Wednesday, January 25

my missing hair

I have to turn back the clock by 14 years to begin the story of my missing hair. I’m seven, and in most ways I am exactly like every other 7 year old girl. I play the piano (poorly), I take ballet lessons, I hate maths and mushrooms and prefer dolls and story writing. The only odd thing about me is that I like to sit on the brick wall outside our house, picking at the moss. And I don’t know this is odd, or what it will lead to. I could stay there for an hour, just pulling out those hair-like growths and letting my thoughts wander over the day, over life.
I am terribly embarrassed and distressed when my family says to me at meal times, “Your eye brows are looking moth eaten Dee...have you been pulling them out?” I furiously deny the accusation. Someone suggests that I am using tweezers, copying my mum. Which isn’t at all true. I’ve never touched tweezers, and I’m not sure why I’m missing so many eyebrows... it’s not a conscious decision to remove them, certainly not an attempt to thin the crop.
One morning on camp, my little friend comes up to me. “Oh Danielle! You’re missing eye lashes! How did that happen?!” I freeze inside. I feign surprise. I say that I didn’t know I was missing them, and that they must have fallen out in my sleep. I had been lying in bed the night before, pulling out lash after lash for no reason other than that I felt like doing it.
I only knew two things about my missing hair at this stage:
  1.  I do something which other people don’t do.
  2. This thing shocks people, so I must cover it up.
The only thing which concerned me, was how appalled people were when they observed missing hair. Their reactions seemed to accuse me of doing something naughty which puzzled me. To me it felt like sucking my thumb, twirling my hair – something mindless and comforting. And mostly I was unaware, lost in thoughts, considering things over a thousand times.

By the time I had reached my early teens, my little oddity was developing into a big ogre. It seems that I was just growing into my habit rather than out, and it was poised to wreck havoc with my life. With my age had come a hearty dose of self awareness. No longer was I blissfully unaware of my odd habits and my patchy appearance. I was painfully conscious of my problem. I was conscious that I was the only person in my acquaintance with such an issue, and therefore the only person in the whole world.
I had the very thinnest line of eyebrows. Just a scattering remained. There were a few lashes growing out of my eye lids – only a few. But the worst thing was the right side of my head. I had recently run out of hair other places and taken to selecting the thickest, darkest strands of my long hair to remove. It wasn’t the hair that I wanted, it was the root. I would stick my prize possession, a juicy root, in a place to save it - a book, a table...and then keep pulling, always hoping to find a better one, never giving up.
I had never questioned my sanity until this point. But one day, I heard something which terrified me to my core. My mum had a friend over, and they were discussing the friend’s young child. My memory has stripped me of all the details but the gist of what they said was that the child was losing hair, by twirling it and pulling it out. I heard them say something about ‘psychological problem’.
As a 13 year old, I was naive and uneducated about that word - Psychological. To me it meant insane, mad, not-quite-right. This little child was losing hair, and it could be a psychological disorder.
I pull out my hair by the handful, therefore I am insane.
This tiny discovery about the nature of my issue plunged a weight into my heart. A weak sickness seemed to spread right through me. I was crazy! If I had wanted to Google-search my condition, this was the end of that notion. I didn’t want to know the details of my problem, I just needed to stop right now and let the hair grow back and become ‘normal’.
Unlike other habits I’d managed to stop, this one was resistant. It was cruel to me in its fiery refusal to be gone. I tried wearing hats, making promises, praying hard...but each day there would come a point where the only thing I wanted to do was pull out my hair, and the urge was so overpowering that I gave in.
“Just one hair”, I would promise myself. But that one hair wasn’t good enough. It didn’t have a big enough root. It hadn’t fulfilled the cravings inside me. One handful of hair later, I would drop my loot in the rubbish bin, looking at it with repulsion.
Life had become increasingly anxiety provoking. My balding appearance was now impossible to hide, despite my earnest attempts with hairstyles and hair spray. I avoided swimming at all costs, as wet hair showed the baldness far more than dry. This was very challenging considering we had a pool in the back yard, excuses and more excuses. I steered conversations with all my social ability away from topics relating to hair, terrified that someone would mention it and shame me to my very core. I lied to hair dressers outright about the reason for my missing hair (on the very rare occasion that I actually went). I cried night after night about the ballet concert which was coming up, where we had to have our hair in braids: mine wouldn’t go into braids, and then the secret would be out...and I would ruin the whole concert by not being able to have matching hair. I lay awake inventing convincing stories:
“I’m taking a medication which makes it fall out.”
“My hair is just falling out and I don’t know why.”
“My friend cut my hair which is why it’s so patchy.”
In bed I would realise how miserable life had become, how much I wanted to stop. I was so young that it never occurred to me that there could be help out there, that problems can be solved. To me, it was my burden which I had to bear, and ‘trying harder’ was the only solution.
By the age of sixteen I had a little more control than I’d had earlier on – and for a couple of years I went almost free from my addiction. Because I never pulled in public, my being away from home from 6.30 am – 5.30 pm proved to be very helpful. I simply didn’t get the chance to pull it out. The problem waxed and waned over the next few years. It still caused me terror whenever someone wanted to talk about or touch my hair, but it wasn’t half so hard to conceal.

My first year of university arrived, and I was sitting in an aural class watching a girl take a pair of tweezers from her bag to pluck an eyebrow. Her eyebrows looked very sparse. She seemed rather intent on removing the hair that she had decided on, and pulled until it was gone. I couldn’t tear my eyes from her. I knew I had just met the first person in my entire life that compulsively pulled out their hair. Gradually we became better acquainted, and one day in a painfully drab lecture on Music Theory, we sat at the back of the theatre sharing stories about our bizarre compulsive addiction. Our laughter was uncontrollable; I was weak with joy and relief at finding someone just like me. She had seen a doctor and knew that our psychological disorder was called Trichotillomania. She wasn’t insane - she was lovely, funny, and quirky.
I went home and researched it, finding that 4% of people suffer from it. It’s more common in females. Sufferers often suffer from depression or anxiety as well. Finally my condition was out in the open and I began to deal with the years of terror it had given me. I went to a psychologist to learn strategies, and then an Alexander Technique teacher. It went from being my naughty addiction, to a real problem for which there was help and support. I am now the happy owner of a full head of hair, and while I will probably never be urge free, I am armed with strategies to control it. I have finally learnt that ‘psychological disorder’ doesn’t mean ‘mad’, and as my psychiatrist recently assured me, if I don’t have any mad cousins or great aunts it’s rather unlikely that I will ever lose my marbles. Thank goodness!

Friday, January 13


Dear Diary,

I am going to write to you, as you’re an inanimate object and I can’t possibly burden you with negativity. I am so blah that my world has turned into shades of gray with splotches of black. Monotony, painful and eternal, is all that I can see for the future. I wake up, but everything I see fills me with a dread which eventually strangles me and kidnaps me of my ability to do a thing. The pot plant needs watering, the pets cages need attention, the kitchen is filthy, there’s a mound of clothes for washing, an email to write, a flute incessantly demanding I play it...or else, and a doctor’s stern order to exercise every day. I moan because paralysis is kicking in. I am incapacitated in just a few seconds. Sitting in a dark room crying seems the only option, everything else requires something which I don’t have. I have lost my drive, my personality...every time I walk past something I’ve left undone, it glares at me with condemnation: YOU LAZY WOMAN, YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING TODAY. I cry because the words are so stern, so cutting, so truthful. I go back to my couch, and sit there numbing the pain with the soothing process of pulling out my hair...even the consequences of bladness don’t equate when compared to the temporary joy of repetitively, obsessively extracting each root.
Ben arrives home from work; surely this will cheer me up. It turns out to be my cue for some more tears.
“Think about the things you do enjoy doing...”
 “I don’t enjoy anything. It’s all awful, it’s so gray.”
“No Dee, think about what you used to enjoy.”
“I don’t know....”
“Drinking tea, and shopping and reading and walking – lots of things”
“Mmmm. I guess so. But I don’t feel like doing any of those things.”
“Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
“Nooo, I can’t. I don’t want to.” I am neurotic to the enth degree. I feel I will have a tantrum, simply burst because of what-ever it is trying to get out.
Eventually I am convinced to sit on the couch with my blanket, with some Mozart playing, and Ben close by me. It helps. Sometime later I crack my first weak smile. Some hope is returning to my little world, the glimmer that not every day is going to be today. It’s like a tiny candle being lit deep down in me, and though it wavers, I know I’m alive and my personality is just on holiday. It will return.
I’ve started seeing a Psychiatrist and despite that stigma-oozing word alarming me to some degree, I feel ready for this. He wasn't in a white cloak, and we didn't sit in a barred room. I long to learn to manage my personality – to learn to relax, to be less obsessive, less perfectionist, less stressed....and in so doing, pacify my anxiety. It would save me vast amounts of energy. I told him that I used to think I was insane, when I was a little girl and pulled out my hair. But he doesn’t think I’m crazy, which is a comfort. Neither does Ben. So maybe I'm not.
Anyway, enough rambling. I'll write next time I see gray.
Yours truly,

Sunday, January 8


This is a story about my faith. It starts back when I didn’t believe...
 My dad, he was the pastor at our church in Auckland, New Zealand when I was a little girl, when I still wore piggy tails and jelly shoes. I was a pastor’s kid, and some people thought I would robotically believe, that faith was genetic, and my little soul was a carbon copy of my parent’s. Religious jargon can be learnt and spouted forth with precocious conviction, but that’s not faith – and you can’t fool God. I grew up attending Sunday School, and hearing the stories of the bible read to me every day. Since I was a weeny baby it had been part of my world, I knew no other. I knew the hymns, the stories, and how to look like I was a good little Christian girl. My main reason for liking church was that I got to play with my best friends afterwards.... I would often be sitting in the pew longing for that last painful hymn to end, so that I could grab some cookies and run around giggling with my little friends in our 90’s dresses and hats. Sometimes the older folks would give me a peppermint, that was good too.
I knew it all in my head, just like I knew that proper nouns needed capital letters, and legs in ballet must be turned out at all times. But I decided that when I was a grown up, I wouldn’t attend church, and I wouldn’t make my children either. It just didn’t seem really important; not life-changingly-so. I was cold, and religiosity without faith is hollow.
In our church there was a sweet old couple, not really old, but in their 60’s. I knew them a bit. One day, the wife was on the phone to her twin sister when she had a heart attack and fell to the ground. Her twin sister heard sudden silence and knew that something awful had happened. Telepathically confirmed. Next the husband came home to find his wife lying on the floor - he then had a heart attack and so they were both there and then both gone. We were all shocked. It felt stark, gaping, appalling. How can life be snuffed out in an instant? It was my first real brush with death. It hit me for the first time:
I’m going to die one day.
I did not like that thought at all.  I went to the funeral – I saw the coffin... and imagined the dead couple and I decided I did not like death. I despised it for its cruelty. And yet, the other mourners were joyful through their wet eyes; they kept saying that they would see them again one day, that they were in a place where tears were outlawed and pain forbidden. That night was not a good one for me. Insomnia paid me a visit. I just couldn’t get to sleep because I was so fearful that I would die during the night. It was a possibility; that couple just dropped dead in one day! What if I died in the night....what then?
 If there really was a God who had made this whole beautiful world...if he really did make me to be friends with him and live the way he designed me to...then no wonder he didn’t like the fact that I was ignoring him completely, and pretending I was god. It seemed right then that I shouldn’t get to live forever with him in a perfect earth after this life, if I’d ignored him like that when he had made me. But here was my problem: I had ignored God, and he had every right to be sad and angry at my rejection. How could I come to be reconciled to him?
I was just terrified that I’d die before I’d sorted these things out. My caring mum sat beside me on the bed every single night that summer, helping me to be calm, to go to sleep. Oh the relief when I woke up each morning. Still alive! One more day. But all too soon it was night time again, and these anxious thoughts returned. Whenever the sun started to set, I felt their haunting presence in my mind. I wasn’t ready to die. I didn’t want to die. I knew I had ignored God. The way I behaved and treated other people he’d created was witness to it. I had stuffed Him in a cupboard because I thought I could navigate my way through life a lot better alone. I also knew that hard as I tried, I could not possibly be perfect – it was in my nature to do the wrong thing.
If God really was concerned about the problem that I had ignored him, and he really did want there to be a way for me to come back into a relationship with him...this was of great interest to me. His Son lived on earth and never did a wrong thing. He was murdered as an innocent man, and then suffered all God’s anger for all of my  And when I die, I’d be able to live with him in a new earth, so really it was no death at all.

Grace – I had done nothing to deserve this. Not a thing. 
One night, after countless evenings of terror, I finally felt peace. I had told Him that I knew I was all messed up, and that he was the one in control...that I was sorry. And I knew that because of the solution he had designed, because my punishment had already been taken, I was free! And so, I went to sleep knowing that if I died in the night, I would wake to meet God, and if I stayed alive, I would wake in my bed and have another chance at living in relationship with him, and surrendering the control of my life to one who could guide me so much better. 


It was such a relief. I felt light. Free. Happy. Like a helium balloon sailing along. Life is still befuddling and hurtful – but my freedom is joy. I know that everything is happening for a reason, and I know it’s to change me for the better. I am not afraid to die. I’m looking forward to a world where I can meet the creator who made me and forgave me, where I am full of energy, where I never make mistakes, and never shed another tear. Bring on that day!