In 2016, I spent more than $1,000 on fake hair. You might assume someone who spends that kind of money would do so on extensions. I wish that’s what I were doing; that would mean I had hair to extend. Instead, I shop for wigs, and each one costs a small fortune.
I wear them to hide my baldness. When I don’t wear my wig, like during workouts or on a quick grocery store run, people assume I’m either undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from alopecia. I often receive sympathetic looks from strangers; once, a woman in an airport bathroom noticed me shifting my wig into place and patted me on the back.
She whispered, “God bless you. You look like a strong woman.” I smiled and shrugged, offering no explanation.
But I am neither a cancer patient nor experiencing female hair loss. I self-inflict my baldness. Since the age of 14, I have suffered from trichotillomania, an obsessive compulsive disorder in which I pull out my own hair. Otherwise known as “trich,” this condition affects 1 percent of the US population and up to 4 percent of the world population, according to a 2013 study. The location of where people pull varies; some prefer eyebrows or eyelashes, while men often favor facial hair. I learned about trichotillomania in college when a friend attended nursing school. She presented me with mental health packets on trich she received in class. I welcomed it — my disorder had a name!
As a teenager, I started by pulling out strands of hair that had split ends. It felt delicious and I pulled more. In my 20s, I concentrated my pulling on the lower back of my head (when I left my hair down, you couldn’t see the bald spots). After school ended and job stress greeted me five days a week, I pulled from my entire head. Within a few years, I found myself nearly bald.
Even my father, who never made comments on my appearance, told me, “It’s time for you to get a wig.” I knew it before he said it, yet his outright statement made me feel such shame. If my father needed to point it out, it was more mortifying than I cared to admit.
People ask, “Why don’t you stop?” I try, every day. The urge to pull remains uncontrollable most of the time. It feels like fire ants crawling on my scalp, their prickly legs always poking my head. Scratching does nothing — only pulling provides relief. It also becomes a coping mechanism when faced with anxiety-filled situations, much in the way nicotine addicts reach for cigarettes. It relaxes me and, in a sadistic way, the pain from pulling provides comfort. Sometimes I fail to realize I’m pulling; my body moves into a trance-like state and my hand reaches up to find a strand and pull it out, all in a robotic motion.
Pricey therapy, stress balls, my mother yelling at me to quit — nothing has worked. My only solution is wearing wigs. It doesn’t take away my problem. I merely transfer my condition to the wigs and pull them too, but at least it’s not my own hair.
Shopping for wigs used to make me pull more, as I found the whole experience angst-inducing. I always felt it compulsory to explain to employees why I look the way I do, and no one ever understood why I would harm myself on purpose. I remember shopping at a local woman’s expo and passed by a booth selling the type of wigs I liked to wear. A stylist asked to fit me and I agreed. As she lifted up my real hair, she noticed all my bald spots.
“What happened here?” she asked loudly. I blushed. Other stylists gathered around and passersby stopped to look at the commotion.
“I have trichotillomania,” I said softly.
“You have what?” they all said.
“I pull out my hair.”
“That’s weird,” she said as she nestled the wig over my head.
I’ve heard the “weird” comment from age 14 to this day. And when you hear something enough, you think it, too: I am weird.
I received one reprieve from my weirdness when a hairdresser friend told me about a wig shop for those with medical conditions. In one visit, I fell in love. I found “the one” — the one wig shop where I can bare my bald head and feel no need to illuminate an employee on the eccentricities of trichotillomania. This store, Strut Hair Solutions in Solana Beach, California — not at all convenient for me — specializes in cancer and trichotillomania customers, making the extra 45-minute drive worth it. The wig stylists provide discretion, even offering to assist me in a backroom away from public view. I never take them up on it, but the suggestion alone makes me grateful for the empathetic staff. I never write Yelp comments, but I gave a review of this shop. I wanted others like me to know this is a safe place.
Sometimes I feel like I live a lie, since most people never see my true look. Friends and family know I wear wigs, and I never shy away from discussing trich with them. I’m not so upfront with colleagues, although I’m sure they know. One day my hair looks short, with different lengths on either side, and magically, 24 hours later, I have all this new hair growth. Still, they never ask and I never tell. I don’t need the sympathetic looks. Men approach me and I want to ask, “Hey, want to see a cool trick?” and then whip my wig off. One day I will work up the courage to do it. My baldness makes dating challenging, and for this reason, I rarely do.
I once tried online dating and connected with a man. I showed up to our first date wearing my wig, not making any mention of it. His first words were “I didn’t realize you were so blonde. In your profile picture, it looks darker.”
I closed my eyes for a brief second — his first comment to me was about the thing I hated most about myself. I self-sabotaged the date, offering nothing more than short snippets of information and keeping a stoic face. I never heard from him again.
The wig shop remains the one public place I feel comfortable with my disorder. The employees never mention my baldness and instead play pretend with me. We pick out wigs that mirror a celebrity’s hair, like a jet black one similar to Courteney Cox. They tell me the wig coupled with my blue eyes make me the Friends star’s doppelganger. Perhaps the four figures I spend here each year make them a little more generous with their compliments — I’ll still take it. There, I don’t feel quite so weird.