Trigger warning: sensitive topics of abuse discussed
Have you ever been so frustrated, you wanted to tear your hair out?
But not actually tear it out, right?
That’s just a saying. An idiom.
No one is literally tearing their hair out.
Turns out, some are.
When I was in fourth grade, I literally started tearing my hair out.
I don’t know exactly how or when it started. It is possible I was largely unaware of it. And somehow I also seemed unaware that if I kept doing it, other people would see the effects.
I remember having clumps of hair on the floor next to the head of my bed. I would rub my hand on the carpet in a circular motion, gathering the hair, and dump it in the trash.
I do remember seeing my dad pull on his eyebrows and rub his fingers together to knock off any loose hairs he grabbed.
Perhaps my eyebrows were the gateway to other body hair.
I would take tweezers and pull out leg hairs.
I pulled out my eyebrows, eyelashes, and head hair with my hands.
The eyebrows and eyelashes, I discarded without much thought or care.
The head hair, I would pull out one at a time and inspect for this clear thing at the root of the hair. Not every hair had one. It was as if I was searching for them.
I would pull out a hair with my right hand, grab it with the fingers of my left hand, and run my thumb and index finger of my right hand along the shaft of hair, focusing on the root end. If there was this clear thing, which I recently learned is the root sheath of the hair, I would pull it off the hair and discard both the hair and the sheath. All that work only to rub my fingers together, carelessly dropping them to the ground. Then my fingers would return to my head to root out another hair.
Over and over and over again.
I often wasn’t even aware I was doing it. I would be thinking about something else. It was like I was in a trance. Mindlessly repeating the same action over and over while my focus was elsewhere.
When I surfaced and realized what I was doing, I would stop. Only to sink back into the trance again.
The only real way to know the damage was to see the heap of hair on the floor. There were mornings I would wake up to a pile on the floor next to the head of my bed. Who knows how long I had been at it before I fell asleep.
My mother knew of a girl at church who pulled her hair out. Knowing someone else did it too was somewhat comforting. I guess.
My mom worked for the newspaper and asked if she could write an editorial about my hair-pulling.
I was embarrassed by it and didn’t want anyone to know it was happening.
Too bad all you had to do was take one look at me to know something was going on. In my fifth-grade school picture, my bangs are shockingly thin. My eyelashes and eyebrows are barely there at all.
I had so much shame around all of it. Both the fact that I was pulling it out and the fact that I didn’t want my mom telling the whole world.
It felt like the girl at church didn’t mind. My mom knew. And, I felt a little better knowing, too. Why wouldn’t I want to share my story so someone else might feel less alone?
Because it was embarrassing.
And I didn’t understand it.
Why did I do it? Why couldn’t I stop?
My parents took me to see a therapist. In the mid-80s in the midwest, you only went to therapy if something was very wrong.
I didn’t want there to be something very wrong with me.
So I pretended like there wasn’t.
I don’t remember much about the therapist except that it was a woman, she bought me soda, and I didn’t trust her or share anything helpful with her.
I put on my best “good girl” persona and was pleasant.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember that I hated going to see her. I wanted it to end, so I could go back to being normal. Not bad or broken.
I remember our final session. We walked to the vending machine together. She bought me a Coke. We walked back to her office. As the session came to an end, I found some tears to offer up. Words about how I was going to miss our time together.
I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Almost as quickly as the hair-pulling started, it stopped. Or lessened.
My hair grew back.
Now, no one needed to know it ever happened.
But it did.
For years, I have felt ashamed of pulling out my hair. I was so convinced that people wanted a perfect persona, I couldn’t risk anyone knowing I was flawed.
It’s a terrible way to live.
It’s very isolating. Not only is it a ridiculous notion that anyone is actually perfect, but by pretending to be perfect, I could never discuss my struggles. I could never admit something was wrong because perfection has no “wrong”.
It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I gained some insight on what likely caused my hair-pulling.
I was sexually abused by a neighbor girl when I was in elementary school.
Again, I couldn’t tell anyone because that would totally tarnish the “good girl” ideal. It’s possible the well-meaning therapist asked questions about abuse. If she did, I lied.
I carried that reality with me for most of my life without sharing it. I didn’t want my mom to know because I didn’t want her to feel bad for not knowing when it was happening.
A counselor I saw as an adult asked me why it was my responsibility to protect my mother? She’s a grown woman.
But what would be the point in telling her? She couldn’t go back and change anything.
In August of 2018, my mother and I sat on the couch in my living room. And I told her.
It was in the sharing of it all that I linked the hair-pulling to the sexual abuse.
And it is in the telling of it now that I find myself wondering when the girl moved out of the neighborhood. Was that what allowed me to stop?
So much is different now and a few things are the same.
Telling my mother what happened was the right move. Now she knows. Now I don’t have to bear the weight of protecting her from the truth. Now she can bear the burden with me.
And she was able to confirm that she had no idea. And, if she had known, she would have taken action.
It may seem like a no-brainer — of course she didn’t know and of course she would have acted if she had known.
But I needed to hear it.
My little-girl heart needed to know.
I imagine the hair-pulling was a control move. Or a self-harm move? I don’t fully know.
I have told a small handful of people about my hair-pulling and sexual abuse over the years. No one has shamed me for either.
I have learned that sharing my struggles is the very thing that creates human connection. Pretending to be perfect is actually a repellent.
Sometimes I feel like the uglier I am, the more attractive I am. I’m not talking about outward appearances. The more I share the gross realities of my human heart, the struggles and successes, the more I can relate to other people and they can relate to me. And the less alone I feel.
Interestingly, I find it easier to talk about having been sexually abused than I do about pulling my hair out. Sadly, the statistics show that sexual abuse is more common than I’d like it to be, which means when I share that part of my story, it is often met with someone else sharing theirs.
That has never happened with regard to pulling out my hair.
I’d love to say I never pull my hair out anymore. It makes me want to shrivel up inside a little to admit that I still do it from time to time.
The act itself looks just like it did when I was a kid. My mind is often in a far-off land, solving great mysteries of the world. Meanwhile, my hand is pulling my hair out, one strand at a time. Checking the ends for a sheath. Discarding it if there isn’t a sheath. Pulling the sheath off if there is one, and then mindlessly tossing everything on the floor around me.
Thankfully, I have found that keeping my hair clean is a huge help. For some reason, when it is dirty, I am more likely to run my fingers through it and start pulling.
It doesn’t hurt. You might think it would. If someone grabbed a handful of my hair and yanked, I would wince and cry out in pain. But, for some reason, when I’m in the zone, I barely feel a thing.