Let me tell you something about myself. One day, about 4 years ago, I was curled up next to my bed trying to psych myself up to go write a personality psychology exam, when I worriedly put my hand on my leg and rubbed my shin absent-mindedly. It was winter, and exam time, so I hadn’t bothered to shave.
A couple of months ago, I got my first wax in preparation for a trip to Cuba. I have always wanted smooth, beautiful legs. I can’t do anything about their height or their stubbiness, but I can dream that they feel like baby skin and look like those that appear in razor commercials. My skin is very fair, and my hair is quite dark and thick, however, so even when I use their magic razors or Nair, there always seem to be dots leftover. I have a 5-o-clock shadow on my legs. I feel gross. I try not to wear shorts. So for this vacation, I tried a waxing.
I examined my legs, and noticed a few stray hairs sticking up. How could the wax have missed them? “What am I supposed to do about these?” I asked my mom. “Just pick them out with tweezers. You’ll probably find that they slip right out.” She was right, they did. It was like I was supposed to be doing this. The hairs didn’t seem like they were attached to anything, they slid out easily, and my legs looked pretty smooth. I wore bathing suits and shorts in Cuba, like a real human woman.
Half an hour before my exam, all I can think is that I need to do it again.
My whole brain screaming at me, “UNCLOG IT. It’s rough and unclean and out of place and it needs to go.” I can see it in my head, there’s so much work that needs to be done, a nice, self-contained little project, but it never ends, because the hair always comes back, how do we have so much of this?
I spend three hours methodically picking each and every hair our of my legs with a pair of shiny, silver tweezers a friend gave me when she taught me how to pluck my eyebrows. It feels great, refreshing, like I’m letting air in. It’s so obvious and straightforward, what I need to do and how I need to do it.
I don’t write my exam.
Even if I, Ms. “A+ or bust,” hadn’t actually missed a final exam due to this behaviour, I would have been disturbed by it. I remember saying to myself, “Alright, Donna, time to stop. The exam’s in 5 minutes, put the tweezers down. Put them down. Why aren’t you putting them down? LISTEN TO ME, I”M YOUR FUCKING BRAIN, I CONTROL WHAT YOU DO PUT THEM DOWN PUT THEM DOWN.”
So I went to Health Services to try to talk to someone. They put me through to a woman. Who, and I remember this vividly, said to me, “You did that for how many hours? That is so weird.”
Don’t worry, that wasn’t what sent me down the spiral of self-doubt and shame. I was already there. I’d been there for years. I merely raised my eyebrows at her and excused myself, thinking, “Surely, no matter what path of medical training you take to get to this spot, somewhere along the line they suggest to you that telling confused and emotional young adults who already feel like ridiculous failures and oddities that the behaviour they came to see you about, to ask you for help with, surely they advise you not to call those people and their problems “weird.” Not to their face. Ridiculous woman.”
At the best of times, it looks like my legs have measles – the skin is pink and raised from being disturbed. Other times there are tiny scabs on almost every pore, like a thousand tiny pin-prick stab wounds are slowly healing themselves. Sometimes there’s a grey shadow of a hair beneath the skin. It’s not disrupting the smoothness (there is no hint of smoothness anymore, I’m like a poorly plucked and scarred chicken, at this point), but it is disrupting me. It’s not supposed to be there, and it needs to go. Hair grows out, it doesn’t tunnel beneath your skin and grow forever, what if it’s 12 feet long in there, looping in on itself, taking up valuable space for other things that are supposed to be inside your body? It doesn’t matter how many biology or anatomy courses I take, this train of thought isn’t going to derail, because it’s not about logic or sense, it’s about perfection, and I am all wrong.
So I go after these ingrown hairs with a vengeance. I dig into the skin with my nails or tweezers or scissors or whatever’s handy. It doesn’t really hurt that much because I know what I’m doing. I make a little hole. I can see, raising like a black pinch out from the blood. Sometimes I still can’t get at it, so I make the hole bigger. I unhook that damned hair from its hiding place and I pull it out of me. Sometimes it’s as short as usual, other times it’s grotesquely long and I feel a gloating thrill that I defeated this gross sneaky little snake trying to burrow its way into my leg. I hate them all. This is triumph.
The scabs take weeks to heal. I still can’t wear shorts in public.
I have been doing this now for years. I’ve told a couple of close friends. Some of them laughed. I get that – it’s not a commonly known disorder, this trichotillomania (WordPress doesn’t even think it’s a real word). They have nothing to compare it to, out of nowhere their friend has just told them, “Hey, let’s have McDonald’s. Also, sometimes I pull hair out of my legs instead of doing important things like showering, or eating, or going to class.” It’s nervous laughter, not mocking laughter.
On and off, I have tried to stop this ridiculous, time-consuming, unhealthy, and annoying habit. The original goal was smooth legs, and that’s never going to happen now. The current, twisted goal, is get all the hair out no matter what, at any cost. Anyone can see that there are more important things to spend time on, that using bloody and rusted tweezers to poke yet more holes in yourself is not only stupid, it’s actually dangerous (although I’ve been lucky – only once did I ever get an infection from this picking).
I have tried so. hard. to stop, and it never seems to work. I always break and go at it with renewed vigor. Right now, I am writing this because I just spent 20 minutes jiggling my legs and tapping my fingers and clenching my fists. I even cried a little bit. I promised myself that January 31st would be my last day. I abused the hell out of my legs that night, because this time, really for real, it was truly going to be the last time ever. I gave myself permission to go nuts. I am trying so hard not to do it right now, as I type. But it’s all I can think about, so I’m writing this instead.