Hope for a Toronto sufferer who travels to Pennsylvania to learn to apply hair implements to combat trichotillomania, or “trich,” a Hair Pulling Disorder.
Sarah Robertson of Toronto receives instruction from Charlene Blacer on how to apply the hair implements that Robertson will be wearing to combat her trichotillomania, or “trich,” which is the obsessive pulling of hair.
For Sarah Robertson, the drive from Toronto to Stroudsburg didn’t seem as long as the 415 miles and more than seven hours that it’s estimated to be by Mapquest.
That’s because Robertson, 23, could only think about the potential life-altering visit to a Poconos hair salon that promised to have the remedy for her rare condition.
“My medical condition developed when I was 13, about the same age that it usually develops in most adolescents,” Robertson said. “It’s a condition that has no cure and, although it may stop at times, it often comes back in waves.”
The condition, called trichotillomania, or trich, is commonly referred to as the hair pulling disorder.
About 4 percent of the American population may have trich, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the condition is four times more common among women.
The disorder is usually seen first in young teens, and the period of hair pulling lasts about a year, according to the NIH.
“It really doesn’t hurt,” Robertson said. “You’re just pulling, not chunks but a strand at a time, and it’s usually because of some sort of depression or anxiety,” she said.
See her scalp
Symptoms include pulling the hair out, wanting to pull it out and feeling relieved after the hair is pulled out, NIH officials said.
The results are usually very un-pretty, Robertson said.
“No one can really understand you and, for me, people at school were saying (nasty) things. I had patches of hair missing, you could see my scalp,” she said. “Mostly, the girls were good about things, but the guys in schools didn’t understand and, yes, kids can be cruel.”
Robertson said her parents took her to doctors and child psychiatrists, who eventually prescribed anti-depressants.
“The pills only made me crazy, my mood would swing all of the time,” she said.
Search for solutions
While for a time Robertson stopped pulling her hair out, the condition, as it tends to do in most cases, returned.
Trying to get a firm hold on trich, Robertson began searching the Internet for solutions and for someone who might be able to help.
She noted that 2013 was to be a very busy year for her, with weddings and a planned summer vacation in order.
“Having trich has caused me so much anxiety when it comes to even thinking about any of these things,” Robertson said. “How can I go to a wedding wearing a hat? How can I travel down South and keep a hat on all day and all night?”
Robertson looked into purchasing a wig, but found the cost to exceed $1,300.
She also remembered the last time she made such a purchase. “It was uncomfortable and a waste of money because I never wore it,” she said.
Then she found Stroudsburg’s Charlene Blacer on the Internet, and suddenly, Robertson said, there was hope.
In 2004, Blacer joined the SecretMane University, a network of salons trained in the process of becoming hair professors to hair loss sufferers.
Students learn about therapy and wellness care for those who lose their hair.
Blacer said she knew of a client whose family member had the disorder. That caused her to look into caring for folks with that problem.
It took Blacer seven years to develop, perfect and trademark a cosmetic hair restoration process, according to Robertson’s blog.
Blacer has treated scores of clients who have trich at her salon in Stroudsburg.
She starts by using a hair net.
“It’s a skin-like material that has human hair installed into the strips by hand. Then my own hair would be pulled through the spaces in the rows to make the piece look more natural and move like real hair,” Robertson explained on her blog.
A net is installed with medical adhesive glue and is removed by using a special solution.
“The net covers the spots where someone with trich would normally pull,” Blacer said. “It’s a two-day process. The first day, I teach her how to install and remove the piece, because that has to be done once a month and because she’s in Canada, I can’t expect her to come to Stroudsburg all the time,” she said. “The second day, she gets her hair cut, styled, and colored, and then the hair is installed.”
Costly but worth it
The process, including the education of taking care of the hair, cost $3,000.
The price tag is steep, but Robertson said friends and family members helped raise the money, and she is confident that it will help prevent her from pulling her hair out.
Robertson said that while no specific treatment has been realized, most researchers now agree that cognitive behavioral therapy and the use of a process that limits a person’s ability to reach their own roots and covers the areas affected by pulling, can be effective.
“It’s a process,” Robertson said. “I am going to try the cognitive behavioral therapy, but I’ve also started my own nonprofit and I am studying sociology so that I can help others.”