Hair Pulling, A Love Story.
Once upon a time over a half century ago in a land called Toledo there lived an eight-year-old, small, shy, pastey white little girl named Laurie Sue with teeth too big for her face, blue eyes, long eyelashes and thick blonde hair she wore mostly in a pony tail. She lived in a neighborhood with houses side by side and lots of children who all walked together to and from school each day and played together in the afternoon.
Laurie Sue played too but she was most comfortable with her parents and books. She strived to please - parents, teachers and her principal, Mr. Mahoney, and worked hard to be a good student. Her biggest fear was that she would get in trouble and have to stay after school to clean the blackboards. That fear was never realized.
Laurie Sue loved it when she was chosen to play the harpsichord for the daily America the Beautiful song or when the teacher would play the piano and they would sing her favorite song, The Happy Wanderer. She prided herself on raising her hand as fast as she could when she knew the right answer.
In her fourth grade year things changed at Laurie Sue's school. As hard as she tried, there was no pleasing her teacher, Mrs. Bowman. During hard math lessons, Mrs. Bowman would lose her temper quickly and yell and sometimes even hit Laurie Sue's hand with a ruler when she couldn't explain how she had solved a story problem. It was terrifying for a this sensitive child who was afraid of most things. She had ever been struck by an adult.
Not long into the school year, Miss Bowman began making everyone in her class put their heads on their desks in the morning after the pledge of allegiance and forbade them to lift them or speak until it was time for lunch at 11:30. Even going to the bathroom stopped being permitted. One day, all heads down, Laurie Sue heard her poor friend Angela weep. When she dared to peek out of the corner of her eye, Laurie Sue could see Angela's wavy red curls bobbing along with her quiet sobs and pee that was pooling around her desk chair.
That was the day Laurie Sue quietly pulled her first hair. Intrigued by the follicle on the end, she tucked it in the pocket of her girl scout uniform to show to her Mom after school. That particular school day was long due to a girl scout meeting at the home one of the scouts. The scout's Mom showed them how to prepare a meal. When she slammed the head of an iceberg lettuce on the counter and ripped out the core to break it into pieces for the salad; everyone paid attention.
The hair had been forgotten until Laurie Sue got home. When she remembered, she reached in her pocket to show the amazing discovery to her Mom. The hair was gone. More than a little disappointed, Laurie Sue pulled another. Her Mom was not impressed, even by the follicle. Undeterred, Laurie Sue went upstairs to her bedroom, got her microscope out and studied it.
At that age her hair was so thick that when wet, it would give her a headache from the weight. So it was quite some time before Laurie Sue's parents discovered she had been pulling her hair out, one by one. In secret she would spend hours pulling in front of the bathroom mirror, washing the hair down the sink. Lying in bed each night she would worry, ruminate about the day, the things she wished she had the courage to say or do, and soothe herself by pulling one hair at a time.
It took a couple of years before the results of the pulling became hard to hide.
By the time Laurie got to the eight grade, her hair was badly damaged from the pulling and regrowth. The long beautiful blonde hair had become a wiry mess. She could still hide her bald spots, mostly, by putting her hair in a ponytail or in the style of the time, braiding her hair into tiny braids went wet and brushing it out into a type of long, bushy afro when it dried. The state of her hair was a source of true shame and embarrassment. The thought of telling anyone or admitting that she pulled her hair was unthinkable. Laurie was sure she was the only thirteen year going bald. She felt as voiceless, lonely and scared as she had when she was in the fourth grade.
In silence she feared that, she too, was as crazy as her teacher who had finally been taken out of the classroom. Later, she had learned that Miss Bowman had what they referred to at that time as "a nervous breakdown".
You might wonder why Laurie didn't speak up and tell her parents about her teacher. She didn't say anything because she thought it was her fault. At that time, teachers were revered. If there was a problem in the classroom, teachers were the last to blame.
Laurie continued to suffer in silence. One major reason is that there was family history of mental illness. In those dark days of mental health care, Laurie's grandmother, who lived on welfare, was often admitted to the state mental hospital for depressive episodes. Family members were ashamed of her and rarely spoke about it. Laurie feared that one day, she too, would be the ultimate disappointment, have that quintessential "nervous breakdown" and end up in the hospital with her grandmother.
But that's not what happened.
Little Laurie Sue finally found her voice . . .
"I PULL OUT MY HAIR."
Saying the words out loud "I pull out my hair." in a therapist's office was equally humiliating and empowering. I was scared, but ready to deal with the shame. By then I was in my late twenties and that dreaded breakdown had not happened. I continued to struggle with pulling , but miraculously there was still hair. Though, it was getting tougher and tougher to hide the bald spots. Hairspray and bobby pins were my friends.
After researching therapy options I found a cognitive behavior therapist. Due to my family background, I didn't want to go to someone who would make me dredge up all of the family skeletons. My therapist gave instructions to me: "Keep an envelope with your pulled hair and show it upon each return." Ugh. It didn't do anything except make me feel more shameful. But it was a start of awareness.
One of the many gifts of going to therapy was finding out that I was not alone. Through therapy I found a national organization called the TLC foundation which is dedicated to helping those with body-focused repetitive behaviors. At one of their conferences I met young children who were completely bald. It was heartbreaking. I found out that people with my condition can be funny, creative and not at all crazy. Some with trichotillomania, like me, had experienced trauma that coincided with the beginning of their pulling. Some did not. I came to understand that pulling was not unlike biting your nails, a left over grooming instinct from our ancestors. Most powerful was gaining the realization that I was not alone. I was one of countless people suffering in silence. It was at that conference where I met a woman who told me about hair pieces that could be specialized to cover bald spots and match the existing hair. She was wearing one and I couldn't tell it.
A NEW CHAPTER BEGAN.
When I got home, I started looking for businesses that specialized in hair pieces for women, found one and got fitted for my unique piece. At that time it was a solution that worked for me. My new thick and full hair made me feel normal and socially relaxed. No more furtive glances from people trying to figure out if I was going bald. An added bonus was that the hair piece, which was glued onto the sparse part of my scalp, covered the areas where I pulled the most and decreased my urge to pull. The physical pain from constantly lifting my arm to pull disappeared.
Finally, the obsession about my condition began to take an insignificant place on my shelf of worries. Instead of waking up each morning, sickened from the daily morning pile of hair, shame and disgust, I began to find more joy and self-optimism. This solution had incaluable costs in beauty shop seat time and was often more money than I could afford. However, for more than ten years, the benefits far outweighed the costs
It wasn't until my early fifties when I began to seriously reconsider my hair condition. By then I had completed over fifteen years of yoga and mindfulness training and practices thanks to the therapist I had found when I discovered my voice. He may not have fully cured my impulse to pull, but he gave so much more to me. The yoga and mindfulness that have come to define my life's purpose was his gift. He was a long time yoga practitioner and one of the first doctors in Charlotte to offer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques to his clients. I am forever grateful. This work has helped me to establish a more compassionate self-understanding and manage sometimes out-of-control anxiety and depression.
I began to envision a new version of myself "at a certain future age", not attaching a number to it - more an arrival at a new state of mind. This version was older, wiser and indifferent to the vanities of her culture. In my journal I started doodling pictures of a courageous woman standing in goddess pose with wavy, wiry hair standing on end, a huge smile on her face and a big heart. It was a daring imagined version of me with no head cover - wig, or hairpiece. More and more it felt inauthentic to wear a hair piece. It did not reflect how I felt inside.
Going further into the future, I knew I didn't want my "reveal" to be at the time of my death when they pulled a wig off my head. If I couldn't eventually accept my appearance without hiding under a wig, I would feel like I had lived an unresolved life. This was more than the aesthetics; it was about who I had become - a Warrior. Many battles have been fought and won in my lifetime. Why was I letting this one get the best of me?
I'm the one who talks about shining brightly and boldly. How could I let something as trivial as the state of my hair hold me back? It rates so low in importance when compared to other struggles! What about those who have serious conditions? What about people who are persecuted due to skin color, gender or sexual orientation? Those are real struggles.
Plus, I had worked through so many other life battles; suicides and addiction in my family, cancer battles and more. But this battle was different. It was personal. How I longed to embolden others, by conquering this personal demon and telling my truth. Yet, the time never seemed to be right. The thought remained in the corner of my dream pocket.
If I had to narrow down the three biggest fears that stood in my way: they were shame, fear of failure, and rejection. My hair just won't grow in areas where I have repeatedly pulled. Going without any head cover would mean fielding questions of chemotherapy, and possibly even the dreaded whispered words, "She must be crazy!".
Recently, the time finally came. It was not an epiphany moment of self-love where I threw off my wig and in a Forrest-Gump-like moment stopped running from myself. This is real life and that's not how it happens. Change usually comes gradually for most human beings and is accelerated when maintaining the existing behavior has a significant negative effect on their quality of life.
It happened on one hot summer day, not too long ago, when I spent five glorious uninterrupted hours doing what I love best; digging and planting in my garden. Over the day, my glued on hair piece baked my head. By the time I finished, I felt like I was going to pass out. Even after long cool shower, I still felt hot. That was it. Out of desperation, I stood facing the bathroom mirror and began slowly pulling off my hair piece.
A big uncontrolled sigh came out with the final release of the sticky glue. My half-bald head stared at me in the mirror. I stared back. Was this it?
Not for long. The excuses flowed . . .
"Ok, the freedom feels good, maybe I'll keep my wig off for awhile.
"I'll start wearing a head wrap around the house and when teaching."
"When I go out to socialize or conduct business, I'll bobby pin on a wig."
At that point, due to my embarrassment, I wouldn't even go around my own house without a cover on my head.
My secret hope was that I would magically stop pulling my hair and the areas where it had never grown back would surpise me. Then I could go out without cover.
In that hope, as watchful and careful as I am when I plant new seeds, I started tending the garden of my hair. Ever so mindful, I tried to keep my hands away from my head, especially from the top, where the scalp was most damaged. I used fertilizer, a special shampoo that is supposed to encourage growth. Carefully I massaged the ground, finally able to experience the nourishment of touch.
Each day I would examine the garden of my head and began charting it by taking pictures of the worst area. A few sprouts started to emerge where I had been completely bald. My excitement grew along with the growth. However, as the days grew with my hair, the newness wore off and old patterns emerged.
Like a pest that begins nibbling on the edges of the garden I began mindlessly pulling far around the edges of my head. First just a few here and there, but leaving nothing noticable. I took a trip to Boston to see my son and encouraged by his support I even took a daring step went out one night in Boston without any head cover. I took a picture and posted it on social media.
It was just as if a switch flipped - ok, I'm not perfect but, "No more shame". Let's not worry anymore.
Yet, for some reason, as soon as I took that picture, I began having bad bouts of pulling. I tried to ignore the consequences because I was still feeling good about the success of having revealed my struggle on social media, however impersonal. It wasn't long though when one morning I thoroughly checked my head in the mirror and found bald spots were there had been none before. I felt sad and disgusted with myself.
It's one thing to feel free in the admittance of my condition, but I wanted more. Why was I still pulling?
Is this still a battle? Am I back to the beginning?
YES, BUT . . .
I am back to a new beginning. I sat down and started to write this. It's taken four months to finish it. I'm not going to continue to beat myself up. I'm not that anxious and scared little Laurie Sue. My hands are up, feet firmly planted, a big smile is on my face and my heart is open wide. I'm standing in position of courage, self-compassion and resilience. Something has broken open in me and I am changed. The shame, fear of failure and rejection will no longer imprison me.
Since the day I pulled off my hairpiece, gradually I began personally admitting to people that I had been wearing a wig and would no longer. It started first with family, then close friends, then expanded to long-time students and other people who matter. Those who don't matter don't need an explanation. Yes, I still struggle with the urge to pull, but that does not mean I have failed when at the same time I have compassion and understanding.
I'm still working on the personal appearance part. But I have had help.
All the fear I had imagined has been met by a steel-like reinforcement of love and encouragement from my community. Some small fears have been realized. On a day when I wore a thinner headband that exposed most of my head I finally got the dreaded question about chemotherapy. It came with an arm around my shoulder and quiet concern. Maybe there have been a few "Is she crazy?" comments, but they haven't been vocalized.
My long time practice of loving kindness meditation is keeping me from going to that place of self loathing and shame. Sure, I get extremely disappointed in myself, but I keep choosing to begin again.
This new beginning is the ending of my story. I'm in hard won position of strength, knowing, resilience and most of all I am finally in LOVE.
I HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH LAURIE.
I willl nurture her and take care of her and do my best to live each precious day happily ever after.
Fifty years of shame and fear. It's done my friends. I'm free. To all of you who have supported me on this journey, I love you more than I can possibly express in words.
May you find courage for yourself in my words. That is my greatest hope.