The weight of carrying baggage on your shoulders is much greater when you refuse a helping hand. Although that seems obvious, I think we have an easier time understanding it on a theoretical level than a practical one.
I’ve lived my entire life with a compulsive need to pull myself apart - literally. I have a rare condition called trichotillomania. In English terms, I pull my hair out. My main targets include, but are not limited to, eyebrows and eyelashes. When I’m too tired to wish grand wishes, I settle for dreaming I could be obsessed with my scalp instead. At least then I could easily hide my secret with a wig.
Resisting this urge has redirected my fingers to other parts of my body. Pulling out nails, biting my cheeks and lips, picking at my skin. Needless to say, I lived with a lot of shame. I felt like a freak. I was terrified of judgement. I had trouble sleeping for years from the anxiety of not being normal. I had a lot on my mind and it was eating me up from the inside.
The good news is you can get past the feeling of hopelessness. You can win the war against whatever demons you are battling. It just isn’t the kind of victory most people imagine, and it does take time. Years of shame can’t be overcome instantly, but with patience and practice it can be undone. For me, this happened in four stages.
1. Hiding your demon in the closet
I spent a lot of energy on trying to hide my secret. I’m sure I came off as vain because I was always looking at myself in mirrors to make sure my hair was perfectly in place and my makeup wasn’t smudged, revealing the truth.
I avoided going out or making eye contact. I thought if I could make sure no one knew, then my condition wasn’t that bad.
I had a complicated relationship with mirrors - I constantly needed to look in them to see if my secret was still hidden but I felt ashamed when I saw how I'd treated my body
2. Attempting to kill your demon
I feel like this is the stage we get stuck on the longest. I spent most of my life here. I would wake up and tell myself: Today marks day one of being pull free. But most days I’d be picking up the pieces and starting over by mid-afternoon. Sometimes I made it a few days. Weeks, even, when times were great. But I never managed to smother the life out of my demon. It was always there, and I always succumbed to pulling one day or another.
Winning the war, I learned, cannot be done by killing the indestructible.
3. Accepting your demon
The first big breakthrough I had was realizing that trichotillomania was a part of me. That’s not to say I decided to just let my fingers pull until there was nothing left, but it put an end to the cycle of negative emotions. In the past, when I “failed” and pulled again, I would feel guilty and shameful. I would feel like a loser.
Your demon’s biggest power over you is your fear of them. When you can accept that sometimes you’ll have a bad day and sometimes you won’t be the person you want to become, you avoid failing. You don’t need to pick yourself up. You just keep moving forward, knowing that you’ll try again to be better tomorrow.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an increasingly popular form of clinical behaviour analysis that teaches mindfulness skills to help people accept challenges in their lives rather than trying to avoid or control them. Binging on food, for example, helps me avoid pulling, but is unhealthy and leads to its own problems. But accepting my trichotillomania and sitting with the emotions it causes me to feel allows me to move forward more productively.
Accepting that it was a part of me helped me feel more at peace and less ashamed. And when I stopped feeling so guilty for pulling one hair, it became much easier to stop at four instead of 30.
We are who we are. It’s important to strive for self-improvement, but it’s equally important to accept our current selves, demons included.
4. Releasing your demon
The biggest breakthrough, in the end, was being open about my struggles. Once I told people about my condition, I could truly breathe for the first time. I found that friends and family want to support you, and that strangers or new acquaintances make the best listeners. There’s less history and preconceived notions of who you are. You don’t worry so much about changing their thoughts of you or the dynamics. Talking to them helped me eventually talk more openly about it with my close friends.
I stopped worrying about someone noticing I had gaps in my lashes or that my brows might be mostly makeup. I didn’t have to make excuses about why I wasn’t going out. I could just tell them my anxiety or depression was especially bad that day and I needed some “me” time.
The more I talk about it, about the feelings associated with the pulling, the rituals attached to it, about bad days, the more I normalize it. It didn’t feel like a freakish secret that nobody could understand anymore. It just felt like a part of my daily reality, a daily reality which has gotten so much better since accepting and talking about my demons.
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