Where is the line in the sand between a bad habit and concerning behavior that starts to impact how I live?
I have a habit that might be considered disgusting and also harmful to myself. Only I didn’t think of it as actually harmful until today when I was called out for it.
I am pretty bad at using a brush to comb my hair because I am so used to throwing my hair into a loose bun or a half ponytail. So when I do take it down, chances are it’s for washing in the shower or I leave my hair down if I need to wear a knit hat outdoors and the bun will only get in the way.
As a result I’ve taken to finger combing my hair. I used to only do it in the bathroom or privacy of my own room where I have easy access to a trashcan. My fixation with my hair started many years ago when I was pulling out strands of hair, and prior to that, I was picking scabs from my skin. I covered the topic of my dermatillomania (the medical term for skin picking) here for anyone interested in reading about that.
Hair pulling is called trichotillomania. What I remember is it began as focusing on shaping my eyebrows in a particular way by plucking off the hairs, all because I thought my natural eyebrows were ugly. When I discovered shaving during my teen years, I briefly went through a period of using my leg razor to shave off my arm hairs. I never used tools to pull my arm hair off one hair at a time, though I did get to the point of using a tweezer to pluck those tiny, very thin hairs I had on the lower portions of my fingers (above my knuckles). It often hurt. So I stopped. Those times seemed like one-offs; not so serious that I couldn’t decide to stop if I changed my mind or no longer cared to bother with the upkeep.
Junior high school is where I progressed from my daily habit of combing/brushing my hair to actually ripping the brush through a tangle through my hair and taking out a clump of hairs. I could write a whole paragraph detailing the reasons, but simply put it was my accidental method of self-harming to soothe the anxiety and emotional turmoil I was going through. And yes, I did get a high from the pain. It’s scary to admit. In high school I moved onto physically using my hands to pull out strands of hair from my scalp. I tried to do it in private only when no one was around to see but then I would unconsciously do it in school during class. It escalated to not only pulling when I was anxious or unhappy, but even when I was feeling positive emotions like excitement.
Writing papers during college became another trigger for me. One too many times I sat in front of my computer after typing my name and the first sentence of a proposed essay before I lost a half hour, an hour of falling into a trance working my hands into my scalp and picking at imaginary scabs or finger combing to find hairs with split ends on them. Those were always the hairs I ended up pulling out.
The stop point was for shallow reasons. I noticed a thinning patch on my scalp from all the hairs I took out. If I continued as I did, the patch would have become more likely in time to be noticed by other people, not just me.
With the finger combing I do now, my brain understands the behavior is not good but I often make excuses for myself to justify it. Such as, I’m not hurting anyone by doing it, so what? It’s like not exactly being in denial about the detrimental nature of the behavior but also not knowing how to stop and/or not wanting to confront the issue as long as no one points it out to me.
Well, this morning I was preparing to leave the house and released my hair from its bun to begin finger combing. It would’ve seemed normal if it was just a single brush through the hair like if someone was making a vague attempt at tidying up messy hair that got windblown. Looking back on my own actions, I was finger combing meticulously and knowingly, with the intention of having hair come out from it. I felt pleased every time I got a loose hair strand that I let fall to the ground. It’s crazy, when I am actually documenting in written words what I felt, that I was pleased. The feeling was always there but never fully realized.
I got so into it that I didn’t notice my mom come out from the kitchen. I was more surprised at being interrupted from my compulsion than the sharpness of her tone when she said, “Honey, why are you combing your hair like that? It’s not good, you’re going to lose more hair that way. Your hair is all over the floor.” Worser is I had a mixture of irritation and shame. Partially mad that I couldn’t continue as I was and also embarrassed at being caught. Her concern made me think, What am I doing and how did I get here? I made a weak excuse about being lazy since I hadn’t had time to comb my hair that morning. She bought the excuse and harped on me to carry a comb in my bag next time.