Trichotillomania. I first heard this word because I had finally found an older black woman who was a therapist that I could work with on my issues. I tried several therapists in the past, only to be met by therapists who could not offer suggestions, and at worst, failed to understand why I was so angry. Even my youngest brother has written about how we grew up “angry,” so if my brother who raps can understand reasons why, someone who is supposed to help people should.
We grew up in a house without fathers, always financially strapped, but our stressed mom always kept a roof over our heads and a packed refrigerator. I am astounded at this task now when I think about how much money she made (or rather, did not make). This prolonged phase of anger was preceded by a time that my brothers remember differently because they were so small. I remember details about the apartment my parents shared above my grandparents’ old tavern—the dingy battered green and grey title of the kitchen, the yellow bathroom, the kitchen sink where we all received our first baths as babies, and the red recliner where my father often took naps. There are some things that I remember clearly, like my father fighting with my mother and the scratching of my head during tests in fifth grade.
There was something deeply satisfying about scratching away an itch and gradually popping small flakes of skin away from my scalp…until it bled. Then there were scabs, and sometimes, the scabs were picked away. Eventually, my mother discovered that I was picking at my scalp and asked me what happened. I just told her it itched, and it felt better when I scratched. This scratching brings me back to the first word I mentioned here. Trichotillomania is an anxiety-driven condition where the person suffering with it is compelled to pull out strands of their hair, sometimes to the point of baldness. Dermatillomania, or skin picking, is closely related.
Both behaviors are often experienced by children, so an anxious oldest child and only daughter who wanted to achieve academically fit the profile for someone who might do this. Imagine that anxiety ratcheting up even further when your father’s temper is loudly vocal, and could lead to getting hit. Imagine being a child who at times felt strange, rather than just quirky in a way that suits her. Imagine that same girl speaking up for herself because she was not going to be bullied or teased for being mixed. Yes, I was anxious as hell. It took me a long time to accept that girl is fine as she is.
It wasn’t until the cycles of depression and anxiety that I started to encounter as a teenager finally threw my sleep into an abyss that I could not spelunk my way out of that I ended up in therapy in my early 30s. I started to meet with Ms. W in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and she affirmed that racism and sexism should make me angry, and there were ways to medically check one’s blood and nutritional deficiencies, then move forward to see if I needed medication. I’m not on medication at this point, but as I started this journey, I found that a lot of women of color I knew took anti-depressants, more than I thought. They disclosed this in hushed tones.
As I excavated through these feelings, I had one session that was calmer and more conversational and something in our conversation turned to childhood, and children anxiously picking at their scalps. I was startled to hear Ms. W’s description. It sounded just like what I had experienced as a child who strived for A’s on every English test and eventually had to stop picking and rub ointment on the layers of scabs hidden under my brown hair. My therapist reassured me that it was a common problem so I wouldn’t worry, but I told her that giving that scratching a term made me understand what I was doing. As a writer, words have helped me understand so much about how I process the world. So, I read as much as I could about it, why my great uncle, also a doctor, narrowed his eyes at my parents when he prescribed an ointment to heal the scabs on my scalp. He knew that my father hurting my mother and the stress of doing well in school probably led me to this, and he loved me dearly.
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As I thought about my young life at that time, I encountered Carleen Brice’s novel Orange Mint and Honey. At the time, it was being released as a movie Sins of the Mother starring Jill Scott. Since I was not paying for cable, I met Carleen online, and was excited to read her book. I was surprised to read how the main character Shay Dixon, a child of an alcoholic mother, finally copes with her own bouts of hair pulling. I felt like dermatillomania, and its related condition trichotillomania, made it clear that anxiety takes on physically damaging forms, but finding the words for its tangible presence made it easier to not be ashamed of what I experienced as a child. It also made me aware of how common anxiety and its tango with depression are. More importantly, I saw that it was a condition that I recovered from as a child defeating the urge to scratch my scalp until it bled. Unlike some people, if there are actual scars, they are beneath my full head of hair, but it is a condition that quietly plagues some people, and occasionally hides under hats and scarves. Fortunately, my parents, who could not resolve their issues wanted me to heal.
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I eventually stopped picking my head into a series of sores, but as an adult I realized that I have been fighting these ups and downs for a long time. I might now be healing what caused the picking in the first place by facing the feelings that made me as a child rifle my fingers through my hair.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person looking downward with their eyes closed. Their hands are holding their forehead. They have curly hair. They are wearing a pink shirt with a white shirt on top.]