With my hair pulling worse than it’s been in months—maybe even years—I’ve been reflecting on the role that trichotillomania has in my life, and how this interacts with my writing practice. The past year has represented a pivot in my life, a shift toward embracing what was, for nearly two decades, a secret and shameful part of my identity. I have gone public about my compulsive hair pulling, and I have written stories about my experience. I have chosen this path, both because of my desire to spread awareness about a cause that is too often misunderstood and neglected, but also because it’s the subject I feel I know best. As a writer, I want to write about what I know well, to share the story that ensnares, fascinates, emboldens, and haunts me all at once. So, in essence, the relationship between my hair pulling and my writing, the wooded road connecting these two lives, goes two ways: my writing can be used as a vehicle to heal my hair pulling, and my pulling can bring energy and purpose to my writing. This synergy has provided me with a sense of direction, even in the midst of the self-doubt I have faced thus far in my post-graduation life.
At the same time, I experience pulling episodes that occur daily and span several hours, leaving me with calloused fingers and permanent damage to my scalp. I have often used my writing to dispel the notion that trichotillomania is a self-injury, and I stand by that. But I also look in the mirror and see that I have, despite my intention to soothe, injured myself.
I’m trying to reconcile my daily, suffocating struggle with the fact that I have, in my writing, marked myself as a success story. I have painted myself as someone who has overcome the shame associated with this disorder, who has not been cured, but is healed. If I am truly healing, then why do I find myself so often beaten down by exhaustion and defeat? Is it possible to relapse, to regress, from a state of such resounding acceptance? Or was reaching this precipice just an illusion all along?
I am coming to understand that there are limitations to the written word, that in an effort to create a cohesive, concise, accessible narrative, I have gutted the slimy fish that is my hair pulling life. I can present a shell, the skin and bones of my experience, but have thus far been unable to venture inside the fish, to bring the reader into the squishy innards that make my daily existence so challenging. I have used writing to take the raw components of my experience, which are incomprehensible to most of the population, and mold them into a story that can be easily digested by the public at large. My words capture the clean shell, but this shell can be misleading.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe it makes sense to take baby steps into the unknown world of healing and self-acceptance. And yet, some part of me feels disingenuous—I know that the meat and the source of my shame lie in the guts of that fish, and I have chosen not to go there. In a workshop I attended at the Omega Institute two summers ago, author Cheryl Strayed discussed how, for her, the purpose of memoir writing is to teach us how to be human. I don’t want to only provide scaffolding for my story, imprisoned by my fear of overstepping some boundary, of being perceived by others as the disgusting, worthless person I once believed myself to be. I don’t want to go halfway. I want to be uncomfortable, to grapple on the page the same way I grapple in my daily life. My kernel of humanity, I know, rests in the messiness of my existence, and I want this to be reflected in the words on the page. I want to create a story, but one that dwells in the space of my continued vulnerability. That, I believe, is where the best writing is produced. It is where I am most unguardedly human.
I think part of the solution entails using my writing to venture outside of the immediate sphere of my hair pulling. Ironically, I have become so comfortable with writing about and sharing this issue that I am staring it too directly in the face, fashioning it as the centerpiece of my life when it is merely one component of a larger and more dynamic arrangement. I need to explore the landscape within which it operates. The deeper level of my hair pulling, I believe, rests outside of the immediate scope of the disorder itself.
I once heard it said that rock bottom has ledges, different shelves that serve as false bottoms. I think I came upon a certain ledge in my recent state of opening up about my trichotillomania. But there are other, more profound, shelves to be landed upon. I hope that I will harness my continuing struggle with hair pulling, my sustained vulnerability, to push myself deeper. It’s time to move into the guts of the fish.