Tweezers underneath my pillow: grappling with trichotillomania

A young person wearing white lies on the floor. They are wearing earphones. There is a pair of tweezers, a notebook and a pencil next to them.

This pain is easy to understand — one of the few things that makes sense about my life.

Three years ago, while I was out shopping with my mom at a small shop that sells cosmetics in Jabalpur, I felt the need to buy tweezers. I told my mom I was going to buy them so I wouldn’t have to go to the parlour all that often to get my eyebrows done, and she agreed. We brought the tweezers home, along with red lipstick, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, and body lotion. And thus, my journey with trichotillomania began.

Trichotillomania, for the uninitiated, is a hair-pulling disorder. It is a mental health condition that, as the Mayo Clinic website will tell you, involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body, even if you try to stop. And believe you me, I have tried to stop.

The first day I used the tweezers, I didn’t want to go near my eyebrows. I was scared of hurting my sensitive skin, and more importantly, destroying the one thing I liked about my face, the arc of my eyebrows. So I decided to practice on my chin hair.

When I plucked my first hair I felt an immediate rush of relief, so much so that I carefully placed it in front of me and gazed at my accomplishment. After that, there was no stopping. I kept going for more hair till I managed to pluck it all out. I started at around 9 pm that night, and I finished around 4 am. It gave me a high.

So I kept repeating it, kept attacking my face, enjoying the pain, the feeling of having not one hair on my chin, the kind of emptiness I had always longed for. But if you keep attacking yourself for long, you are going to end up hurt. The scarring on my chin bears witness to the self-harm I have been ceaselessly inflicting on myself. Like I said, I can’t stop.

As I write this essay, a pair of tweezers with a beautiful floral design sits right next to my laptop. There is another one in my jewellery pouch. Another on my study table, and another at a friend’s place. And another at another friend’s place.

I write a few lines, and then I pick up the tweezers and poke my skin, which is now dark, patchy and hideous to me. More hideous than my chin hair seemed to me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying your body hair isn’t beautiful. I am saying that I can’t find my body hair beautiful. And I can’t find my body without hair beautiful either. No matter what I do, I cannot win.

The past few years of my life have been devastatingly stressful. I have suffered through the loss of love and the loss of loved ones. I have moved cities. I have changed hairstyles. I have made new friends, and parted ways with some old ones. I have been on antidepressants, and then off them, and then on them again. I have changed therapists thrice. I have stopped going to therapy. I have expressed the desire to go back to it. I have wanted to get a stable job, and I have consciously stayed away from one for the fear of interacting with people.

I have been social and I have been aloof, isolated, lonely, and alone, most days, at the very same time, in the very same order.

Description: The figure of a woman can be seen wandering dark woods. Credit: Thomas Shahan via Flickr, CC by 2.0.

When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I informed my therapist about my habit of pulling out my chin hair. I distinctly remember that moment. She mimed my actions for me, she asked me if this is what I do, spelt out the disorder for me, but we never returned to the subject. I do not know why.

Perhaps she intended on taking it up at a later stage, which never happened, because she left the country and I wasn’t comfortable with therapy sessions on Skype, or perhaps she didn’t think it was as serious as my depression, and occasional thoughts of further self-harm. She was the last therapist I saw. I moved out of Delhi and started holing up in my hometown where therapy continues to be a bigger taboo than menstruation. And so my ‘problem’ remains unaddressed and grows bigger each day.

I live a chaotic life under the façade of order. I wake up at the same time, and go to bed at the same time. I eat my meals in a regimented fashion, measuring time and quantity. I work out with a certain set of songs so I know how much time I am spending on exercise. I am scared of breaking my routine, so I don’t break my routine. All this order comes because of my need for safety, which I don’t get anyway.

Whenever I feel extremely stressed out, whenever I experience an anxiety attack — and there are days when I get as many as ten anxiety attacks — I pluck my chin hair. If I scar at a particular place, I keep hitting that spot more and more, because that pain is less scary. It is easy to understand — one of the few things that makes sense about my life.

My family and my close friends have tried to make me quit. They have snatched away my tweezers, they’ve hid them in places they thought I wouldn’t find, they’ve yelled at me, they’ve talked to me calmly. There have been days when I have given them my tweezers and asked them to throw them away, but after spending restless hours without my enemy, I have gone looking for them in the unlikeliest of corners, or gone to the market and brought home new ones.

I sleep with my tweezers underneath my pillow, so that if I wake up after a nightmare, or if I get an anxiety attack while sleeping, which happens every other day, I have something to comfort me. If a friend sees me doing this and yells at me, I panic.

I don’t like being looked at, but I also feel like a freak show. How could anyone not look at me? I know I am destroying my skin. I am scared of my mom looking at me as I pluck hair after hair, but I am not very good at hiding. When she looks away, I pluck one hair. When she looks at me, I hide the tweezers. But she notices it, and tells me I am my own enemy. I know I am.

There are days when I am bored out of my mind, and scared of taking up a productive activity. I just want to watch a movie, but I am so indecisive that I can’t pick one. So I scroll through Netflix over and over again, trying to find a film or a TV show that might comfort me. I surf through YouTube trying to find a video that might distract me for a while. But my search ends up being just that — a search without any conclusive findings. I go to bed exhausted from all the searching. I wake up the next morning, feel the overnight growth of hair on my chin, and life goes on, one pulled hair at a time.

Manjiri Indurkar is a poet-writer from a small Indian town called Jabalpur. She is one of the founders and editors of the literary magazine Antiserious.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal