Living With Trichotillomania: A Teen Girl’s Story Of Struggle And Self-Discovery

What is it like to pull your hair out every single day? Here's Mackensie's story of living with trichotillomania. | Illustration by Sarah Wintner

What is it like to pull your hair out every single day? Here’s Mackensie Freeman’s story of living with trichotillomania. | Illustration by Sarah Wintner

In sixth grade, Mackensie Freeman came back from winter vacation with a shaved head. No, she didn’t undergo surgery and she wasn’t beginning a rebellious phase complete with a leather jacket and a spiked collar. A shaved head was simply better than the alternative, a head full of patchy bald spots from over a year of hair impulsive hair pulling.

Fifteen-year-old Mackensie has trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder marked by obsessive hair pulling or skin picking. Whether it’s eyebrows, eyelashes, leg hair, that patch of skin below the chin–a trich sufferer will pick and pull at whatever their heart desires until they snap out of their trance. The result? Bald patches, soreness and a overwhelming feeling of shame.

Mackensie’s vices? Eyebrows and scalp.

“I wear eyebrow makeup every day,” said Mackensie. “And for my head I’ve worn wigs, I’ve worn hair pieces…I also wear headbands sometimes.”

The hair pulling started when Mackensie was in fifth grade, seemingly out of nowhere. Now, as a sophomore in high school, Mackensie is dedicated to sharing her story of struggle, setbacks and self-discovery.

Fifteen-year-old Mackensie Freeman (right) has had trichotillomania since she was in fifth grade.

Mackensie (right) as a sixth grader, one year into her battle with trichotillomania.

While her trich is no secret to her family, friends or classmates, ignorance still surrounds her condition.

“Some kid, a boy, a year older than me asked me if it was a dare to shave my head,” said Mackensie, sardonic in tone. “It’s really rough…the way people react to it and stuff.”

Trich is confusing, even–perhaps especially–to sufferers. For example, what prompts someone to start pulling their own hair out? Answer: Good question.

“I’m still working on figuring that out myself,” said Mackensie. “I do it when I’m stressed. I do it when I’m bored. I do it when I have nothing to do with my hands…I don’t really find myself doing it when I’m super busy. I don’t really do it around my parents either but I’ll do it other times. Even if i’m writing something I’ll still do it!”

Even her lowest trich moment happened without a specific trigger.

“I was in seventh grade, April or May, and I finally had eyebrows,” said Mackensie. “I was still pulling from them a bit but it wasn’t that bad. One day, my parents took my sister to a soccer game and I was home and I just pulled out all of my eyebrows. Like, every hair and I started crying. I called them and told them to come home. It was so bad.”

It wasn’t pain or discomfort that caused the tears. It was sheer frustration.

“We can’t help ourselves!” explained Mackensie. “It really is hard emotionally as well as physically…it really drains you emotionally and you’re always in fights with yourself. It’s just hard.”

As if figuring out the ins and outs of her disorder was rough enough, treatment is another story entirely. Like most mental disorders, there’s no cure-all treatment for trich. Some people can stop the urge to pull with sheer willpower alone, but that’s not the case for most trich sufferers. Mackensie would know because she has tried medication after medication with minimal results; a one year stint on Prozac resulted in nothing more than a tremor.

So how does Mackensie find ways to deal? Wearing wigs resulted in Mackensie being pull-free for about two weeks, but there are other tactics that people with trich can try.

“Have a small fidget toy that you can bring to school,” Mackensie suggested. “Wear gloves at night before you go to sleep. Maybe keep your hair wet at home, that helps me sometimes. If you pull from your eyebrows you can put vaseline on them; that makes them harder to pull. Wearing eyebrow makeup is a motivation to stop pulling my eyebrows in school.”

Fifteen-year-old Mackensie enjoying a Buffalo Bills football game, October 2014.

Fifteen-year-old Mackensie enjoying a Buffalo Bills football game, October 2014.

But no matter how much a trich sufferer plays around with silly putty in history class, their urge to pull won’t subside without a ton of motivation. Mackensie knows that struggle first hand, as she’s still trying to maintain motivation herself. Regardless, Mackensie is determined to help herself and others who experience a disorder that is shrouded in secrecy and embarrassment. She will be presenting at a workshop on November 1 in Atlanta for the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, an organization dedicated to helping those who have problems with hair pulling and skin picking. She’s also attending their 22nd annual conference in April; it’ll mark her fifth year in attendance.

Surprisingly there have been some upsides to living with trich for Mackensie. She’s created amazing friendships through trich conferences, fellow trich suffering girls who share her struggle and truly get it. Trich has also helped Mackensie understand her strengths and weaknesses.

“I’ve been more conscious of myself, like learning to take care of myself,” Mackensie said. “I’ve learned not to go so overboard with stuff or not to sign up for too may things or my anxiety will go crazy!”

So for those of you out there who can’t stop pulling their hair or picking their skin, those of you who are tired of hiding bald patches with makeup, Mackensie has some words of wisdom: You’re not alone!

“There are so many people who suffer with it…so many people who feel the same way you do,” said Mackensie. “Don’t feel that you’re the only one because there’s so many people who want to help you. There is help out there!”

With more awareness, trichotillomania won’t be an embarrassing topic of discussion, but it can’t get there if it’s still kept in the shadows. If you have trich but aren’t sure what to do about it, don’t keep it to yourself! Talk to your family, tell a doctor and confide in your close friends. Like Mackensie said, remember that you’re not fighting this alone.

 

Author’s note: As a fellow sufferer of trichotillomania, I’ve also written about my struggles with it here at Gurl.com. Feel free to shoot a message or shoutout via Twitter to Mackensie (@mack3nsie) or me (@offbeatorbit) if you are trying to find ways to cope with this disorder as well.

 

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!

 

What Is Trichotillomania? My Lifelong Struggle With Pulling My Hair

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  • Alana

    I can’t thank you enough for posting this. I have bitten my nails for years (to the point that they would bleed and get infected), and when I finally kicked that habit (combination of braces and keeping them painted), I began picking my cuticles raw. Then I got dry, flaky patches of skin on my scalp, but they haven’t had a chance to heal because I can’t help but pick them raw. Pimples, scabs, mosquito bites: I’ll pick at them until they bleed and then scar. I have dealt with these weird habits for years, knowing it was a result of boredom and stress, without any name for it or a solid explanation. As soon as I began reading, it clicked. I can’t thank you enough for giving me something to work with, now that I know it’s actually a mental disorder. This has been a source of shame for me since I was in first grade.

  • Joy

    Thank you so much for writing about this, and the article you wrote last year about your own struggles. I have a friend with trich and the amount of shame she has over it is just unbelievable – I’m going to share this with her and maybe knowing there’s other people out there who struggle with it will help her. I think it’s incredibly brave to overcome your fear of exposure by sharing about it. There’s part of me that wishes one could just accept it as part of yourself, and I think others would do so as well – but I understand people have to deal with it in the way they feel most comfortable with. Either way, good luck to both of you as you come to terms with trich and I hope my friend gets to the same place you are!

  • Laurence

    I’ve struggled with trich since sixth grade; I’ve graduated from high school now, and it always resurfaces when I’m under pressure from college entrance examinations and such. I actually had two great years in grades 10 and 11, where all my hair grew back in and it was actually past my shoulders. However, as soon as I started preparing for college entrance exams, I started pulling out my hair again.
    My case is actually not that severe, since the bald patches are hidden under my hair, but it’s a vicious cycle–I get anxious, start pulling my hair, get more anxious about the hair-pulling, and….well, you can probably guess.
    Recently I’ve started taking Ritalin, which actually helps when I’m in class, where most of the damage happens. The downside is that once the medication wears off, it’s back to square one, and Ritalin isn’t designed to be used constantly.

    So yes, it is an uphill battle, but there are moments of reprieve–thanks to everyone for sharing, it’s a great relief to know that I’m not alone.

  • Megan

    It’s nice to see awareness about this disorder being spread. I’ve been pulling since the 2nd grade and I’m now a sophomore in high school. It’s so unbelievably hard.

  • Anna

    Thank you so much for this! I have trichotillomania too, and last year, I also shaved my head. It was actually very empowering because other people would stare at me, and I would be forced to stare back at them like “What are you looking at?” It did wonders for my confidence. But that came after years of hair pulling and the shame that came with it. I felt like such a freak, and sometimes I still do. Trich is a constant battle. I doubt I’ll ever be free of it–I now have to shave my crotch because I started pulling out my pubic hair! Also, repeated pulling damages the hair follicles and makes your hair grow in white in areas where you’ve pulled a lot. I’m trying to grow my hair out (I’d like to have it to my shoulders), but I have a lot of white hairs now, which looks really weird on someone my age, and now I’m really self-conscious of that. I’m afraid I’ll give myself more bald patches and have to shave my head again, which I really don’t want to do. Before I started pulling, I had beautiful waist-length hair, and it will never look like that again. Most people have never even heard of trich, and I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me “Why don’t you just stop?” Well, I would stop if I could because I absolutely hate myself for doing this!

  • Libby

    I’ve always had a bit of a thing with my hair, but a few years ago it got really bad – I had bald patches and would leave loads of hair wherever I’d been sat. Eventually I got it under control but now, 5 years later, I’ve started pulling again. Sigh. I generally only pull from my scalp, but it’s still pretty noticeable. I’ve been snapping a lot of the hairs too this time, so I’m currently sporting some nice tufts… but hey, I suppose that’s probably better than bald patches for now! In case it might help anyone else struggling with trich, my ways of dealing with it include keeping my hands busy as much as possible (sitting doing nothing is one of my worst triggers!) and asking a couple of people I trust to gently remind me when they spot me doing it, since I don’t always register what I’m doing.

    Thanks for posting these articles, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. In fact, I didn’t know it was an actual condition until I read an article just like this in a magazine all those years ago! One thing though (and forgive me if I’m wrong) – isn’t skin picking dermotillomania not trich? Anyway, good luck with stopping and well done for helping to spread awareness!