No amount of anxiety can change the future. No amount of regret can change the past. – Karen Salmansohn
To anyone who reads my blog or knows me well, the fact I suffer from anxiety will not come as a shock at all. To those who’ve known me a long time, you’re probably aware that it started becoming noticeable when I was around eight years old. However, to some people who know me only in passing perhaps, they probably see someone with a constant smile on her face. Yeah, that’s not genuine. It puts people at ease though and I like to hide behind a mask.
Rewind to primary school. I remember a science lesson with Miss Harrison. Aged eight, we were asked to pull out a strand of hair and look at the root. I pulled out a strand of hair, but no root. I repeated the activity several times before I finally spotted a hair with the root attached. I liked the feeling of pulling out my hair. While some felt this behaviour was attention-seeking, it was far from it: soothing, calming and distracting.
Secretly, I began pulling out huge clumps of hair. I tugged on my eyelashes and plucked my eyebrows with my fingers. Of course, it wasn’t a secret for long. My parents were worried. Mum even blamed it on school for being boring. According to her, the headmaster was less than impressed when she said that.
An appointment at the doctors surgery was made shortly after they discovered hair strewn on the bathroom floor and a bald patch rapidly appearing at the front of the head. I just couldn’t stop. I liked the sensation and it made me feel good. The doctor referred me for counselling. It meant I missed some of school, but I didn’t mind. A packet of wotsits and a ride in this lady’s car to the sessions where I just drew pictures and chatted were fun to an eight year old.
It wasn’t just my hair I was pulling out my now. I was ripping off bits of my scalp too. Now I know the terms “trichotillomania” and “dermatillomania” describe my conditions.
The counselling as a child worked for a long while. I didn’t feel the need to pull and pick for a long time. Becoming a teacher and getting married were both major stresses in my life; they acted as catalysts for my anxiety and soon enough the hair pulling and skin picking resumed. I was better at disguising it aged 23 though and pulled hair in smaller clumps and picked from the back of my head.
I sought help from doctors again. I was given some cream to rub in. Didn’t work. I was offered CBT. Didn’t work. Nothing worked except sheer willpower. These conditions are closely associated with OCD and it is almost impossible to stop.
I’m now significantly older than I was when I started pulling and picking again. During my illness, I felt absolutely no desire to (good job as I had no hair left on my body!). Unfortunately, a couple of years after, my anxiety deteriorated again. I don’t cope well with unexpected change and I like to know my plans well in advance. Things being sprung on me at the last minute really unsettle me.
I’ve had ups and downs with my anxiety throughout my life. I’m no expert, but I’m always willing to share my story. I still pick my scalp now, though hair pulling is very rare. My main motivation for stopping is my children. It’s so hard for people to understand why I want to self-harm (picking bits of my skin is exactly that) as it is without my children witnessing it and thinking it is a normal thing to do when you’re feeling anxious.
I have tried many things to settle the urge to pull and pick. It does depend on the day though as to whether or not these things work.
Things that can help:
- Distraction: finding other things to do with my hands can work sometimes. I paint my nails sometimes as it means I can’t use them for a while! Knitting and sewing are supposed to work well too. Unfortunately, I find that sometimes the pulling or picking is subconscious. I might not even realise I have done it unless I discover hair in my fist or blood on my finger tips. Adult coloring pages are recommended as a great distraction activity, too.
- Support: having a good support network is important. Trichotillomania and dermatillomania are compulsions and are hard to stop. Knowing that you can talk to friends or family members without judgment is so important. Do also consider if there is an online group you can join for support; these can be invaluable. It is important to be careful though as seeing photos of other people picking their skin or pulling their hair can act as adverts in a way, encouraging you to act in a similar manner.
- Prevention: keeping your nails short can help somewhat. It’s much harder to get a grip on little bits of skin if your nails are short. The same goes for longer nails that are harder to use; I have had acrylics in the past and struggled to write, which in turn meant it was difficult for me to use my fingertips for any compulsion I felt at the time.
- Writing: sharing your feelings can be amazing therapy (and free!). Whether you write a journal just for you or a blog for the world to read (like mine… although I’m not sure we’ve made it out of East Anglia yet!), putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper can make you feel good. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy the process could try vlogging instead.
- Preparation: knowing that I have suffered with anxiety most of my life, I need to be better prepared. Having things on standby for when things deteriorate is crucial. A ready-to-grab calm box or bag containing some essentials is a great idea.