I pull out my hair. I’m trying to stop.

I pull out my hair.  I have trichotillomania.  I don’t think I’ve ever written about that here, although I once wrote about it for Substance.  A lot of alcoholics do have a hair pulling disorder, or a skin picking disorder (dermotillomania, if you’re a fan of long words) – or rather, it’s the other way around.  A quarter of the people who pull out hair or pick at their skin also have a substance problem.  A quarter.  It’s enough to drive you to drink.

So. That sucks.  Oh, and also it’s basically incurable, or so the science says.  There’s precious little research into it at all (try http://www.trich.org if you recognise yourself in this post, for what there is) for a start.  And the research that does exist – well, I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty confident that I’m summarising it correctly when I say nobody knows what the hell the condition actually is (Science: “it’s a body focused repetitive behaviour!”  Well, thank you, that’s very helpful) – a compulsion?  An addiction?  Is it chemical, genetic, learned-behavioural?  And they CERTAINLY don’t know how to treat it.  I researched this in depth last year, and I talked to a long-time trich sufferer who was really enthusiastic about a new cognitive approach she’d been taught.  It was – get ready for this, because this is groundbreaking stuff – it was to do something else with her hands when she wanted to pull.  “Simply pull your hand back down to your side!” chirruped her counsellor, who apparently had a degree and everything.

unhelpful advice

Unsurprisingly, it has a very low success rate.  Even in long term studies where patients get a combination of CBT and medication, the success rate is maybe 15%.  We’re defining success, here, as a temporary reduction in symptoms.  Temporary.  Reduction.  Don’t spend all those eyelashes at once, kids.

ANYWAY.  All of that sucks.  And after spending my teens, and my twenties, basically hating myself for it, I decided that the only rational response was to accept this thing about myself.  So I carry eyeliner pencils wherever I go and draw in the lines where my hair isn’t.  It’s a way to live.

Recently, I was on an upswing, meaning that my eyelashes had grown in enough that there were no major bald spots, although these upswings never last long, so the eyelashes are always short.  Usually, when this happens, I enjoy it for a few days but I’m always just waiting for it to crash down and I’ll go back to looking like a freak.  I pluck a hair here, a hair there.  I make rules with myself about how many is okay – shades of moderating alcohol.  And then there’s always a night when I pull them all, in an orgy of self loathing, and the cycle starts again.

self destruct

This time, I decided not to.  I decided to see if I could, in fact, just do something else with my hands.  And so I’m on a bit of a journey, my friends.  This is what this post is supposed to be about, although I did get a wee bit distracted up there with all the statistics, sorry about that.

What’s it like, actively trying to resist trich?  It is like white knuckling ALL the time.  On the worst days, I walk down the street, or drive the kids to school, watching for traffic and listening to their stories and wondering what to cook for dinner, and at least half of my brain is thinking about plucking.  I know which lash.  I can feel it on my eyelid.  It’s wrong, it’s out of place.  It’s sticking out, longer than all the others, and if I just pluck that one, the wrong one, it’ll be easier to resist.


This is ridiculous.  It’s compulsive thinking, and there’s nothing rational about it.  Which doesn’t make it even slightly easier.  Most of the time I just feel like, why am I bothering to try this hard, when all it takes is one slip and I’m back to square one.  I’m just delaying the inevitable.

But I used to think like that when I was drinking and trying to moderate, too.  And I kept not drinking, and one day I didn’t miss it any more.  So maybe…?


So I’m still trying, and I’m winning for now.  My eyelashes are longer and thicker than they’ve been in more years than I can remember.  And it feels like it might be getting easier?  I don’t know.  I don’t have a lot of hope, because, see those first few paragraphs above.  The statistics are against me.

But for the first time since I was fourteen and my mother still thought therapy could fix me, I do feel some hope.


17 thoughts on “I pull out my hair. I’m trying to stop.

  1. I think the figures are similar for the success rates of all kinds of addiction behaviours.
    Your acceptance of it is one way forward which me as an alcoholic in recovery get – once I realised I was able to accept the problem dealing with it somehow moved to a new level of ability.
    My purely personal view is that any counselling on addiction that starts around the behaviour associated with the addiction isn’t going to work – the behaviour is merely the manifestation of what is going on inside. And that is deep, difficult and complicated to deal with. Hence the emphasis on dealing with the symptoms on a level that can be comprehended by the person who has a target of patients to help. They aren’t going to spend a year in session after session helping you move through to get to a realisation of “Oh… I’m like that am I? Do I like that or hate that? Is that liking or hating the reason I do the things I do to myself?”

  2. Allie I’m a skin picker – have been since I was a small child and have hideously scarred legs and arms because of it. I’m just over 2 year sober now and it is getting better. I do it less. I think as we get further down the path of recovery there is an increase in self-acceptance that means we let go of trying to control this stuff and in doing so it eases. Just my thoughts on it 🙂

    • Oh that’s really encouraging, that it’s getting better. Since the pulling predates the drinking I’ve always assumed there won’t be a correlating drop in it. But who knows! Thanks for that.

  3. Thank you for your post. I never knew skin picking, hair pulling and eyelash pulling were somehow related to addiction but I do all 3 of them. And I guess I will add nose picking here too. Nothing in excess, all in moderation, but still there are close people who have mentioned it to me during my life in an irritated way. I ‘comb’ my hair with my hands, pick at scars at least 10 times before I can let them rest and my eyelashes itch untill I pluck out the offending hairs. When becoming sober I found that I pluck my eybrows and other senstive parts of my body more often when I feel down and have done something stupid. I wondered the other day if it were a kind of punishment.
    I also bite nails but that stops when I eat a spoon full of sesame seeds in the morning so I guessed it is all a lack of Calcium. Not sure now. Still can be, possibly. I will return to eating a spoon of sesame seed a day. I wonder if the other pulling and picking wear off with the Calcium too.
    I found in addiction that, next to mental and spiritual reasons there is almost always a physical reason to do stuff too. Some things, like a broken leg, can best be addressed through a physical way, others, like depression need all 3 ways. When I find something new in addiction or in my addictive personality I try to find the physical way too. For me that is an ‘easy way in’ into the problems (very addicty outside in solution ;-)) . Thank you for your post.
    xx, Feeling

  4. Wow, thanks Allie for bringing this up. I am a skin picker also and keep my nails super short. I can always tell when they’re getting too long…my legs start to bleed. I hadn’t considered that it might be an addiction, although I have tried to quit and been unsuccessful. I’m going to try using your frame of mind… it’s worth a try and I would love to have longer fingernails 🙂

  5. I’m a picker too. Picked at scabs, in particular, since I was a kid. It’s almost like scabs, dead skin, nails, cuticles, whatever, are just asking for my ministrations. Pimples too. My parents’ only rule about it when I was a kid was to not pick my face, and I’ve followed that rule 99% of the time. It feels good to do it, almost like a mini-accomplishment, and I never feel any shame over it. I also refrain from picking in public, not because I don’t want to, but because I know it’s socially unacceptable.

  6. Allie…

    just sending you some love. I understand the picking/pulling and other behaviors only because I am an alcoholic, and that compulsive behavior did me in, until it didn’t anymore.
    “just don’t have that glass(3 bottles) of wine!”…LOL…
    I obviously have no answers, but am with you, rooting you on. I can only say my alcoholism was rooted in other issues, and perhaps as you keep moving ahead this will subside too.
    But I don’t know…what I do know is that your talking about it is brave and gives space to others to talk about their issues, and that is brilliant. It is that one thing we all know..that our issues, whatever they are, make us uniquely qualified to help others suffering. And sometimes just the helping makes all the difference.

  7. Thanks for writing about this, I have pretty serious dermotillomania, I pick almost constantly at my face. It’s gross and embarrassing, I avoid social situations, stake my worth on it, carry makeup around with me for the wrong reasons, and use it as an excuse for drinking. Funny how otherwise normal and functional addicts can be. Or is it OCD. Whatever it all is, i think there is something to the tenant that the best way to stop a destructive behavior is to stop doing it. Whatever anyone says, there is some will power and white knuckling involved. Every day I wake up not knowing why today would be any different than the prior 20 years, but hoping it will be anyway. I think life is an ongoing exercise in moderation of lots of things, whether you are successful at completely quitting some things or not. Which is frustrating. But its good to know I’m not alone.

  8. Hi Allie. Thanks for this post. I have a bit of compulsive behaviour too, so it’s both awful and encouraging to hear that other people do, too. I don’t know if you follow the blog “Unpickled,” but I remembered Jean there had written about this same thing last year. Here’s a link to the post she wrote just after that, and it has a link to the original post. I send them along just in case you find them helpful.


    As for perky people with degrees offering simplistic solutions to complex problems, I could rant all day on that one, but I’ll just say, Oh man I hear you!

    Anyway, I’m glad you feel you’re starting to get a handle on this thing. Take care. xo

  9. Hi Allie,
    I read your post and thought how we have to get out of our minds more often – running, yoga, swimming, singing – anything to stop that curl back towards inward compulsion.
    I don’t get it at all but I can sympathise and feel your frustration and fear at white knuckling. It’s another thing that can only make you stronger.

  10. I pull my hair as well, and I am also an alcoholic. Until I read your post I never connected the dots! But it seems to make so much sense. I started in my teens an did the hiding and combing / styling to hide it. As it turns out I also had Anorexia as a teen but am well over that thankfully. Yer hair pulling has calmed down over the years and there is just a lingering smallish bald spot. Just FYI those powdery like hair follicle builders work great I think and look very much like your own hair. I still struggle with both alcohol abuse (seeing a therapist and am determined to win over and get sober). Thank you so much for your bravery in sharing this! Just typing it out in public is a big relief


  11. I have Tricho all my life since maybe 10 or 11yrs old. The thing is I am doing it before I really know it and sometimes just start it because I love the sensation of the hair leaving the follicle. Weird I know but that’s it. I am always saying to myself that’s it no more but then a few days later it comes back. I don’t know if there is anything we can do about it. Yes try and do something else with our hands but it’s a mind thing really not a hand thing. Good luck in your efforts to stop I hope it works for you.

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