"I cannot even begin to express how much that small bit of empathy meant to me. My idea of this monster I've been fighting for so long was beginning to be transformed by just five words."
Visit here to listen to Notre Dame junior Dani L'Heureux tell a story of the healing power of prayer, reflection and relationship. Subscribe to the free Stories of Grace podcast on iTunes U and receive automatic notifications when a new story is published. The full text of Dani's reflection is below.
Now, if you’re like most of this world, and me when I got diagnosed, you’re probably wondering what in the world just came out of my mouth, or if it is even in the English language, or if I just sneezed, or something. Unfortunately that wasn’t just a sneeze, and it is part of the English language, as it has been part of my everyday thoughts, outward appearance, and a cause of my heightened awareness and anxiety over how I look since I was 10 years old. This head of mine works in interesting ways, and I’m here to give you a little glimpse into that.
In order to explain what trichotillomania is, I combined what I’ve encountered in my own experience with the disorder with our favorite research site, Wikipedia (which teachers don’t seem to appreciate much, but I’m using it anyways). Trichotillomania, or “trich” for short, is a disorder lying on the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder spectrum, and is often accompanied by other disorders like it.
Trich is the compulsive urge to pull out your own hair, whether that’s from the eyelashes, eyebrows, head, arms, and other areas, leading to hair loss and balding, distress, and social or functional impairment. It is often chronic and difficult to treat. Anxiety and depression are more frequently encountered in people with trichotillomania, and those affected may be ashamed or actively attempt to disguise their symptoms. Habit reversal training has the highest rate of success in treating trichotillomania and has been shown to be a successful adjunct to medication as a way to treat it. I personally have tried both over the years – I have been to several therapists and have tried several different experimental supplements to combat this. I know, this all sounds kinda unusual, but bear with me. It’s still bizarre for me to explain this to people, as I still don’t really fully understand why it happens to this day.
I have had a very difficult time with this for most of my life for a few reasons. My classmates, especially in grade school, were extraordinarily curious about why I looked different than them. “Why don’t you have eyelashes? Were you born that way?”, “Do you get your eyebrows done? What happened?”, and “Why are your hands always on your head or by your eyes?” were common questions I received. They’re all valid, as we as humans are naturally curious about differences between us, but every one cut deeply into my self-esteem. And let’s not get into haircuts and eye doctor appointments, in which I teared up many times out of severe frustration and embarrassment when I was told to just “stop” pulling my hair, as if I hadn’t tried that approach already. I felt as if no one understood what I was going through, and that I was constantly being judged. Every question about the reasons behind my disorder drove me further away from an awareness of my self-worth.
The lowest I have ever felt about this part of me was when I stumbled across an article entitled “11 Insane Addictions From ‘My Strange Addiction’ That Are Straight Out Of A Horror Movie.” To my extraordinary embarrassment, trichotillomania appeared on this list. It was difficult enough to see it on “My Strange Addiction” on TLC in the first place, as if I wasn’t aware of how different my disorder was already. This show, which, as it seems to me, is on air only to criticize those with mental disorders, only drove me further away of an acceptance and love of myself. To then have this equated with being straight out of a horror movie was an extreme exaggeration, I know, but at the time it made me feel lower than I have ever felt about something that I not only did not understand, but that consumed my thoughts and actions for most of my life.
Here’s the thing, though. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this, it’s that my disorder doesn’t define me. I’m allowed to love myself and at the same time not really love my disorder, but appreciate the growth I have gone through in fighting it. I came to an understanding of this through constant prayer, trust that God was with me the entire way, and having a supportive community, something I will be forever grateful for. As I made my way through high school and interacted with many different kinds of people and learned their stories, I realized that we all have things we’re fighting, which inched me closer to finding peace within myself, because I realized I’m not alone. I found a community of people that not only didn’t prod into my disorder and attempt to understand every little thing about it, but, just by their words and actions, made me feel so comfortable with who I am that I opened up to them. This time it was my choice, and I didn’t have to defend my physical appearance as I had in the past.
I still distinctly remember the time I told my closest group of friends about my disorder. It was very late at night (or, morning), as often our deep conversations were, and the only words I received in response, after my long, long explanation, were from one of my friends, and she said: “we’re here for you, Dani.” I cannot even begin to express how much that small act of empathy meant to me. My idea of this monster I’ve been fighting for so long was beginning to be transformed by just five words. There’s such a beauty in close relationships and I can say with assurance that they affected, and continue to affect, my life in truly unexpected ways.
Around junior or senior year of high school, the pulling from my eyelashes and eyebrows dwindled significantly, and my attention to my head hair also went down. My time in therapy over the years gave me a foundation to work off of, but my happiness and acceptance of this part of me took more – it took an understanding that I’m loved. I still have my episodes, unfortunately; people with trichotillomania sometimes have long periods of less severe symptoms, and then they flare up again. We have good days and bad days and good and bad months, and years, even, but with God by my side every time, cheering me on, along with the healing qualities of prayer and reflection and my relationships with others, I feel less ashamed of this part of me, and more thankful that I have had this opportunity to grow. I still find myself asking God why the heck it had to be this to get the lesson through to me, but hey, I guess it’s different and unique, and it allowed me to share this with all of you. Even though it hasn’t been easy, I’m so thankful for getting closer to the understanding that I am unconditionally loved, no matter what goes on in this head of mine.