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Personal Stories

At age five, mostly late at night, I would worry about things I didn’t understand and pull out my hair.  In the morning I would awake ashamed and determined not to continue this strange behavior.  But, until a few months ago, I could not stop pulling and stay stopped.  Today, thanks to the God of my understanding, the twelve steps of A.A., and finally a contact with another hair puller, I believe that I can recover from the compulsion to pull out my hair.

My mother noticed a bald spot on my scalp and at the same time she also found a large pile of hair that I had hidden under my bed.  Alarmed, she took me to an allergist who asked why I was doing this to myself. I denied that I was.  I remember thinking that maybe he could help me if I told him the truth, but I was ashamed and I lied. I was in my late forties the next time I sought the help of a doctor and this time I told the truth. However, the doctor was unable to help me deal with this strange, shameful, compulsion.  Over the years there were many doctors and many disappointing results.

After my initial bout of hair pulling at age five, my next memory of extreme pulling occurred when I was a young adolescent.  At this time, I pulled out my eyelashes and eyebrows.  Again, the pulling happened mainly at night when I was tired and worried about something or other.  In the morning, I would awake early to pencil in my lashes and brows. Again, I hated what I was doing but I didn’t know how to stop.  I remember wondering at this time how I could spend so much time trying to look my best and at the same time destroy any chance I had of doing so. I know that most teenagers worry about being different from their peers but this illness certainly compounded the problem for me.

I began drinking in my teens. The hair pulling seemed to take a back seat to alcoholic drinking for several years.  There was some pulling and some embarrassing moments because of the pulling but it didn’t interfere with my life terrifically again until I tried to alter my drinking habits.  At that time I had to let my hair grow because I was too ashamed to go to a beauty salon.  I wore a hairpiece to cover the large bald spot on the top of my head. I spent valuable time worrying about the insanity of the pulling and the drinking.

I found freedom from alcohol in AA in 1974.  I was 31 years old, a divorced mother of four. There were many things to be anxious about but I attended A.A. meetings just about every night and applied the 12 steps to many problems with success.  I tried working the steps with the hair pulling, I admitted the problem to my AA sponsor, I tried more doctors, searched books and the Internet but to no avail.  I tried special shampoos, took vitamins, changed my diet, etc., etc.  One of the most discouraging things I found was that no matter where I looked, I was unable to find someone who had stopped and stayed stopped.  I felt helpless and hopeless.

I have always prayed for an answer but recently I became specific in my prayers.  I asked God to put me in touch with someone who had stopped pulling by applying the twelve steps.  Shortly after offering this prayer, as I was searching the Internet, I noticed a posting by a hair puller who had 30 years of sobriety in AA.  I replied to her but she was not the one who got back to me.  I checked this web site almost hourly until finally, a young woman responded that she was using the 12 Steps to stay pull free.  She had succeeded for more than eight months.  I knew that my prayer was being answered. We have been staying in touch with each other for the past 3½ months.  She has reached one year of abstinence from hair pulling and I have not pulled for 3½ months.  This is nothing short of a miracle for me.  It had been many years since I had been able to stop for even a few days.  It seems that contact with another hair puller was the missing ingredient for my being able to recover from this disturbing illness.  The first word of the twelve steps is “we.”  I knew that the 12 steps would work; I just needed someone to work them with.

After I began talking with another hair pullers, I came to realize that I used hair pulling in much the same way I had used alcohol.  If I wanted to stop I needed to be willing to feel all of my feelings:  good and bad.  The hair pulling was keeping me from doing this.  I was afraid if I stopped pulling I would flip out, but she assured me she had experienced similar fears and survived.  I am less frightened today because I am no longer facing this illness alone.  I am able to experience my uncomfortable feelings rather than avoid them by pulling. If they become too strong, I now have someone to share them with. I am able to spend less time worrying and more time living.  I thank God for answering my prayer.

 

 A New Found Freedom

I am a hairpuller.  I began when I was nine, I am now 31.  This past year has been the first with more pull free days than not. My awakening has been a long road, but I have experienced huge changes in my life, thinking, and attitude since I started coming to Hair Pullers Anonymous meetings when I was 19.  I have come to firmly trust that one day, every day in my life will be pull free, one day at a time.  Here is my story.

A classmate said, “You have an eyelash on your cheek; here, blow it away and make a wish”.  The lash was pretty, black, long and had a white bulb on the end.  Blowing away the eyelash immediately became part of the ritual of ‘plucking’ (the term I used at the time in my own head).

One day when I was nine, I sat on the couch, reading the newspaper with my new eyeglasses, and rubbed my eyebrows.  I watched the eyebrows fall to the paper and on my fingers.  I told my mother that “I rubbed my brows and some hairs came out”.  She told me that I should not do that again, as they might not grow back.

One school night when I was ten, I was in bed, reading a fictional story of a girl that took place in my hometown.  I identified with her so much!  Somehow, my hand went up.  Probably an hour later, I found myself having ‘plucked’ numerous eyelashes and brows: my first binge.  The next day I was very self-conscious and did not want to look my classmates in the eye because I knew I looked different than I had before.  That afternoon, my mother asked me what I had done.  She was thoroughly upset, later I was to find out because she thought it was her fault that her beautiful little girl had intentionally damaged herself.  Both of us cried, and I remember my big brother held me. She made me promise that I would not pluck again.  I said yes.

I went for seven days.  What the trigger was, I don’t know.  But I was pulling again.  The shame began.  ‘Plucking’ my eyelashes was my biggest secret.  When I was 15, in 10th grade psychology class, we were assigned to collage a paper bag, covering the outside with images of how the world saw us and on the inside we could show our innermost thoughts.  Our teacher promised that no one would see the insides of our bags, including him.  I cut out pictures of beautiful eyes with long black lashes, ads for bottles of mascara and close-up images of eyebrows for the inside of my bag.  That was as public as I got about my pulling.

That first binge when I was nine was fascinating, and scary.  I remember enjoying those first pulls, the hairs were so long.  Even that first night, I told myself, “Just one more”, but then found a reason for another and another.  I was caught between a rock and a hard place.  “Plucking” felt so good, but I didn’t want to do it because my eyelids were balding and my eyebrows were dwindling, as was my self-esteem.  The first of every month, I swore I would not pluck again.  Every New Year’s, it was my secret resolution. I tried with every effort to stop, but could not.

I wrote about the pain of the bare eyelids- they were vast deserts, harvested wastelands.  This, of course, I dared not share with anyone.  One day, I had a conversation in the hallway with my English teacher, trying to avoid eye contact, sure he was studying my lids.  In class, he told us that it was a shame it was that youngsters do not look their elders in the eye.  I was hurt and further embarrassed.

I remember crying in the mirror in my bedroom because of my bare lids.  One time I plucked some leg hair and put it on my eyelid to see if it would transfer itself- it did not.  I was not supposed to wear make up, so each morning before school, I snuck in to my parents’ room while they were sleeping, opened my mom’s top drawer, took her brow pencil, penciled in my brows in the nearest mirror and snuck back in to return the pencil.   Often I would sit on my bed and pull leg hairs.  A tweezer was most efficient for legs, but I could not always get my hands on it, as it also lived in that top drawer.  In 8th grade, one ‘friend’ asked me what shaving technique I liked to use while another laughed- I was not allowed to shave so I had the bare spots where I had pulled the hair.  I begged my mom after that to let me shave.  When my pubic hair grew in, I pulled at that and my under arm hair too.  I would get ingrown hairs from shaving the bikini line.  I would then dig out the hairs, causing ugly infected bumps.

My parents sent me to a psychologist when I was 16.  He asked me to listen to my thoughts at the moment I pulled.  He also gave me affirmations that began “I can…”  I felt guilty about the money he cost, and when my parents offered to continue the sessions after the first six, I said no.  My parents could have made the finances work for me to continue, but this is one example of how I assumed responsibility for something at the expense of my own self care.

In college, I went to see a counselor.  I was 19, it was the fall of 1994.  One visit, she told me that she had looked up what I was doing.  It had a name, trichotillomania.  I sat there, floored. I was not the only one!  I was in luck, living in the Boston area.  There was a leading psychologist in behavioral therapy and a 12 step support group, called Hair Pullers Anonymous, and they had a P.O. Box.  I wrote them a letter.  On my 20th birthday, I received a call from a soft spoken woman who turned out to be the founder of HPA.  She asked me, “Have you ever spoken with another hairpuller?”  I said no, and there were tears in my eyes.  She cared enough to call me as soon as she got the letter.  I was really touched.  She invited me to an HPA meeting, and I agreed I would try it.

I was scared.  A 12 Step meeting.  Isn’t that for alcoholics?  People are going to be really tough.  I had visions of gangster-like folk with black leather jackets.  The meeting totally took me by surprise - everyone was nice and quite gentle.  I was not familiar with the 12 Step format so I kept asking questions.  They gave me pamphlets: An Introduction to Hairpullers Anonymous, A Higher Power, Symptoms Leading to Relapse, and Tools of the Program.

Today my life has changed so much for the better in the last twelve years.  The community of pullers working their recovery has been a blessing in my life, with whom I attend two meetings per week. This last year I have been fortunate enough to have a national phone call meeting, which has resulted in me getting a sponsor.  Any wisdom I share here is learned with the shared experience of pullers around me, growing in recovery together.

As those early HPA handouts put together by the Cambridge HPA in the late 1980’s point out, we are all pioneers.  Sometimes I go to a meeting and am the only one.  I get frustrated, but I also know that my Higher Power wanted me there, in a room where I do not need to pull and where I can do service, call a puller or read program literature.  When I feel upset that there are not many HPA meetings, I turn to the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It is helpful to see how they started as a few individuals who needed each other to get sober.  Now there are thousands of AA meetings- who knows how many HPA meetings there may be in the future.

Because there was not an HPA meeting for me to attend everyday, I went to some Al-Anon meetings and found they were very helpful.  Also, as a group, the four of us regulars in HPA went to a multi-fellowship AWOL (Another Way of Living) meeting.  There were AA, NA, SLA , OA, Al-Anon and more.  The first few weeks, we HPA’ers would say, “Hi, I am an addict”.  Then, we shared that we were there because we were  hairpullers.  It helped me claim my seat in the room, and several of the hard worn guys who had long recovery in NA acknowledged that “wow, that must be hard, having your drug right on your body”.  Because none of us in HPA had been able to get more than a couple months of abstinence, it was inspirational to hear stories of people being clean for 5, 15, 20 years.  They pushed me to work my program.

The phone is a primary tool for me.  I once heard in a meeting that the phone can seem like it weighs 100 pounds.  However, it is so important to pick it up!  One of my early lessons in HPA was that a phone call is service.  Invariably, I have called someone just as he or she was touching, or I have received a call as I was having an urge, or even pulling.  The disease of trichotillomania thrives on isolation.  When I reach out to someone, it breaks down the disease.

Email has been another wonderful way to be in touch with pullers working their recovery.  During graduate school I did not feel safe making a phone call at my desk, but I could shoot off an email to one of the pullers in my community working their recovery.  Pro-active use of the tools has been my best bet: making a call, sending an email, asking for help from my Higher Power before I have pulled.

I know now that my Higher Power does not want me to pull.  If I am pulling, it means I am not tuned in to my Higher Power.  Step 11 means that I actively develop my relationship with my Higher Power, to hone my listening skills, as it were.  I have started to get on my knees and ask my Higher Power to remove my obsession with hair, one day at a time.  I also thank my Higher Power for the abstinence I have had that day, even if during the day there were slips.  Even if I have pulled one or two times during a day, it is still so much better than those depressed days when I pulled hundreds.  In fact, days that I have struggled with high urges and gotten through them pull free are miracles.  My Higher Power acts through other pullers working their recovery.

In the morning, I like to say the 3rd step prayer, from AA, which goes “God, I offer myself to You to build with me and do with me as You will.  Relieve me of the bondage of self that I might better do Your will.  Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Your power, Your love and Your way of life.  Your will, not mine, be done”.  Another prayer I sometimes muster is “Help me choose wisely today”.

Now when an unexpected bill arrives in the mail, when I am afraid of how someone will respond to something I have done, when I struggle with feelings of worthlessness, when I am overwhelmed with guilt, when I wake up from a nap, or when I am stuck in indecision, I turn to my Higher Power to ask for help.  My Higher Power has a solution to all the daily struggles of my life that is better than I can imagine.  I find that when I “Let Go and Let God”, I then operate on another plane of being- I going with the flow, not fighting it.  My thinking is clear, my work is better, my parenting skills are different.

The slogans are a huge help.  I now can tell myself “This too shall pass” and “Ride out the urge”.  It is so hard to believe when I have strong urges that they could ever go away, but if I use my tools and do not pull, then the urge passes.  “Think through the Pull”: I find that if I do not use tools, I pull, and then the urge grows and grows. “Just for Today” was important the summer I got my first 24 hours in a row of abstinence, ten years ago.  A week later, I was able to put together 48 hours, then the next week 72 hours.

I have been blessed with a buddy in HPA, someone I have called or received a phone call from most every day for the last twelve years.  We keep our phone calls brief, and say the serenity prayer and pick a slogan.  We have been great sources of strength to each other especially when we have had slips or even relapses, and we celebrate our pull free days.

Every week I also go to a meeting for hairpullers that is not a 12 Step meeting.  Unlike 12 Step meetings, these meetings have cross talk and there is no focus on Higher Power.  However, the principle of hairpullers helping each other with their recovery is the same.  I have met many wonderful people in this meeting, and they have been a huge support and real friends to me.  Cambridge HPA has gone through growing pains, from 1999 to 2002 we did not have a regular meeting, and the constancy of this other weekly meeting has helped the Cambridge HPA group weather low attendance.

As it says in the AA “Big Book”, alcoholism is insidious, tricky, cunning and very powerful.  Trichotillomania is likewise.  I have found the disease could talk me in to a pull any time: especially dangerous are what I call gateway pulls.  These are sites that I might not consider so bad, but they quickly lead me to my main sites of head, lashes and brows. For me, there are no hairs that ‘should’ be pulled, “Every hair deserves to be there”.

The 12 steps are helping me learn that which is my responsibility and what is not.  I now choose not to put my leg on the sink to look at hair.  I shave often.  I spend very little time in the mirror.  I go to the hairstylist and tell her that I have lots of split ends, and she cuts them.  If I have an urge to look at a split end, I tell myself, “that is Megan’s responsibility, not mine”.  I am learning to be comfortable with the increasing numbers of gray hairs on my head.

My Higher Power acts through other hairpullers.  One woman in the early Cambridge HPA group had courageous honesty in her struggles and recovery from numerous addictions.  She died of leukemia in her 30’s in 2000.  I learned so much from her.  Her own honesty inspired me to be honest on the phone: if I were touching, or worse, pulling, while on the phone with her, I had to tell her.  Another friend in HPA pointed out that this is a 5th step: we share with ourselves, another human being and our Higher Power that we have been pulling.  When I come clean about what I have been doing I feel great relief.

At this point in a phone call, she would then remind me that a day can start at any time.  Her physical pain was great, but she stuck with the program.  She would pray the Serenity Prayer throughout the day.  When I am uncomfortable or sick, her memory inspires me to be “Gentle with myself” and others.

My sponsor teaches me to focus on the solution, not the problem.  If I have slipped, she asks that I focus on starting my day over.  She also tells me to focus on what I am grateful for.  It is amazing how things change when I do.  My therapist supports my 12 step work very much.  Both encourage me to increase my conscious contact with my Higher Power, let go of resentments and fear, and be firmly assertive in my life.

I now know that I can turn to my Higher Power whenever I choose.  Before the 12 Step program, I felt I had no choice, and that I had to pull.  I am still powerless over hairpulling.  However one day at a time, I do not need to pull.  When I use the tools, I find I do not have to pull.  Willingness has been a gift of the 12 Step program.  The Serenity Prayer has given me the willingness to wear tape on my fingers when urges have been super-high.

In early recovery I thought the goal of recovery was to look good again, for all the hair to grow back so I could move on with my life, and maybe enjoy an occasional pull.  I am a fortunate puller in that I have had all my hair grow back.  It feels wonderful to bat my lashes or wear mascara.  However, I feel that the gifts of the program have been far greater than my hair.  I have found a bountiful, sustaining spirituality that has connected me to this world and given me more than I could have imagined twelve years ago when I began my recovery.  There have been drastic changes in relationships in my life, best for all concerned.  I only was able to make those changes with discernment, patience, trust, the help of friends, and the serenity prayer.  My Higher Power is quite active in my life and works in unexpected ways.  I could never have imagined the life I now lead, and it is a blessed, joyful one.  Some days I cannot I see that, but a call to a hairpuller also working his or her recovery shifts my focus to the present, and once again, I know, for today, I do not need to pull.  One of the promises of HPA is a new found freedom.  It is working for me. I trust it will work for you.

 
    

 What a Difference This is from Before

 The first time I pulled my hair out I was 12 years old. Today, 25 years later, I have begun to work the 12 Steps in Hair Pullers Anonymous in order to achieve and maintain abstinence from the trance-like ritual of hair pulling. I have achieved freedom, for today, from the compulsion to let my hand float up to (usually) the top of my head, dig into my hair to choose one, or several, hairs and pull them out. It sounds crazy to anyone who doesn’t have this compulsion. Believe me, it does to hair-pullers, too. But the denial is no different than a heroine addict who is both repulsed and entranced by their “drug of choice”.

HPA does not help me stop pulling. The program, rather, helps me live my life in such a way, a spiritually principled way, that I don’t feel the overwhelming compulsion to pull. To me, that is a big difference. When I started in HPA, I actually stopped focusing on my hair, which only depressed and disempowered me, and started focusing on my life, on improving my actions, my thoughts and my motives in all situations.

Trusting in a god of my understanding gives me the humility, courage and hope to “do the next right thing”. Today I do the footwork in my life as a loving and loved adult, not as a fearful, resentful and hurt child. This has given me the self-esteem to face life’s many fears and stresses in a principled way, and trust that I will be able to handle the outcome. That way at the end of the day, the habit I turned to as a child in pain, going into a zone and pulling my hair out, is not only not an option, it rarely occurs to me to do. Similarly, the monotony of driving, the solitude of computer work or reading, also former triggers of mine, no longer elicit the same response, 25 years of pulling my hair out. Miracle.

I have four months of abstinence from hair pulling as I write, and Higher Power willing, I will continue being abstinent. Before that, I had a period of a few months of less pulling (although a positive step, there is nothing like abstinence!). Together, this time has allowed my hair to grow back fully, although parts at the top are still shorter. Summer has just started and the other day I went to the beach. It is indescribable and precious the feeling I had when I dove under the water, came up, and…nothing! There was no clutching fear that my bald spots now showed. There was only freedom. As they say, Priceless.

What a difference this is from before, especially the anguish I experienced as a teenager. My life was daily affected by my hair pulling. I was afraid to go to the beach with my friends, so I lost joy and friendships. I was afraid to go to girlfriend’s houses, especially to spend the night, for fear of the inevitable “let’s do each other’s hair!” Yikes! So I lost intimacy and the normal (and necessary) self-grooming habits that teenage girls naturally practice together. In Junior and Senior High School I was trapped into the seat of my teacher’s choice, but the second I got to college I began to sit in the back row, or a side row in my classes just in case my ponytail or barrette had slipped and my bald patches showed through. I lived in constant fear, anxiety and shame because of this dis-ease. Those awful, lonely feelings only made me pull more, and so the cycle continued.

I grew up in a household with an alcoholic, depressive mother. I recently realized, too, that my dad, like me, is what they call an Adult Child of an Alcoholic. He was a control freak, a rager, a people-pleaser and attention-grabber. In personality, I am most like him, and although he confused me terribly with his inconsistent moods, he was much more emotionally available than my mom. I think my hair pulling began at 12 because of family problems, and because I felt I had no one to talk to about what was going on with me, emotionally and physically, as a young teenager. I know that my parents’ dis-eases are selfish and want to destroy them, and anyone around them. I was deeply affected by their unhappiness and rage, and internalized that into a self-hating, loathsome “bad habit”. Over the years I have had bouts of remission, usually due to a geographic, or a man. But always, I would return to my old nemesis that in a bizarre twist of my mind, made me feel secure.

In order to recover I need to remember how sick my hair pulling has made me. Of all the other problems and insecurities that I have, or have had, hair pulling stands alone and above the rest. Always. There is nothing like having to get dressed ever day, look at yourself in the mirror as you have to pull your hair up, or back, to cover bald spots that you have made, sometimes as big as a fist. There were times, terrifying times, when I simply didn’t have enough hair left on top to gather into a ponytail without my bare scalp showing through. That is when I would take an eyeliner and color my scalp to hide it. It was like having 25 years of really bad hair days.

These problems also affected my self-care in other areas. Washing my hair, “coloring” my scalp, styling, pulling back, fussing over it all was at times so emotionally exhausting that I wouldn’t shampoo for a week maybe, and shower very little. I feel that being unkempt, along with always having my hair tight back in a ponytail, affected the way people saw me. I feel that they judged me as a slob, and also as cold and rigid because of the way I had to wear my hair.

Today I have all my hair back. The former spots are still a little shorter, but it is all “filled in”. As I said, it is summer and as I went to the beach, dove into the cool, refreshing ocean water, I thanked god and this program that I don’t have to hide my hair. It is truly a blessing and a joy, and I couldn’t do it alone. Sharing with others who suffer from Trich, working the steps, reading program literature daily, and participating in meetings is what keeps me connected, and abstinent.

 

 I Never Have to Pull Again…Today   

I was twelve the first time I remember being uncomfortable looking someone in the eye because I was missing some eyelashes.  The person was offering a compliment about the intricacies of my eye color, and I was so afraid that the gaps in my lashes would be noticed.  From that point forward, this “weird” thing that I did became associated with shame, guilt, and sin.  My family was very involved in our religious community, and I began to interpret scripture as condemning this behavior, which I could not control, because it was severing my relationship with my higher power.  Looking back on it now, I can identify that thinking as part of the obsessive thinking that comes with this disorder. 

I began trying everything I could think of to stop the behavior: wearing socks on my hands, doing five push-ups for each hair I pulled, counting urges and pulls, consulting with my physician (who had never heard of it and told me to “just stop”), monitoring my diet, wearing fake nails, going to therapy, and taking medication.  And Nothing worked.  My family tried to be supportive, but could not understand and eventually felt guilt themselves for not being able to help.  Around the time I was sixteen, my mother read a newspaper article which gave a name to this “weird” behavior: trichotillomania.  It felt great to give it a name and to know that I wasn’t the only person in the world who compulsively and uncontrollably pulled out her hair.  But knowing about it wasn’t enough. The urges intensified, spread to other parts of my body, and lasted longer.

I went to college and studied behavioral psychology.  Each new piece of information brought a new hope that perhaps I could be “cured.”  And just as surely, each new cure failed and distanced me further from the idea that I would ever be helped.  College and graduate school were feeding grounds for the frenzy of the illness.  I would sit alone for hours studying for exams and pulling out my hair.  Additionally, the pulling would be accompanied by “zoning out,” so that my eyes would scan the same page for hours but never take in the information.  College was also a time when I was painfully aware of the noticeable results of my pulling.  Surrounded by people concerned with perfect physical appearance, the only thing I could think about was my eyelashes and eyebrows.  “Did I remember all my makeup?  She just looked at me funny, had she noticed that huge gap?  I wish people would stop looking at me!”  These thoughts continued for many years as I struggled to come to terms with the disease.  I eventually stopped fighting, accepted trich as a part of myself that would never go away, and relentlessly pulled every hair that irritated me.

I was finally introduced to the 12 steps through my work with alcoholic patients at a hospital.  As I listened to their stories, some of the specifics were different, but the emotional, psychological, and spiritual upheaval caused by the disease of addiction was identical to my own journey with trich.  For months, I watched people whose lives had been destroyed by alcoholism come back to life.  Not only could they get through a day without drinking, but they could do it for thirty days, six months, or many years!  I wondered if the program might help me with trich.  More than that, I wondered if I would ever find a community of other people like me.  And then I did!  HPA has become that community where I am accepted and where I can ask for help with trichotillomania.  

In HPA, I have found hope for my life.  HPA has become that power beyond myself which can restore me to sanity.  I have met people and heard stories of recovery time that I thought absolutely impossible.  Beyond that, I have begun to believe that sanity is possible for me.  Working the steps, attending meetings, reading recovery literature, and talking to others in HPA have freed me from the desire to pull.  I know that I will never be “cured,” but I also know that I never have to pull again…today.
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