Alicia Catt is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Revolution House, Airplane Reading, Used Furniture Review, and The Dirty Napkin.
I liked to take my time when I was pulling out my eyelashes. This is how it always began: with a twinge, a scratch, the feeling of a tiny hair or fiber of fabric shuffling against my cornea. Perhaps it was a loose eyelash, buried underneath my bottom lid or jammed into my tear duct. Perhaps there was nothing there at all, the discomfort only a psychosomatic symptom. Regardless, I would rub and prod at the affected eye until it was bloodshot, making it worse, until every blink scraped my eye like fine-grit sandpaper.
Most people would stop at this point and chalk the irritation up to sleepiness or stress. Let the eye rest. But instead I’d grab the outer corner of my top lashes with thumb and forefinger and pull, and pull, and pull. The goal was never to strip my lids entirely of their adornments, but rather to find that single crooked offender—the wayward, the delinquent lash—and yank it out, discard it, go about my day. But the magic lash never presented itself. An hour later I’d still be bent over my dresser mirror, eyes swollen, fingers numb from plucking, a tidy pile of lashes stacked in front of me, so many unspoken little wishes.
Trichotillomania (TTM) is an impulse control disorder, an offshoot of OCD, yet so unheard of that even Microsoft Office doesn’t recognize the word as legitimate. The jagged red underline reminds me of a lashline, freshly shorn. On the same spectrum as nail-biting and scab-picking, TTM is characterized by self-inflicted hair loss—that is, compulsive hair-pulling—of anything from eyelashes, to head hair and eyebrows, to leg, arm, or even pubic hair. Some “pullers” do it unconsciously, like a tic, and some spend hours fully consumed by it, tweezing hair after hair, chasing a feeling of completion, of satisfaction. Chasing the perfect hairless high. It is much like addiction in the chemicals released: the euphoric dopamine, the numbing endorphins.
The occurrence of TTM is likely underreported, but this is what is known: it affects between 2 and 4 percent of the population (many more women than men), and usually begins either in childhood or adolescence. Co-occurrence with other mental and behavioral disorders is high. Stress and trauma exacerbate it. Treatment is complex, involving psychotherapy and medication, but it can be effective—if sought. But like most mental disorders that manifest in the physical body, TTM is taboo, cloaked in layers of misunderstanding and shame. So many pullers take great care to conceal their habit, never seeking treatment, never even knowing the name of what they assume is just their own personal freak show, their private burden to bear.
I was completely lashless from ages fifteen to seventeen, but my compulsivity began long before the first time I tugged on an eyelash, hoping for release. As a child with moderate and varied obsessive-compulsive streaks, I was in constant search of the one thing that would make “it” right. For months I was convinced I had a single raspberry seed stuck behind my bottom front teeth, and clawed at them with my fingernails until I rubbed the enamel raw. In one brief phase, I hoarded packets of Equal sweetener and devoured them four at a time. I learned to read by memorizing entire labels of shampoo bottles in the bath, whispering the complex ingredients list over and over until the sounds were perfect. Sodium laureth sulfate, lavandula latifolia, panthenol-enriched. A slightly older me would open and close the kitchen silverware drawer multiple times a day to make sure the utensils were properly arranged—a wayward fork or spoon could throw me facefirst into a mania of micro-organization.
I battled these things alone, not realizing my processes were anything but normal. I was the only child of two emotionally distant children who had bigger things to worry about than a daughter who rearranged the letters of the alphabet according to mouth feel. I only began to understand the depth of my strangeness—and thus, I thought, my wrongness—as an adolescent, when that terrible cocktail of puberty, depression, and bad poetry overcame me. By sixteen, I’d been in and out of institutions. Doctors swarmed me, drugged me into hyperactivity and somnolence, threw titles at me and watched to see which ones stuck: bipolar, borderline, dissociative, anxious. They commented at length on everything from my curious promiscuity to my tendency to wander from home—both fairly typical teenage behaviors, I know now. But what was never spoken of were my eyes: bruised and swollen, rimmed with thick dark kohl and thicker glasses, but no lashes.
Perhaps those shrinks then lacked the terminology to discuss what was, to an image-obsessed teen girl, the most troubling issue of all. But their refusal to acknowledge it only solidified my suspicion that whatever was making me pull—whatever it was—was something so disgusting and vile, so inherently sick it could never be spoken of.
I can’t remember the specifics of the first time I tugged every single eyelash from its home, but I can remember the way it felt. First: the rush. The sound the first lash made when it released from the follicle was intoxicating. I felt it in my teeth, in my bones; it reverberated in my body like a tiny metal drum. I twirled the lash in my fingers. Pinpointed the silky root and squished it with the back of my thumbnail, then set it down carefully on whatever surface happened to be in front of me—bedroom dresser or bathroom sink. I pulled from the top eyelid first, of whichever eye was calling for it; sometimes the repetitive plucking would set my lid on an involuntary spasm, and I’d switch to the other eye until it stopped.
Next: the frenzy. After pulling single lashes for a while, my eyelids began to puff with the trauma of it, as though I’d been crying, and the lashes that once stubbornly held their ground began falling out eagerly in fours and fives at the slightest touch.
Then: the cleanup. Bottom lashes last—those useless little afterthoughts. Sometimes I would save them for the days ahead, when I needed something to pull and no pluckable stubble had formed yet on my upper lids. Sometimes I couldn’t wait.
And: the guilt. Every time, the guilt. The cold, hard look in the mirror, adrenaline gone, everything gone. With nothing to buffer my eyes from light and dust, they squinted back at me, fat and red and desperate, oh my god, oh god, look what the fuck you’ve done now.
With enough chronic pulling, the follicles are destroyed, degraded to the point of sterility—they no longer produce hair. I was genetically blessed with lashes so long and thick they once fluttered against the lenses of my glasses. Now, twelve years after I pulled them out the final time, they’re still thick enough to pass for normal. Applying mascara some mornings before work, I remember what I had once. I remember I could have so much less.
What happened to make me stop? Possibly nothing of significance. My own TTM turned out to be fairly self-limiting; when my stress levels dropped and hormonal surges stabilized, when some doctor found the right pill to balance out the beast in me, the urge to pull declined. Instead I drank, or crawled into bed with strangers, or scrubbed kitchen tile until my knuckles bled, or stayed up all night listening to bad punk rock and organizing my books by the people they reminded me of. There are a million ways to self-destruct. Some quick. Some slower than anyone could notice.
But it still ticks in me, the exhilaration, that tiny metal drum beating against my teeth when a rogue eyelash catches under my contact lens, or hay fever makes my eyes water and beg for scratching. Usually I can itch and nothing more. Not often, but sometimes, I yank out nine or ten mascara-laced lashes, and have to ball my hands into fists or light a cigarette to stop. I wear the bald patch like a battle scar until my body sends replacements.