tourette’s syndrome, which I always thought was a bit unfair, considering I was extremely discreet (or so I thought) where my disorder was concerned. I diagnosed myself one day on the Internet. It seemed pretty apparent I had it.

Obsessive pulling of hair?

Yes.

The person has tried to stop?

Yes.

Gets in the way of living a normal life?

Kind of. Define normal—I’d love to argue the meaning of that definition.

Case closed.

It took me a long time to learn how to say trichotillomania. I had to practice it phonetically for weeks. Trik-o-til-o-MAY-nee-uh. It’s quite a mouthful, or a handful, as we fellow trichs love to say.

I was excited when I finally knew what it was. That was until it became blatantly clear that no doctor or therapist, or anyone for that matter, really knew what caused it or how to make it stop. This included my own therapist, who I specifically sought out because her website touted she specialized in behavioral disorders like trich. I lasted a couple of sessions. She gave me some exercises to do to try to replace the pulling behavior with a different one. When I felt the urge to pull, I would instead squeeze a stress ball or rub a rubber thimble. For this brilliance I paid $500. It didn’t work.

But despite the fact I had a bizarre, incurable mental health disorder, I must admit I did feel kind of special. Call me crazy (ha!) but most mental health disorders just don’t have the same pizazz as trich. Who can tout they are the personification of the proverbial cliché of literally “pulling your hair out”? I have always known I was destined for greatness.

At one point I was convinced I’d cured it. An over-the-counter combination of 5HTP, NAC, and CBD oil, the latter one thrown in for good measure since it has become the modern-day holy grail that can fix anything according to my enlightened friends at the yoga studio. I then entered a period of nirvana akin to that movie Awakenings. For nine months not a strand of hair was pulled. Not one. It was a magic cocktail that stopped trich dead in its tracks. My hairdresser even paid me compliments on my restraint. But like any free lunch, eventually the check finally arrives. It started up again, despite increasing the dosages. I was back to square one.

Speaking of hairdressers, just about every hairdresser has told me they have clients that do this. Evidently it could be as high as one to three percent of the population if you’re inclined to believe the data on Google. But I’m the only one I know of who has ever had it. I sometimes think of my fellow secret trich-ters out there, hiding in their bedroom closets, wearing big hats, desperate to keep themselves cloaked in darkness so the world won’t see their weirdness. I say to hell with it! Let them see.

I used to be hard on myself about it. I read that it might have something to do with my sense of self-worth, an anemic attempt to soothe myself for feeling worthless. For years I tried to force myself to love myself and then inadvertently judged myself if I found myself judging myself. You’ve got to respect my tireless dedication to being a perfectionist at not wanting to be a perfectionist. I read every self-help book I could get my hands on and practiced every exercise with mind-numbing precision. I knew so much I even ended up writing a self-help book to promote my business. And the pulling continued.

Until recently. It’s maybe a fourth of what it used to be and slowly receding. The underneath wispy bits are finally starting to grow. And the accolades from my hairdresser are finally coming back. When people ask me what I’m doing differently, I can’t really say what it is to be sure. I’d love to say it’s wisdom and feeling more comfortable in my own skin. I’d love to say it’s that I’ve finally mastered the art of all the wonderful tools and techniques in every self-help book or perfected the perfect vitamin antidote. But I’d given up trying to stop pulling years ago. I got tired. And then there comes a point when you accept your fate, and if you’re smart enough, you surrender to it. My mind forms images of a frizzy-haired, Christ-like me, nailed to a rickety cross, head bowed to my interminable fate, a pile of hair on the ground surrounding my sad shadow. And yet, finally, I can breathe. The hum of the Dyson vacuum finally grinds to a stop.

On my desk in my office, I now keep a small participation trophy: $4.99 plus $19.99 in shipping and handling—a real steal. She sits in all her golden glory on my desk. She wears a ruffled, poofed-out skirt, a beauty pageant sash, and a small tiara sits atop her proud and stately head. She is perfect. She is everything luminous and coiffed and orchestrated. She has perfectly long, full hair that never frizzes in Texas humidity. She has a twenty-inch waist while she twirls a fire baton, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I bought her as a gift to remind myself of who I never could quite aspire to be. I look at her from time to time throughout my day and I smile. She would know the perfect thing to write next to close this piece. Good thing she would cause I have no freaking clue. But I’ll tell you one thing: I won’t lose any hair over it anymore.

 

 


One Response to “Nothing Worth Splitting Hairs Over”

  1. Ian Hallett

    You know…. I feel like your struggle may be one of the things that have made you such a great coach! Another great piece that made me chuckle several times. Thank you for this!

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