Strands of Gold

When I was a boy, I had long blonde hair. I'm talking the kind of blonde you would get if you took strands of gold and attached them to a person's head. I loved my hair. I loved when I swam, it would reach out in all directions like an octopus. I loved how it would give me a California sun-kissed look, even before I lived in California. I loved how when people found out I was Jewish, they would look at me and say, "You're Jewish? You don't look Jewish. I mean, I've never met a blonde Jew before. I could have sworn you were a Presbyterian or something!" I loved how having those long thin locks of sunshine made you feel different, special, unique.

One day a woman was talking to my mother about velcro for leather kippahs. For those who are unfamiliar, a kippah is a Jewish head covering. Most American conservative and reform Jews only wear them in synagogue, but they serve as a sign of respect to G-d. Some of them are made of leather and, generally, people keep leather kippahs on their heads with bobbypins. However, bobbypins can hurt your scalp, so some industrious Jewish person somewhere came up with the idea that if you put strips of straight velcro in a kippah, it will stick to your hair. So, back to the point. This woman ran her fingers through my hair and said to my mother, "I don't see how this velcro can work for people. I mean, feel your son's hair. It's just so thin, I don't see how it would keep the kippah on."

Strangely, this little conversation started me running my own fingers through my hair, enjoying the texture of my hair as I would move it from my face or move pieces from left to right. It became habit. When I was bored or thinking or reading or just not doing anything with my hands, my fingers would move to my head, to run through my hair.

Then, one day, I noticed something strange in the texture in the back of my head. One hair felt different from the others. I felt it between my index and middle finger, then between my index finger and thumb. It was different. It just didn't match the rest for some odd reason. There were bends in this strand of hair. I said to myself that I couldn't have this strand of hair on my head, this deviation from the uniform beauty of my thin golden locks. So, I gripped the strand with my index finder and thumb and there was a little "pop" as the hair dislodged from the follicle.

I took the hair and looked at it. I was different alright. It was twisted in a strange spiral that I had never seen in any of my hairs before. What could have caused this strange little hair to grow in my thin, straight hair? Then I held the strand with one hand and ran my fingers over it with the other, stroking it, feeling the bends and curves that I had never noticed before.

Perhaps there are more! Perhaps there are other similar strands hiding in my otherwise straight locks. Perhaps there are other fugitive hairs hiding out, seeking sanctuary in the surrounding straight hairs on my head. So, I felt for them, only half-heartedly, but I felt a whole different type of texture in my hair. Suddenly, my hair was individual strands, some were very thick, some exceedingly thin. And at some point, those hairs became too thick or too thin. They too could be abnormal hairs hiding among my otherwise perfect locks.

So I began to pull each one that I found. There were not very many outlaw strands, so I didn't pull too many hairs. Until college. There, pulling strands of hair became a way to cope with stress. When I was concentrating, the little "pop" and the feeling of running a hair through my fingers or over my lips became a distraction, a little break for my brain when it needed to avoid focusing. So, I would pull when I was reading, studying, or taking exams. Just one strand at a time. And just from the crown of my head. With such long hair, no one would ever know.

But one hair at a time, over time, is a lot more than one hair.

One day, I was sitting on my couch, running my fingers through my hair and one of my friends walked up behind me and said, "So, getting a bald spot, huh?" My eyes opened wide and, for one of the few occasions, I was speechless.

I had been outed. This little habit that I used to control my stress was more than a little habit, it was a problem. A real problem. A problem that confused me for someone who was actually losing their hair. But I couldn't tell anyone, because I was the only person that did this and I was deathly afraid. Afraid that this hair pulling thing I did meant that I had a serious mental disorder or made me crazy or something.

Soon thereafter, I was fipping through channels, and caught one of those sensationalist want-to-be-dateline-type television shows. Inside Inquirer or National Instigator or some other ridiculous name. Then the return promo made my heart stop:

"After our commercial, you'll hear about a woman who has a disorder that makes her pull out her own hair!"

Once the great-I'm-a-freak-feeling that initially came over me subsided, I was actually relieved. In the next segment, not only did I discover that I was not the only person with this problem, but I didn't even have it that bad. There are people who pull out all their hair, not just a little, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle. This little bald spot I had was nothing.

The disorder, I learned, is related to obsessive compulsive disorder. It's called trichotillomania or trich for short. That translates into the compulsive desire to pull out your own hair.

Now that I had a name for this thing that I do, I hit the internet. In true internet fashion, if you use a left nostril inhaler that plays "Swanne River," but only in February, there's an internet site and group out there that does the same thing. So on the internet I found a whole community of people who were battling the same problem. Some more severe than others, but everyone supportive. There were people who suggested fish oil pills, people who talked about how many days they were "pf" or "pull free," people who made me feel that I was not alone. And there were people who understood the horrible feeling of going to the barber and having that uncomfortable moment of silence as the barber looks at your hair, wondering why you have damage to portions of your scalp or small thinning sections of hair. When the barber finally says, "Well, looks like you've got an interesting spot back here," you might as well be on a shrink's couch because you're going to have a long, uncomfortable conversation about pulling.

What people who don't pull don't understand is that pulling is more than texture, more than thickness, more than running your fingers over that little piece of hair follicle after you've pulled it. When you find a hair that you would pull, you want to pull, you need to pull. The desire is almost insatiable. And having someone tell you, "Leave your hair alone" doesn't eliminate the desire, it just pisses you off, even though you know that they are saying it for your own good. Because for that short moment after you pull just the right hair, you get a little release, a little break. You are fulfilled because all is right for just that moment.

Over time, I began to tell friends about it. And I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions. Sure, there was the group of people that looked at me like I had spent my life on another planet and could only muster up the words, "Uh, that's pretty fucked up." But there were other people that said, "Oh my goodness, there was a girl in my sorority that did the same thing, but with her eyelashes" or "I'm also compulsive, but about earwax" or so many other statements that made me realize that there are so many normal people out there who are fighting similar problems on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago, a woman I had come to know quite well confided in me that her daughter was a "cutter." For those who are unfamiliar with cutting, it's when a person literally takes a knife or other sharp instrument and mutilates themself. Usually cutters pick a part of their body that can be easily disguised, such as the upper thighs or upper arm. This woman told me that she once asked her daughter, "Why do you do that?" and her daughter replied, "Because for that moment that I cut, I don't feel any pain." I immediately replied, "I understand how she feels." She asked why and I began telling her about my decade-long battle with trich.

I think years ago, before I started pulling, I would have looked at what this woman's daughter did as "abnormal" to say the least or "freakish" to be accurate. But now, while I don't have the desire to do the same thing, I certainly can understand it. If that little "pop" from releasing a hair from its follicle can have that relaxing effect on me, cutting oneself must be a massive release for excruciating pain. And from what I learned of this girl, whohad suffered through pain that I could not even imagine, a childhood of physical and emotional abuse from her other parent, the ability to control any pain for her must have been incredibly empowering. So while I worry for this girl's well-being, I don't see her in the wow-what-a-freak way that many people probably do. I just see her as someone like me, who's struggling to carry their baggage, and, in her case, taking desperate measures to do so.

I think the woman was comforted by what I told her. I mean, don't get me wrong, cutting needs to be taken care of and if you do it please get professional help, but at the same time, we all have our issues, our little coping mechanisms. Some are destructive, some are constructive, but at the end of the day, they make us who we are. And sometimes our struggles to beat the destructive mechanisms are just as important as the stress that brings them out.

After dealing with it for more than ten years, I generally have my pulling under control, although I think it will follow me for the rest of my life. I constantly have the reminder of the changed direction of hair growth that only comes with a scared scalp. And, in moments of exceptional stress, I have bouts of hair-pulling that are incredibly difficult to control. But other than that, I cut my hair shorter than I did before and I visit the barber more often than I did years ago. And there's still a moment at the beginning of each one of those visits that I sit uncomfortably in the chair, thinking "I hope he doesn't notice."

Now that my hair has changed to more of a brownish hue, there are times I miss my golden boyhood locks. But I think the color has changed for a reason: I've outgrown the days of gold.

To learn more about trichotillomania, go here.

If you are struggling with cutting, please get help and go here.

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