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© Anthony Gerace for Mosaic 

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© Anthony Gerace for Mosaic 

You may never have heard of trichotillomania, or compulsive hair pulling, but many people live with the condition. One person tells us what it’s like for her.

I work along my centre parting, left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand, sliding my thumb and forefinger down each strand of hair from root to tip.

It’s hard to explain what it is about the ‘right’ hairs, the ones I choose to pick. Mostly they feel bumpy, coarse, thicker somehow. When I find one, I slide my fingers over it, over and over again until I’m ready to pluck. Then, I hold the hair in my right hand and pull it out near the root with the other.

Sometimes it’s when I’m reading, sometimes when watching TV or thinking. I frequently find my hands folded over my head without realising what I’m doing.

Left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand.

Sometimes after pulling I look at a hair closely, confirming its imperfect, bumpy shape and seeing if the root is intact. On a day when I’ve been puzzling over something, I often find hairs all over my desk, outlining the papers or books I’ve been reading like the chalk at a grisly murder scene.

I can’t remember when this started. I’ve certainly always been partial to squeezing a zit or plucking an eyebrow. In my 20s I could (not exactly happily) spend an entire evening tweezing out one hair at a time from my underarms or bikini line. Pulling hurts, but only temporarily. And once that hair’s out, I feel an odd relief.

This quirk – trichotillomania, or ‘trich’ – is one of several recognised body-focused repetitive behaviours. Others are skin picking and cheek or lip biting.

Researchers think that compulsive hair pullers do their thing to counteract over- or understimulation. Boredom is a definitely a trigger for me. In the way you might tap a foot or fiddle with something, my go-to is my scalp. Conversely, when I’m trying to understand something difficult I’m reading, I find the predictable, repetitive sorting through my hair soothing.

Left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand.

Because of my pulling, I have a small bald patch in the middle of my head. As the hairs grow back, I get a halo of shorter hair that sticks up on top. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, as these are then in prime picking position.

The hidden epidemic of compulsive hair pulling

Body-focused repetitive behaviours blight many people’s lives.

Unlike many people with trich, I’m fortunate that the results aren’t especially obvious. I don’t pull eyebrows or eyelashes, and the bald area is small and not especially noticeable. I don’t think about it until a photo catches it at the wrong angle or my hairdresser berates me gently about having a problem. For others these behaviours can be incredibly debilitating and distressing.

I’m also lucky that only very occasionally has it felt overwhelming. That said, I don’t like that I do it. It feels like a bad habit. An annoyance. Something that is somehow comforting but that I’d rather not have in my life.

Someone asked me what I think about when I’m pulling. It feels like I’m not thinking at all. And perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to give up.

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