When I was 14, a family friend told me that when I noticed a split end, I should yank the strand from my head to get rid of it. I tried it and the sensation felt warm and comforting, as if I was ridding my body of a strange pain.
I was a quiet, introverted girl who felt awkward in every social environment. Pulling was the best stress reliever I had ever found. I kept pulling and soon noticed bald patches forming; ripping out my hair became a habit. I’d developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder called trichotillomania, the irresistible desire to pull out your hair — and I couldn’t stop.
The ridicule didn’t help, either. “Punk rocker,” students whispered as I walked through the hallways at school, since it looked as though I shaved the back of my head. I attempted to hide my bald patches by wearing headbands, but boys would pull them off and joke that I was Sinead O’Connor. I tried to smirk and blow them off, but the emotional pain bubbled up to my head and I yearned to pull.
Adults weren’t necessarily kinder. “Jennifer, I got lectured by the janitor last night,” one of my teachers announced to the class one day. “He said he vacuums up so much hair around your desk it broke the vacuum.” Everyone turned to look at me and laugh. I sat on my hands, my embarrassment making the urge to pull even greater. I headed straight home that day and pulled, leaving a pool of hair beneath me, then gathered up all the strands and flushed them down the toilet, trying to rid myself of the evidence.
I’D DEVELOPED AN OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER CALLED TRICHOTILLOMANIA, THE IRRESISTIBLE DESIRE TO PULL OUT YOUR HAIR — AND I COULDN’T STOP.
Even athletics, which I’d enjoyed before, became emotionally painful. Once, before a basketball game organized by my youth group, I pulled my hair back and out of my face, revealing my bald spots. Girls asked if I had cancer while boys snickered and pointed. Because physical activities required me to wear my hair up, exposing my disorder, I stopped them altogether, asking my parents to get special permission for me to opt out of physical education classes in junior high and high school. Making it through each day felt taxing and I retreated even more on days I felt extra bullied, heading to my room to pull. People asked, “Why don’t you just stop?” I couldn’t. Pulling felt delicious, desirable, and easy. It was my relief from others’ cruelty.
Even after I escaped high school and its bullies, I couldn’t kick the habit that had followed me since age 14. Over the years, I tried every treatment for my OCD I could find. I visited a slew of therapists who all looked at me as if I were untreatable. I kept rubber gloves at my desk to wear as I typed. I wore hats whenever I wasn’t at work. Nothing worked.
I had all but lost hope. But on a vacation to Mexico 12 years ago, I noticed a triathlon taking place next to my hotel. As I watched sinewy, muscled athletes speed out of the water, hop onto bikes, and run at a pace faster than I ever could, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: inspiration. My exercise routine consisted of solo runs on a treadmill at a local gym, with my headphones on to avoid conversation. But watching the triathlon, I thought that maybe I could become an athlete: powerful and confident. I began to visualize crossing the finish line, telling my friend, “I wouldn’t care if they were tearing down the event by the time I finish. I only want to finish.”
I didn’t even know how to swim, but I was undeterred. I signed up for lessons at a local Y.M.C.A. and drove out to a lake to practice every weekend. I spent hours dodging traffic as I ran through local streets; I purchased a fancy, expensive bike and learned to shift gears like a pro.
As I trained for my first triathlon — the Lake Pleasant Off Road Triathlon, a small event just north of Phoenix — my only goal was to cross the finish line, but I gained much more than I expected: I had found something that made the desire to pull subside. Swimming kept my hair wet, which made it harder to pull, biking kept my hands glued to the gears, and pulling while running was impossible. A two-hour workout meant a pull-free couple of hours.
I realized that had I wasted years trying to find freedom from pulling when all I needed to do was slip on a pair of running shoes, which made me sad that I hadn’t found this new hobby sooner — but also stirred an ambition in me to take my endurance training to another level. I soon joined a triathlon training group and a master’s swim team to keep me working out more and pulling less. We biked together on Saturday mornings and shared stories at reverse happy hours after Tuesday-night track sessions. Friendship followed fitness and I received invites to weddings, baby showers, and camping trips before out-of-town races. Finally, I had found a community where I felt confident and comfortable.
MY ONLY GOAL WAS TO CROSS THE FINISH LINE, BUT I GAINED MUCH MORE THAN I EXPECTED: I HAD FOUND SOMETHING THAT MADE THE DESIRE TO PULL SUBSIDE.
As my hair started to grow back, my confidence grew with it. I worked my way up to finishing an Ironman in 2009. The day I crossed that finish line was the best day of my life — the euphoria lasted for months. I remember sitting in my car on Thanksgiving a week after the race, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for a body that had allowed me to accomplish something so significant. I used to hate my body because I felt unattractive without hair. Now, I love and appreciate it. I still pull a lot, but now, pulling doesn’t define me. Instead of dwelling on the past, I keep my eyes on the next finish line.