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.
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.”
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.