Sunday, May 30, 2010

Coming Clean

Two weeks ago, I got a haircut.

This may not sound like any special news but it's a big deal to me. It has been over a year since I went anywhere near a stylist. I've been too embarrassed and too self-conscious. One of my major insecurities has always been my hair: how I style it, how short I wear it, how I use it as an outlet for stress. I pull out my hair, one strand at a time, when I'm anxious or bored. I've alluded to it here before, but never gone into detail. When I talk about it to the few people I trust enough to tell, I gloss over it and make it sound like a personality quirk, instead of what I fear it may really be: a disorder. An addiction. A condition.

A counselor told me several years ago this bad habit had a name: trichotillomania. I was relieved it existed; it wasn't some unique craziness I had invented. It freaked me out that it had the word "mania" in it, though. I found some websites, looked for support groups, journaled about it till my hand cramped, but nothing came of it except more self hatred. Willpower hasn't been enough to break the habit, especially when I'm aware I'm doing it and continue anyway. An obvious question is, "doesn't it hurt?" Pain hasn't been a strong enough deterrent. It's just like scratching an itch.

It is something I've done in different forms since I was a kid (I remember Mom catching me with bald eyelids when I was 8 or so, having pulled out all my eyelashes with tweezers). It was a boredom thing in high school, and I remember asking my family to point it out to me when I didn't realize I was doing it.

The urge to pull becomes more compelling in times of stress. The last two years have been the worst. Big events in the last couple of years seem overwhelming at times: being married, while blissful, has it's challenges. Not that I blame my husband. Marriage just magnifies my own lack of skill in dealing with stress, conflict, and the normal adjustments of learning to live with a spouse. My Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the end of 2006 (at age 53). That's something else I've never written about here, but the affect this disease has had on my family is deep and heart wrenching. I've been grieving for the last three years.

I internalize 99% of my negative emotions and it's become obvious. I see my hair habit as external evidence of internal issues. I've thought a lot about it, written a lot about it, and argued with myself for a long time about why and how and what to do about it. Even though I hate the result, I continue pulling.

Because I haven't been willing to let anyone look at my scalp, my hair has gone haywire. I cut it myself last year. Thankfully, curls are forgiving and it didn't look too bad. But as it continued to grow, and I continued to pull, the bald spots have become more noticeable. The hair on top of my head is short and sprouty. The length in the back gives me an unmistakable mullet-look, so I usually just pull it all up in a hair clip and hide the thin patches. But I finally reached the last straw. I was SICK of myself. So tired of hiding, so tired of hating my appearance, so exhausted from justifying the whole process to myself. So I gritted my teeth and made a salon appointment.

I was not looking forward to letting someone look directly at my scalp. And touch my hair. And examine the very thing I try so very hard to hide. I knew the question would come: "What's causing your hair loss?"  But I made the appointment anyway, sick of my frizzy reflection every time I looked in the mirror. My best cover-up wasn't working anymore.

I called a couple of places, and a salon a few blocks from my house had an opening that afternoon. I showed up 15 minutes early and waited anxiously in the lobby. A stylist named Samantha greeted me and led me back to her chair.

"What are we doing for you today?" she asked.

"Well," I took a deep breath and dove in. "It's been a really long time since I had my hair cut, and I need more layers."

She put the barber-chair bib on me and I un-clipped my hair from it's regular ponytail-bun. It hung limp at my shoulders. She turned the chair to face the full length mirror, and our reflections made eye contact.

"It's really fine and thin," I explained. "I'm ready for something new." She started pawing at my hair.

Sure enough, here came the dreaded question. "What's causing the hair loss?" Samantha asked with a concerned look on her face, running her fingers through what little hair she could on top of my head.

"Um," I stammered. "It's a condition related to stress."

Without missing a beat, she leaned forward and with a straight face asked, "Do we need to take him out back and shoot him? They make good fertilizer, you know."

I laughed nervously, disarmed by her directness. "No," I said, "it's not that." I appreciated that she was on my side. I considered launching into detail, but held back.

She told me she had a female family member with a similar bald spot, also "caused by stress," our new euphemism for "pulling your own hair out by the roots." She kindly didn't call it plucking, or yanking, or tweezing, or anything like that.

She asked, "How long has it been since you had it cut?"

"A year or more."

"Well, you're not going to wait that long again, are you." It was a statement, not a question.  She rested her hand on my shoulder and made eye contact again in the mirror. "Why'd you wait so long?"

"Mm. Too embarrassed," I admitted. No dignity to lose at this point, might as well be honest.

She said, "Embarrassed?! You don't have anything to be embarrassed by! This is my job! I love doing this!"

She held up a length of my hair by the ends and showed it to me in the mirror.

She leaned in close again, confiding. "If it was lice, I could see being embarrassed by that. But you don't have lice!"

She continued examining my hair, comparing lengths, trying out locations for a new part, peering at the short hairs growing back. It was worse than a pap smear. This level of vulnerability was all about exposing something wrong about my body that I had caused.

Samantha washed and conditioned my hair, and began cutting. I asked her to take four inches off the bottom, and work some new layers up to the crown of my head.

She said, "You're not losing your hair. The follicles are still healthy and it's all growing back." She lowered her voice to a whisper, "you've just got to stop pulling it out, hon."

I nodded, too appreciative to say anything.

"Life is too short for you to be that stressed about anything," she said. "What you need is a massage and a facial."

I told her about Mom. I opened up about how I felt guilty for not spending more time with her, how I wanted to take care of my Dad, how I wished I could make life easier for my siblings. She listened, and commiserated, and shared a few things from her own life.

Then she said something I have been thinking about ever since. Samantha said, "It's not about how you wear your hair, it's about how strong you are. I guarantee you are stronger than any other person in this room."

I glanced at the other customers and other stylists.

She continued. "No one could walk in your shoes, no one else could live your life. I believe you meet people for a reason. I think the purpose in all this is that you're going to help someone else who's dealing with this. I do. I think you're going through it now so you can help the rest of the world."

Her attention to me and our camaraderie made a big impact. It was almost like I needed another woman to look closely at everything I was hiding, and still approve of me. I felt cared for. I felt understood. Someone was on my team and rooting for me to take care of myself.

I told her I had a goal. "In a couple of months, I want to come back. After my hair has grown in a little fuller, I want to get it colored."

She said, "Good for you. What color?"

"Strawberry blond" (the most conservative change I could think of).

"OK. And after that, we'll do something wild. Like pink." She grinned at me. I grinned right back, fantasizing about the amount of confidence that would take.

Samantha showed me how to fluff up the hair on top a little with a comb, to boost the thinnest parts. She recommended a few products to try, but didn't make a sales pitch.

I thanked her profusely, and promised to make another appointment in a few months. And I will.

Knowing someone who cares is going to track my progress is enormously motivating. I love my haircut. I don't feel like I'm just trying to go unnoticed anymore. The curls are back in full force since I'm not trying to pull them into a bald-spot disguise.

And the best news? I've had more pull-free days in the last two weeks than I've had in years. Pulling, or fiddling with my hair in anticipation of pulling, is still ingrained as a habit. But now I'm reminded by the new length that it's a work in progress.

I can't wait to show Samantha a full head of curls. Because I secretly love my hair.


  1. I love you. I'm proud of you. I'm rooting for you. :)

  2. I love you too!!!! And I love Samantha! What an awesome stylist.

  3. Stylist/Barber = therapist. I thought you knew... ;)

  4. I like your stylist. I love your article also very much.

  5. Read your post and sat here for a good few moments with tears in my eyes. Literal blessings on your head, you beautiful woman!