So as not to dive abruptly into the depths of my mental illnesses, I would like to quickly, yet formally, introduce myself. My name is Maureen, and I am a sophomore studying political science at the University of Michigan. I was raised in a large Irish Catholic family (the youngest of eight children!) in the suburbs of Detroit, where I developed my love of journaling and crocheting. While I am privileged to have come from a loving home, like so many others, I did not leave my childhood without the scars of mental illness.
As I’m sure you can imagine, raising eight children was no easy feat for my parents, and as such, certain rituals became part of my lifestyle at the very moment I was born. Bedtime prayers and goodnights, clearing the table after dinner, packing the car for trips, and everything in between had a very specific way of being done, so as not to forget anything — or anyone! As the youngest, I was born into the height of a spectacular web of systems, but I was also around for the fall of those systems. As sibling after sibling began to leave the nest and become more independent, those rituals began to collapse quite naturally. My adolescent mind, however, could not comprehend that my existence was not to blame for the downfall of the previously organized predictability of my life. I did not understand that what was occurring was a natural transitional period for my family that they would have gone through with or without me.
As my family lost its routines, I began to form my own and developed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). From second to fifth grade, I created a most draining, but somehow comforting, nighttime routine that would take me almost two hours to complete “correctly.” The routine consisted of quadruple checking of the lock on our front door, turning lights on and off an even number of times until they were “just right,” tapping my mattress and checking the screws on my bunk bed nearly 80 times, and reciting countless prayers, restarting every time I made even one mistake. To this day, I find it difficult to describe the weight that would come over me and trick my mind into believing those actions were things I must do.
My nighttime routine gradually evolved into a way of life. Turning lights on and off happened all day long and was not only a bedtime endeavor, tapping my mattress turned into a need to tap table tops, and I began forcibly poking my siblings after any hug or high-five to ensure that I had touched them twice. As these intrusive compulsions began infiltrating my life more regularly, they became much more noticeable, and I became extremely anxious. What was I to do if someone caught me tapping a table at school 32 times? Explain to them that if I didn’t, something indescribably horrible would happen?
I knew these thoughts were outrageous, but I simply could not stop them, until one day when I got the urge to pull out the hair on the top of my head. Unlike my compulsions before, I only desired to pull my hair. It didn’t matter how many times or from what spot on my head. I just needed to pull. Many will ask if it hurt, and my answer is no. It gave me a great sense of satisfaction, and oddly enough, was able to calm many of my anxieties surrounding my other rituals. The longer I pulled, the less I desired to think or say or touch something a certain number of times, and the frequency of my intrusive thoughts went down dramatically.
While my pulling gave me a new level of comfort and control over my OCD, it also brought me a much greater sense of anxiety. The pulling was all fun and games until I began developing enormous bald spots on the front and crown of my head. I was constantly worried that people would notice my bald spots, or worse, see me ripping out my own hair. While much of my anxiety in my tween and teenage years revolved around my hair loss, feelings of doubt and uncertainty began to creep into every aspect of my life.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, and after a very honest conversation with my pediatrician, that I acknowledged the fact that I needed help. Despite all of the Google searches I had made and articles I had read, it wasn’t until I reached out to a professional that I was able to see clearly, for the first time in my life, that I wasn’t okay, but that I was worthy of a life without so much anxiety and guilt surrounding my hair. When I finally made the decision to speak to my parents about seeking consistent professional help for my disorder with a licensed master social worker, that therapist diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder and trichotillomania (the official name for my hair-pulling disorder), which I learned was the coping mechanism that led me to overcome my OCD, leaving me with only a few tendencies of the disorder.
For the past two and a half years, I have been consistently attending therapy, and have recently begun a small dose of an antidepressant to help regulate my anxiety levels. Therapy has helped me validate my emotions and analyze my thought patterns to adjust those emotions. I have been able to process my past and apply it to the present, so that I need not worry about the future. It has also helped me allow myself to open up to family and friends so that I am now able to utilize the incredible support system that has always surrounded me, without the constant anxiety that used to undermine it.
This past Fall I began to realize that my hair pulling had developed into nothing more than a habit. I no longer needed the satisfaction of pulling my hair to cope with my issues, because I have developed more practical and healthy coping methods. In order to combat this, in October I made the decision to shave my head. It was absolutely the most vulnerable but freeing experiences that I have ever had. For the first time in 8 years, I was able to walk outside without the shame of my hair weighing me down. Until December, I frequently shaved my head so that my bald patches could begin to fill in. I have since begun to grow out my hair. While my hair was buzzed so short, I really didn’t have the option to pull my hair anymore, and I have since rid myself of the desire to pull my hair. I would have never developed the confidence needed to shave my head without seeking professional help, and I am now more ecstatic than ever for the day when I am finally able to have the head of hair that my mental illness once stole from me.
While my approach with the razor to my head may have been a bit radical, I don’t regret it one bit. Shaving my head has not only been crucial in helping me overcome my trichotillomania, but I have also found that it is an invaluable tool in helping spread awareness for the disorder. As a woman, I am frequently asked why I decided to shave my head, and I am pleased to give light to a disorder that, while not rare, is often not highlighted by the media or those who have it, due to the extreme levels of guilt and shame associated with it.
Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read my story of trichotillomania and to inform yourself about some of the unique challenges that the disorder can bring.