By Maggie Schaffzin
It’s taken a while for me to accept that my biggest enemy in life may just be my own fingers. I, along with thousands of other people in the world, am engaged in a fierce battle with trichotillomania — a compulsive disorder that results in people pulling out their hair.
Referring to it as a “disorder,” however, feels impersonal, and my experience with trichotillomania feels intensely, aggressively personal. For this reason, I will refer to trichotillomania as my “self-soothing method.”
I used to think my journey with this self-soothing method started with my eyebrows in high school. But as I’ve reflected, I’ve come to realize this desire to “pick” started in my childhood.
I can’t disentangle the memory of a younger me, sitting on the floor of our messy basement, watching TV, from my unshakable fixation on picking skin off my feet. In the same vein, I cannot feel nostalgic about my days competing in gymnastics without feeling an acute sense of pain on my lips, worn down from incessant picking.
While the picking didn’t start in high school, the urge to pick greatly increased at the start of high school. No longer was the picking just a crutch to lean on when I was nervous or overwhelmed. It was all consuming.
My mother bought me a magnifying mirror at the end of middle school, hoping I could use it for applying makeup or cleaning my face. I thanked her, not thinking much of it. Little did I know this mirror would become a weapon of mass destruction for my eyebrows, and, more importantly, my mental health.
With high school comes stress — both academic and social— and one of our tasks as teenagers is to find different, healthy ways to cope with that stress. Some invest themselves in sports, others meditate. I found solace in picking the hairs between my eyebrows, in the “unibrow” region. It started out occasional and subtle, only picking with my fingers when I felt extremely overwhelmed, but soon became an obsession with getting any and all hairs out of that area, using whatever means necessary.
By my sophomore year, I was picking all the time. I would obsess with picking out one hair I felt, zoning out for hours in class trying to use my fingernails to grasp at it. I started keeping my fingernails long for this purpose. But the picking didn’t stop at school. At home, it was even worse, because I had the tools to effectively extract these hairs. Using the mirror and a set of tweezers, I would meticulously pick all the hairs out, even if they had just broken the surface of the skin, leaving my unibrow area red and stinging.
Picking became an outlet for everything in life I couldn’t control but desperately wanted to. Once, after a frustrating day, I made my unibrow area bleed. It was around this time I told my parents I needed professional help.
I’d come to learn that picking was a deep-rooted self-soothing method, one stemming from feeling self-conscious about my unibrow in middle school. I soon felt ashamed that I couldn’t control my picking in public. My friends started noticing and asking me about it. I didn’t know what to tell them. I didn’t even know what to tell myself.
I merely retreated from the world, running into my room, mirror in my lap, tweezers in my hand, trying desperately to rationalize my behavior to myself. Once this one hair is out, I would tell myself, I would stop. I would feel better. But the short-term relief I felt was matched with an urge to keep picking. After all, hair regrows.
What I was most ashamed about was the excitement I got from picking. However short-term the relief was, picking still provided me just that: relief. We’ve been taught that this kind of behavior is “abnormal,” “wrong,” “weak.” And it is unhealthy. But for a long time, and still sometimes in the present, it feels comfortable. This, in turn, incites shame that something is fundamentally wrong with me, as this shouldn't be enjoyable or comfortable in the least. The shame incites more picking. It’s a vicious cycle.
Through therapy and medications, I have found ways to help minimize picking. Guided meditations, Zoloft, a healthy sleep habit and different breathing exercises have dissuaded me at times from reaching for the tweezers.
Trichotillomania taught me that progress isn’t linear, and that kindness towards myself, and my unhealthy coping strategies, is essential. It taught me that I need to reach out for help when things feel overwhelming. It taught me that I can’t control everything, and that looking for things to control will just make life feel more uncontrollable.
As much as I want to go back in time and tell 7th grade Maggie that her unibrow is perfect just the way it is, 9th grade Maggie that feeling overwhelmed and scared is normal, and 10th grade Maggie that there is nothing wrong with her, none of them would have listened. You can tell someone something a million times, but until it comes from them, they won’t be ready. They weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready. I still may not be ready. But now at least I’m listening.
Recently, I decided that having the magnifying mirror in the house was only causing harm. It didn’t matter how many times I, or my parents, hid it — if it was in the house, I would find it. And use it. My therapist and parents had been recommending that I get rid of it for some time now, but I was hesitant.
That mirror was my crutch. As much as it represented a tortured reality I’d created for myself, it was also my safe haven. A place where I knew I could go to feel relief, even for a second. Throwing it away meant getting rid of that safety net. Of having to learn to live with this urge, with feeling uncomfortable. As long as the mirror existed, I wouldn’t put in the work to find new, healthier self-soothing habits. So, the mirror had to go.
My therapist suggested I write the mirror and the tweezers a letter. I even placed the letter in an envelope and addressed it: To a Happier and Healthier Maggie. I threw the mirror and letter in the trash, closing the lid quickly before I changed my mind. I stood there a second, and then began sobbing.
In the midst of a global pandemic, I was standing in the middle of the street sobbing for the mirror I just threw away. But what I realized was that in those tears of sadness, of regret, of fear, were tears of relief — relief that a mirror and tweezers just couldn’t give me.
Maggie Schaffzin is an 11th grader at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, NY. She’s on the Mental Health Committee at her school, advocating for and working towards inclusion and de-stigmatizing mental illness. When she’s not playing softball or debating, she’s teaching gymnastics to kids. She’s also passionate about environmental justice, reproductive rights and education.
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