@discovering.mel is 26 years old. She lives in New Jersey and has a Shih Tzu named Charlotte that she adores. She keeps herself busy with outdoor activities, yoga, and has a profound drive for philanthropic endeavors.
I called her on her phone and we had set aside time to speak with each other for half an hour, which at the time, seemed like it would be been plenty of time. When we spoke though and she told me her story, that thirty minutes stretched to 45, and then past an hour.
We talked about memories that left a lump in my own throat. Even though I don’t have trichotillomania, her stories of sadness, panic, and shame brought back childhood memories one tends to hide away in a dusty corner of the mind.
Trichotillomania, or trich, is a form of body-focused repetitive behaviors.
It involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of your body. Hair pulling over prolonged periods of time can cause hair thinning and loss in the targeted areas.
I asked Mel to recall her earliest memory of having trich.
“I’ve had trich since about second grade. At that time, I had long blonde hair.
It’s a very odd memory, but I had this old rocking chair in the living room. I had my knees on the ground and my arms and upper torso were laying on the seat. I was playing with my hair and running my fingers through it.
I just remember feeling inclined to pull a hair out that felt different, like it didn’t belong. Once I did, it felt really good and I essentially haven’t stopped since.
I don’t really remember what triggered me to do that, but I just remember that moment, which is such an odd moment to remember.
I had a little spot, maybe the size of a quarter, at the top of my head that I pulled, and then it just kind of spiraled from there.”
Her voice throughout the phone call remained steady and clear. Mel has fought with trichotillomania for almost two decades now and it seems as if the memories are a distant past, yet still very much part of her present.
I asked her if and when her family found out.
“My mom first noticed when she brushed my hair one morning when she was getting me ready for school. She asked me what happened and I kind of played dumb because I didn’t want to get in trouble.
Even though I didn’t know to be ashamed of it, I was. I tried to hide it by pulling on the sides of my hair, underneath the top part where no one could see it.
But slowly, the spots on my head grew. By the time I got to the third grade, my hair was really thin. One night, I tried to do my own hair by myself and I realized I needed help because I couldn’t hide it anymore.
I wore these thick colored headbands and they no longer covered my patches – it was literally ‘coming through the seams’ if you will.
I went to my mom and said – ‘Mom, I have a problem’. It was late at night, but I remember we went to my room. I don’t know what I said, but I took my headband off and showed her. She started to cry and I started crying.
After talking to my mom, we discussed it with a few immediate family members, but they were the only ones that knew. Other than a select handful of people, we all kept it a secret. It was my own shame to bear.”
Mel shared such an intimate memory in her life and I felt compelled to tell mine. It reminded me of my own struggle with chronic nail and cuticle biting. There were times when my fingers would be red and raw.
I remember moments when I would sit on my hands in class or grip on my dinner spoon as a fist so no one could see my fingers. The fear and anxiety of someone, anyone, seeing my “problem” was something I anxiously obsessed about.
I asked her what her experience has been when sharing with others about her trichotillomania.
“It’s still a big secret with me… although I’m trying to be more open about it. I had a friend in high school and she was one of the few people outside the family that I told. We were new friends, but you know when you just click with somebody? I just clicked with her.
I was still wearing headbands at the time and she never judged me for it. She was supportive and overall curious about it. She’s my best friend to this day.
But anyone I have ever confided in about my trich has been pretty supportive generally speaking.”
Mel paused. She started by saying that she would leave it up to me on whether I use this next anecdote in the article.
“I do have a traumatic trich experience growing up.
My father and I have always been at odds. He’s toxic and no longer a part of my life and it has been that way for about five years now… it’s not the fun stuff. I grew up with him being very abusive, both physically and verbally.
Part of my shame with trich was that my father didn’t accept it and that he chose to be ignorant of the condition. One of my worst memories ever was when I was about nine years old.
My father was checking in on my bald spots or pulling areas.
He thought it necessary to then take a Sharpie to my head and draw around my patches. I could cover it with my headband, but I remember being like, ‘oh my god’. He told me he would check back on them later to see if I had pulled outside of the lines.
During that week, I remember being so scared. By the end of that week, I then panicked because I knew I had pulled outside of the lines.
It was totally unintentional. Some trich moments are very controlled – or you’re at least aware and can stop – but other times it’s a subconscious action or it’s uncontrollable and you can’t stop. You’re crippled by it— it’s like a sheer zombie moment as you’re going at it.
When I realized I had pulled outside the lines, I took long showers to wash it off and tried to do anything to avoid getting in trouble. I was trying to problem solve and was trying to hide it at that point because I already screwed up.
I just remember feeling sheer panic before he came back to check on my head. I didn’t know when it was going to happen, so I felt like I was on ice.
When he finally checked and saw that the patches had gotten past the lines, he flushed with anger. He took my head in his hands and hit me back and forth like a basketball until my mom stopped him.
It is something that has stayed with me and will never go away. It’s one of my worst memories ever.
The fact that he thought it a good idea to draw on my head was so shocking. I felt embarrassment, shame, and sheer panic. Reflecting on it now, how did he think that was appropriate?
A part of me has tried to rationalize it— a small part of me. I mean, when someone doesn’t know how to help, they’re going to flounder and try to do anything they can think of in order to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, some people think that punishment is an appropriate form of rehabilitation.
Per Mel’s previous comment on giving permission to share this part of the interview, I asked her if it was again, ok. I told her that stories like this, as awful as they are, could potentially resonate and help other people who experience similar encounters. She agreed.
“I think it’s important to mention as an advocate because you will have, unfortunately, some people in your life that are not supportive and even sometimes abusive and toxic.
I feel like I’m a very strong cookie, especially with experiences with my father. And even though I will stop and cry at puppy commercials on TV, I didn’t cry in front of him. I waited until after I got back to my room to cry.”
She is a strong cookie. Her voice was unwavering and calm. It’s like she had prepared years for this conversation – the one where she would open up to others and help those who are diagnosed with trich.
Mel has come a long way. She recently posted a picture of herself on Instagram with a shaved head, which was a monumental step in her hair journey. I asked her, what made you ultimately decide to shave your head?
“I’ve been wearing wigs for ten years, which has been both a blessing and a curse. I’ve also been going through an overabundance of life transformations over the past year and a half and have been working on being my most authentic self. That being said, I’ve always wanted to shave my head.
Back in December, my therapist and I were talking about my trich and she asked me if I could do anything with my hair and I knew I couldn’t stop pulling, what would I do?
I said I would like to have an arsenal collection of wigs – pink, blue, brown, blonde – and wear them any day I want, whatever my mood. Also, I want to shave my head and rock that too.’
She told me to think about that— to not take any actions yet, but to think how that would make me feel.
I thought about it for months. During that timeframe, I found the Instagram hair loss community. The more I thought about it and interacted with some amazing people such as Dawn from @fauxhairflair and Kristen from @lossknotlost, the community affirmed to me that my hair is an accessory and ultimately, a fashion choice.
Finally, Kayla from @strandsandsparrows made a post that really just pushed me into the full, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to #bravetheshave’. It was a simple post about trimming her hair, but it really spoke to me. In her post, she said that she held onto some long scraggly ends out of pure vanity. They served no purpose and she asked herself, why is she holding onto them?
It resonated with me. I thought, ‘you’re so right. Why am I holding onto my hair?’
In mid-July, there was a heatwave in New Jersey and I just decided to do it. I put my hair into little ponytails and I buzzed my head all one length as best I could.
Afterward, my cousin helped me properly even it all out. To me, it was really important that I shaved my own head. I didn’t want anyone else to do it.
For ten years, I went with no one else—nobody— seeing my head without a hat or wig on. And all of a sudden, I shaved my head and bleached it. I felt so raw and exposed but ultimately liberated.
That week I shaved my head I continued to wear my wig, but the following week, I never put her back on. I put her away in a box. It’s been extremely well received and has been amazing. I continually have strangers coming up to me telling me how beautiful I am and commenting on my buzzed look.
I find it interesting that when I had the long curled hair, the ideal version of feminine beauty, I never received the kind of positive outpour that I have now.
I’ve been reflecting on it and I love radiating in my own authenticity. It’s powerful. I’ve never felt more beautiful than I do now.
People who know me have asked what made me do it and my go-to answer has been that I have always wanted to do it and there is no better time than the present. But with some others who know I have trich and knew I wore wigs, I have said that I felt they don’t serve me any longer. I guess you could say that I’ve come out of the wig box!”
It was getting past the hour and I felt a little sad that the time was getting away from us. There were so many more stories to share and topics to dig deeper into. I thought about the last question I wanted to ask her.
If you could share one thing with someone struggling with trichotillomania or know of someone that is struggling with trich, what would it be?
“About one in fifty people have trich, which is surprisingly small, but also surprisingly large when you think about it. Odds are, there is someone else you know that has it in some sort of capacity.
I’m a big fan of educating yourself— do your research and get your hands on all the information that you can acquire. Find communities, such as on Instagram, with strong supporters and find a safe space. Get acclimated to other people’s stories. I really recommend @pullyoselftogether and @trichtricks on Instagram, just to get started.
It feels like a shameful thing, but if you can start by breaking down the shame and changing the script, you can start your own healing process and self-acceptance.
I grew up thinking what I loser I was and some sort of monster in my own way — I was thinking such negative thoughts. It has only been in recent years that I’ve accepted it as a part of my life.
My negativity and self-hate won’t change my trich and it serves no purpose in helping me heal. I’ve instead learned to embrace it and change it if I can in a positive way. That perspective doesn’t happen overnight, but over time, it’s helped me to be kind to myself.“
“If you know someone with trich, just know that they can’t help it. If they could stop, they would. Trust me, I don’t want it either. It’s a very hard pill for your loved ones to swallow because they just want to fix it.
They are wanting to be helpful by saying ‘just stop’, ‘cut it out’, or ‘what are you doing’, but it just adds to the shame and guilt. The worst thing they can do is punish the person— by ignoring, treating them lesser, or shaming them. Because we already feel enough guilt.
When my mom caught me playing with my hair, she would say my name in a certain way and then tell me to ‘stop picking.’ Both her tone and the word ‘picking’ made me cringe and made me defensive.
As a reset phrase, I would recommend your loved ones say ‘be kind to yourself’. It doesn’t have to be this dreaded, shameful thing that makes you cringe and reset.
I want to share my story because I generally want to help and advocate for others. I realized though that I don’t advocate for myself enough with trich.
There aren’t a lot of advocates for trich because it’s so niche and there’s so much shame associated with it. But I thought to myself if I don’t do it, how can I expect someone else to advocate for something I’m not willing to advocate for? “
@discovering.mel continues to advocate for people who struggle with trich. She sports her badass shaved head on her Instagram account and serves as a resource for anyone who wants to chat!