*List of resources and my Trichotillomania (hair pulling) timeline can be found at the end of this post.
I sit down at my laptop and open a new word document. My hands slowly pull away from the keyboard and I stare at the blinking cursor on the screen in front of me, wondering where to begin telling this story.
Do I begin in my early childhood, before the pulling began?
Or maybe on the day I noticed my first bald spot?
Or do I start on the day my Mom found handfuls of pulled hair discarded in the toilet?
Even now, as I carefully consider where to begin, my hands reach back to the familiar and preferred pulling spot just in front of the crown of my head. I carefully feel each hair between my index finger and thumb, noting the texture and sensitivity on my scalp before selecting the perfect one to pull–the hair that will bring me the greatest surge of momentary release and comfort. I prefer the coarse hairs, the awkward, thicker strands that stand out from the others. I’ll often search through several strands before settling on one that feels just right.
And that’s what I do tonight, as I prepare to write this post on the very topic of my ongoing battle with Trichotilomania (the irresistible urge to pull out hair from one’s scalp, eyebrows, lashes or other areas of the body, despite trying to stop).
I find a hair that feels just right, wrap it in the grip I have perfected over 30 years, and I give it a gentle tug. I know even before looking at it, I’ve pulled it out by the root. Perfect. Getting the root means that this hair will last me at least another 1-2 minutes of satisfaction.
Do I realize how strange this sounds? Do I cringe as I type the bizarre truths of my disorder? Yes, I do. But I share them anyway, because I spent far too many years of my life feeling alone in my pulling, filled with shame surrounding the secret urges to pull out my hair by the root, over and over again. And ultimately, this shame and secrecy has only led to more pulling. It would be decades before I learned that surrendering to the truth of my disorder actually gave me the most control over it.
Perhaps then, this is where I open my story…with those early shame-filled moments when I recognized that my behavior made me different from others and the lies I told myself about what being “different” must have certainly meant about my value–that I was bad, broken, weak, unworthy and I needed to hide these tragic truths of my character behind posturing and performing the role of a kid who had it all together. Yes, I think this feels like the best place to begin.
I had been pulling my hair out secretly for several months. Mostly at school during Mrs. S’s math lessons. Or when I was laying in bed at night waiting for the hurricane of thoughts that swirled in my brain to slow down enough for me to fall asleep.
I was a 9 year old over-thinker who channeled her anxious energy and worries into a facade of perfectionism that could only be maintained by staying in complete control of all facets of my life and emotions.
You see, my young heart had yet to learn life’s cruel (or perhaps generous and intentional) lesson that there is so little we actually have control over. Instead, the more unstable or stressful my home or circumstances began to feel, the more my grip tightened on the need to achieve and perform in order to distract myself and my family from any of the uncertain or scary parts of our reality.
It feels important to note here that I had a very happy childhood, surrounded by endless love and encouragement, my dreams supported, a generous collection of wonderful memories I cherish fondly still today. But, like so many others, my childhood also had its share of dysfunction that inevitably fueled my tendencies toward obsessive compulsions and anxiety. Naturally, when tensions rose in my home, so too did my anxieties and my need to perform perfectly in school and sports.
My fourth grade year was a tumultuous time in our home life. Dynamics in our family were getting tough, confusing and unstable just as my schoolwork was becoming more complicated. I was a self motivated kid who enjoyed school. And up until fourth grade, the work had come easy to me.
But then…long division. And don’t even get me started on fractions. Overnight it seemed I had become the kid getting red marks on her papers, struggling to follow along during lessons, praying with all my might that I wouldn’t get called on to answer a question in front of the class. Before I knew it, anxious, perseverating thoughts were screaming lies and worst case scenarios into my mind all day, drowning out any of my teachers’ attempts to help me grasp the concepts.
These are my earliest memories experiencing intrusive and obsessive thoughts that were out of my control, thoughts that would eventually weave their way into the forefront of daily life.
I don’t think I realized I was pulling out my hair at first. I think it was when Jenny K. loudly proclaimed her disgust at the discovery of a pile of hair collecting between our desks for the whole class to hear that I finally registered what I was doing. I remember looking down at the light brown pile she was fiercely pointing too and realizing, oh my gosh, that’s MY hair. But of course, that wasn’t my reply to Jenny’s harsh declaration. Instead, I vocally shared her disgust with my classmates, young intuition assuring me that this was the only way to avoid social suicide. I kicked the ball of hair out from under my desk with the tip of my pristine white canvas Nike GTS shoes from Mervyn’s (I couldn’t allow a single speck of dirt to blemish them) before anyone made the connection that the hair had come from my head.
After school that day, I went straight to the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I grabbed a handheld mirror from the cluttered bottom drawer and held it behind my head while facing the bathroom mirror so I could see the back of my hair.
I remember exhaling in relief when everything looked perfectly normal. But then, I lifted up the small pony tail of the half-up hairstyle I wore to school every day. There, underneath where the rubber band rested on my head, was exposed bright white scalp over an inch in diameter. I touched it with my finger, surprised at the smoothness of the skin where hair once resided. I took out the rubber band and frantically shifted my hair to cover the bald spot. Then I walked out of the bathroom to start my homework, determined to keep this my personal secret.
I kept this up for months–hiding my bald spots, quickly gathering up any piles of hair that collected on the floor before anyone could notice. I stopped wearing my hair half-up, assuring my Mom that this new side-part hairstyle was my attempt to emulate Kelly Kapowski’s iconic hair wave in Saved By The Bell (and not because I was disguising a bald spot that was now nearly two inches in diameter).
I have tried countless times to recall what triggered my breaking point. The day that I spontaneously locked myself in the bathroom and pulled out hundreds of strands of hair by the handful from both sides of my head in a matter of minutes. This wasn’t typical pulling behavior for someone with trich–not the usual methodical, routine of focusing on the tension release achieved from pulling a single hair at a time. This was uncharacteristic for me, erratic and especially impulsive.
Had something happened at school that day? Maybe.
Were tensions rising high in our home? I can’t remember.
Was it a cry for attention? Perhaps.
Had the pressure of keeping my secret been mounting for too long? Probably.
For reasons I may never recollect, I came home from school one afternoon and broke. I looked from the toilet bowl now filled with my hair and back to my blank reflection in the mirror. Two fresh, very prominent bald spots on each side of my head stared back at me in the mirror. There would be no hiding these with a side part or clever style. Everyone would know. My Mom would know.
I closed the lid to the toilet but didn’t flush. In hindsight, I now see so clearly how desperate I was for someone to notice what I was doing, to intervene, to wrap me up in their arms and assure me that all the shameful thoughts swirling in my 9 year old mind were lies. At about four in the afternoon, I crawled into my bed, pulled the covers over the top of my head and fell into a restless sleep until my mom came home from work.
Looking back, she must have already found the hair in the toilet before she pulled back the covers on my bed. It was certainly odd for me to be sleeping at this time of day and she knew it. I remember it vividly: her slowly pulling back the covers that were over my head, her fingers gently brushing aside sweaty strands of hair that stuck to my forehead after sleeping under the blanket to hide what I’d done, her voice quiet and careful, her efforts to remain calm masking an obvious undercurrent of fear and worry.
I don’t remember getting out of bed. I don’t remember my initial response to the shock on her face. I only remember that shortly after she woke me up, I was standing in her bathroom in front of the mirror while she gently brushed through my hair and started to ask questions, tears in her eyes, a lump in her throat.
Mom: Ashers, is the hair I found in the toilet from your head?
Mom: Did it fall out? Did someone do this to you? Did you do this to yourself?
I can see that any of these answers is equally terrifying, opening doors to more questions and more unknowns.
Me: I did it to myself.
There’s a pause.
Mom: Okay baby, I see.
She’s quiet for a moment again, still slowly brushing.
Mom: Do you know why you did this?
I shake my head. And now I’m fighting back tears. I have yet to cry about my hair pulling. But the heaviness of it all seems to wash over me now, a tidal wave of emotion, both disaster and relief. I can’t hold the tears back any longer. I’m not sure what I’m scared of, but I know the feeling that fills my body is fear. .
Mom: It’s okay baby, it’s okay.
The brush sits on the counter now and she pulls my sobbing body into her arms, her chin resting on my head, whispering words of reassurance. She wipes away my tears and turns on the shower in her room for me. When I get out, she puts my hair into two braids down the sides of my head, her delicate attempt to disguise the damage I have done to myself. Then, with arms again wrapped tightly around me, she falls asleep in my bed and for the first time in a long while, my racing thoughts settle into quiet dreams.
In the weeks and months that followed, my mom discovered that I had a condition called trichotillomania. We learned that trich was more common than we realized but that little was known about how to treat it–and people most certainly were NOT talking about it openly.
I was taken to a handful of therapists–my only recollection today is of the overwhelming discomfort I felt sitting in their stuffy offices being asked to draw pictures of my family and animals while skirting around the real worries that were racing through my brain. We briefly attempted medication and then stopped. I went through seasons where I pulled much less and seasons where my pulling intensified. My teachers and a couple of family members were made aware so they could help monitor, but no one ever brought it up to me (except for my Grandma, who would frantically slap my hand down any time she saw me reaching for my hair). Otherwise, this was my secret to be carried around and hidden for fear of being judged and misunderstood.
Eventually I stopped going to therapy. And eventually we stopped talking about my hair pulling. As I got older, I became clever about pulling my hair in spots that were easier to conceal–in other words, as I got older, I became better at hiding what made me different, what made me weak, what made me imperfect and human.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally told someone about my hair pulling struggle. My anxiety was at an all-time high and I stayed after class one day and opened up to my psychology teacher. I remember being shocked when he didn’t flinch, when a look of pity never once crossed his face. Instead, he gave me the contact for a good therapist in the area and challenged me to check in with him daily about my pulling. I never saw the therapist, but I accepted his challenge. Every single school day, for the remainder of the year, he went out of his way to find me on campus and greet me with an encouraging smile and a “thumbs up or down”–thumbs up meaning I was doing well at not pulling that day, thumbs down meaning it was a tougher day. His simple challenge, and my fear of letting down a mentor that I respected and appreciated led to a three year stretch of not a single hair pulled. This would be the one and only hair pulling remission in my life.
My adult years have been marked by seasons of minimal pulling and periods of increased pulling. Similar to my teenage years, I became proficient at hiding my thinning patches and creating the illusion of fuller hair with extensions.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, our 3 year old daughter, Stevie, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor (DIPG: diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma). She was given a 0% chance of survival. Only 6 weeks from her diagnosis, our baby girl passed away in my arms 12 days after her 3rd birthday. Overnight, my world was turned upside down, every waking moment spent treading water in a never ending sea of grief and heartbreak. Now, in addition to pulling more frequently, my hair also started to fall out in clumps–apparently a common side effect of trauma and intense grief. I could no longer hide my thinning hair and increasing bald patches. In an effort to take back control and empower myself, I decided to shave my head, esentially wearing my brokenness like a badge of honor for the world to see. No more hiding. I decided to heal out loud if it meant another soul may find comfort and solidarity in my experience.
The me of today, the version of myself who has endured and survived and who stands here today to tell a tale of resilience and hope wants so desperately to go back in time and scoop up that over-anxious little girl and her overwhelmed, heartbroken mama into my arms and promise them that everything is going to work out. I want to assure them both that this perceived weakness will ultimately become one of their greatest vessels for growth, humility, grace and connection (once they tell the shame to take a hike).
I want the me of today to go back and help shoulder the weight that my Mom carried during this time, now knowing all too well of the pressure that buckles a mama-heart when she feels helpless in easing her child’s burdens. I want to go back to the day that little-girl-Ashley looked herself in the mirror, eyes filled with shame while staring at her two new bald spots, and I want to tell her that one day, after surviving ultimate heartbreak, she’ll pick up her husband’s razor and shave off all the hair off her head with confidence and even joy, assured by her surrender to the lessons she’s meant to learn from this challenge. I want to thank her for her courage and resilience, because without it, the me of today wouldn’t have had the strength to press forward through the unforeseen season of heartbreak and loss that life sent my way.
Vulnerability born from shared-adversity has the power to connect us–and this challenge of mine, that so many others live with as well, has gifted me this very opportunity of soul-filled connection. It has helped remind me of the beauty and purpose that can be birthed from our brokenness.
My Trichotillomania Timeline:
I Have A Secret: first blog post about trich in 2010
Additional Blog Posts with Hair Updates
Hair Pulling Instagram Stories
Candid Video Sharing About My Trich
I Had A Secret IG Post
My Hair Pulling Video Update
I Shaved My Head, A Video
Shaved Head Update
Trichotillomania Resource List:
Clinical Description and Information
TLC Foundation: Support for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors
Guide for Parents of Pickers and Pullers
Tips for Parents of Pickers and Pullers
OCD Treatment Center in Los Angeles