What Is Trichotillomania: An Inside Perspective
by Abby Leora Rohrer
Hair pullers pull out the hair from their scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, pubic areas, legs and armpits, creating noticeable bald patches. Some munch on the follicle (white bulb) or even chew and swallow the hair. Some follow other habitual or ritual behaviors—playing with the hair or brushing it against a cheek, for example. Many pull uncontrollably for hours each day.
“My daughter has been pulling 2.5 yrs and has two successful quits. She made 6 months free. She won't admit there is a problem. She is 15 and I am trying to support her. What would you suggest? She insists that she doesn't need help and she gets so angry with us.” –Mike, dad of a child hair puller
“I noticed she pulled some of her lashes and I lost it. I dropped to the floor and began to sob.” --Donna, mom of teen hair puller
Hair pulling is not physically painful for your child. In fact, most hair pullers report the behavior as soothing. Children and adults pull because they like it. Hair pulling feels good to a hair puller. While most parents believe that their hair pulling child should want to give it up, the child may not agree. Even when the child tells herself or her parent that she wants to stop pulling, she often likes the sensation so much that stopping would present a conflict to her.
Some hair pullers report pulling their hair out in their sleep. At first, I had doubts that this occurs. But over the years, it’s been reported so many times that I’ve come to accept that this is truly the case for some hair pullers. This, in my mind, defeats the whole purpose of pulling, which is to consciously experience the reward of pleasure, numbness or adrenaline it can bring.
You see, there are both rewards and challenges to hair pulling. Hair pullers get something out of doing it. It can be like participating in an endless treasure hunt. Some may be on a quest to find the most kinky hair and pull it out and others may be seeking the largest, most perfect “root ball.” Someone else may look for any hair that feels different from the rest.
Not one of these silly goals is the real desire. Underneath, what matters most is that the hair puller is locked in a “zone,” removed from the personal trials of her world, on an endless quest. She doesn't have to deal with reality because she has created another place where she can go. In this private place she is never harassed or ignored, never completely alone, and never bored. She is distracted from worry, anxiety and deeply buried painful feelings that lurk beneath the surface of her conscious mind.
Hair pulling becomes the perfect addictive distraction for any child with uncomfortable feelings, anxieties, or emotional wounds that she doesn't have the skills to deal with. It doesn’t cost money, it's always there when you need it and it never says, “No.” It's better than the “bestest” of best friends.
Trichotillomania most commonly begins around puberty, but it can occur in children younger than 12 months, as well as in adults in their middle or later years. Hair pullers are both male and female. I write in the female gender because many more women and parents of daughters contact me and it does seem, overall, to affect more girls and women than boys and men.
Some people believe that compulsive hair pulling is a brain chemistry problem. Even if it doesn't begin this way, it will become a brain chemistry issue in time because all repetitive behaviors wear new pathways in your brain. This is how every habit forms.
Addiction is the coping style of choice for present-day cultures and families. Many are actively promoted by industry and society, in general. Through addictive relating, substances and behaviors, we learn to change our uncomfortable reality into something we can more easily deal with or ignore for the time being. If we continue to “use” enough of anything we can creatively “get our hands on” (the legal: prescriptions, alcohol, coffee, cigarettes and the illegal), we can keep our discomfort at bay.
When we mistakenly believe that young children cannot become just as addicted as the adults around them, we are lying to ourselves. Every infant becomes habituated to certain styles of coping and relating. We need to remember that both the culture and the family are role models to a tiny child from the very first moments of life.
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