I’m alone when it starts.
If they made a movie of my life so far, there would be a drum-roll. Or the lights would dim – some version of a hint that something is about to happen. But there’s nothing. I don’t register that I should be paying attention. The setting adds to my nonchalance because I’m in my bedroom. Nothing could be more familiar. I’m sitting at my dressing table, brushing my hair.
I have beautiful hair. That sounds vain but as it’s my singular attribute in the beauty stakes, I’m allowed to revel in it. It was looking particularly good that day because I’d forked out a fortune at the hairdresser for a colour rinse. My hair is thick and glossy but it’s never been enough to lure a boyfriend into my web. An upgrade might improve my chances? A colour rinse seems less of a hassle than a diet.
The songs all say that gentlemen prefer blondes so it was an easy choice. I pointed to summer blonde on the chart and told him to go ahead – I’m not built for the beach so I can’t rely on the sun to add some natural highlights. Barbara Cartland would have come up with something like a sun-kissed torrent if she’d had to describe the finished product. I can’t stop brushing it. Touching it.
And then I stop. Like pressing pause on the remote. I spot a mousey remnant of my natural colour as I run my fingers through the fairy-tale. A single hair. It looks so dark. Out of place. A cloud in the sun-kissed torrent. OMG I think, dropping the brush in panic. My fingers instinctively reach up to the offending hair. Tighten around it. Tug. The entire hair comes out – right down to the root.
I stare at it in my fingers. Move my thumb across the root, exploring the bulb; a tiny, innocuous swelling. I can’t explain why I lift it to my mouth, run it lightly across my lip. It doesn’t feel sensuous. Not in any way erotic. No tremors down my spine but I feel something. Not pleasure. Not pain. But something.
The moment passes and I brush the strand carelessly to the floor. I can’t explain why I did it again. How it became a habit. Pulling is easier to start than to stop when TTM takes root. Acronyms are the ABC of the texting generation but not many will know what that stands for.
I hate the word, not only because I know the meaning. I hate it because it ends in mania. That feels like a judgement. No-one feels guilty if they have rheumatoid arthritis. Or cancer. They’re just unlucky. Everyone feels sorry for them. No-one points or sniggers if chemo makes your hair fall out. It’s entirely different if you pull it out yourself. That makes you as mad as a hatter. Even in your own eyes.
Mania isn’t the only suffix that’s a regular routine for me. Phobia crops up every single day. My default phobia is nomophobia – that’s a lot of letters for an acronym but it’s still a short cut. No-Mobile-Phone-Phobia. A large percentage of people on the planet suffer from that – they just don’t know they have it. They don’t know it’s a medical condition. It’s lucky I have it. Without Google, I’d have been wondering for years why I was pulling. Thinking I was the only one. Hiding my secret…
For me, phobia and mania are linked – both are finger-related. When my fingers aren’t pulling, they’re on a keyboard. I only registered that I was pulling when I saw the pile of hair on the keyboard. Not the piano. The computer. I’m a data analyst so I sit in front of a computer every single day. Even at night. Over the weekend. If I’m not playing with figures, I’m on google. Google is my guru. I can’t survive for half an hour without access to instant answers. And when I google, I use my phone rather than my lap-top. It’s one of the things I always do. I can’t stop myself. FRBR comes up on most sites about TTM. Body Focused Repetitive Behavior. That’s embedded in my DNA, side by side with acronyms.
Google’s to blame for nomophobia, in my case. It’s the reason I need my phone. I seldom use it for phone calls. Who would I phone? I don’t spend hours confiding in my best friend because I’ve never had one. I prefer Whatsapp to conversation. I need to vet what I say before I send it. I have 342 friends but most of them don’t live in Cape Town.
I don’t know why I pull my hair out. Google says it’s not genetic so I can’t blame my parents. Anthea and Andrew. They named me Zoe so we’ve always been at least an alphabet apart. I hardly know them, now the Atlantic Ocean in the way. They packed their right-wing bags and headed for the airport once Zuma was elected. Fortunately, political opinions aren’t genetic. TTM’s not genetic either but Google tells me that addiction is – recent stats claim 50% – 60% of addictive behavior is due to genetic predisposition. I seldom see my parents now they have their Green Cards but Anthea made an unwitting contribution to my situation during one her rare visits. Without her, I might not have googled quite so soon. You should never write off your mother completely.
‘I snapped this up for you on a Walmart sale!’ she enthused as she unpacked her luggage. The bargain she unwrapped was a duvet set. Blue and white stripes with navy pillow-cases. She’d thrown in a navy sheet as well.
‘I don’t like blue,’ I said in half-hearted protest. ‘I don’t like any shade of blue. You’re going to turn me into a depressive if I have to sleep in a dark blue bed.’
‘You can’t return sale goods!’ she insisted dogmatically. ‘And it’s very good quality!’ It was easier to sleep in a blue bedroom than to argue so I gave my maid the old duvet and settled my head on the crisp new pillow case.
It’s easy to see the strands of hair on my pillow when I get out of bed the next day. They’re part of a sun-kissed torrent, after all. They stand out against the navy background. I think nothing of it. It doesn’t cross my mind that I might have pulled them out. I head off to work and carry on with life as usual. I don’t give it another thought, even though there are more on the pillow the next morning. And the next. And the next. Why would I give them a second thought? Hair comes out all the time. Plumbers owe their livelihood to unblocking showers.
A couple of months have passed before one of my non-best-friends steps into my office and stands beside my desk with some memo or other.
‘God Zoe!’ she says. ‘Look at your keyboard!’
I glance down. Do a double take. There are more than two hairs on the keyboard. Not yet a clump but not a stray strand either. Almost a sun-kissed tress, if I’m honest.
‘Good grief!’ I say ineffectually. ‘Must be the moulting season!’ I top off this inanity with a mindless giggle. I sound like Zuma. I sweep the evidence onto the floor. Out of sight. Grab the memo out of her hand and deflect her attention.
But not my own.
I stare at the keyboard when she leaves the office. How had those hairs got there? So many of them? Was my hair falling out? I’m busy with an important contract so I’d hardly blinked for the past two hours, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Entering data. Cross-checking. Typing in conclusions. I’m very good at my job so I have all the relevant data at my fingertips.
At my fingertips? What had my fingers had been up to while I processed the data?
I stare at the pile of hair on the floor beside my desk. Was it a pile? It looked like the floor at the hairdresser when I drop in for a trim. But where are the scissors? I stretch a finger down in a tentative way. A couple of fingers. Enough to pick up some of the hairs. I lay them in a row on the desk. I have a good eye for detail. My meticulous approach is legendary in the firm. These hairs don’t look quite like the hairs on the hair dresser’s floor. Can I pin-point a difference?
The ones at the hairdresser are snippets. Shorter. Different lengths. The hairs lined up on my desk are all long. The sun-kissed torrent reaches my shoulders. That’s how long these hairs are. And each one has a root. Did I pull them out? Could I have pulled them out? Why would I do that? A whole pile? Why didn’t it hurt? Why isn’t my scalp bleeding? My fingers reach instinctively for the phone. I don’t consciously give them that instruction – it’s what I always do when I need to know an answer. I key in hair-pulling. Stare at the screen.
So many sites. Multiple sites about a word I’d never heard before. So much information on a secret I didn’t know I was keeping.
I panic. Log out. Bury my head in data. I forbid my fingers to go anywhere near my phone until my head is safely back on the navy pillowcase that night. I feel almost giddy as I skim my way through the sites that come up on my screen. One directs me to Amazon. There’s a book about it. Thank god for Kindle- I don’t have to wait until Exclusive Books opens its doors at nine the next day- the book arrives in about one second. I switch off the bedroom light before I start reading. That’s ridiculous -I live alone – but it seems important that no-one sees what I’m reading.
It’s a compendium of anecdotes by hair pullers. Different ages. Different sexes. Different continents.
I find it hard to move beyond the title. Doesn’t it Hurt? It wrenches my gut because it echoes one of the thoughts that crossed my mind during my keyboard epiphany. Why doesn’t it hurt? Where’s the blood? The cover shows a girl’s face. A pale face. Eyes shut. Framed by a cascade of hair. Dark hair. Not a sun-kissed torrent but a cascade, none-the-less. It’s not a photo. More of a cartoon. Perhaps TTM doesn’t apply to real people? Her hands are stretched out in front of her. As if she’s begging.
But her hands aren’t empty. They’re full of hair. Maybe she is begging? People with TTM beg all the time for it to stop.
I force myself to start reading. The opening sentence claims statistics show that 1 in 50 Americans have trichotillomania. 1 in 50! There are millions of Americans so that’s a lot of people! I open a random chapter. It freaks me out completely because the writer was so young when she started. Six years old. She tried to ignore the messages from her eyelids. Pull they said. Pull. You’ll feel better if you pull. Her fingers found their way to her lashes. She pulled. One came out in her fingers. She did feel better so she did it again. And again. And again. Until they were all were gone.
An eyelash? I’m horrified. An eyelash? All her eyelashes? I recoil at the thought. Were there any eyelashes on the navy pillowcase? My eyelashes aren’t as luxurious as my hair so maybe I didn’t notice?
Her mother eventually noticed – and so she smacked her. Bent her over the bed and smacked her bottom. Her bottom was only six years old. So were each of her fingers. None of them would listen when she told them to stop. Her mother told her friends. In front of the child. When it didn’t stop, she sent a letter to the teacher. The child didn’t want to tell the teacher. She was ashamed so she crumpled up the letter. She was only six years old so she wasn’t cunning enough to destroy the evidence. She left the crumpled letter in her satchel. Her mother found it when she sidled home. More smacking. She learned how to hide her secret as she got older but it’s not much of a secret when bald patches start to appear.
I want to switch off my Kindle but my fingers won’t listen. I plough through the whole book that night. It’s not a very long book but my pillowcase is covered with hair by the time I reach the end.
I stuff my pillowcase into the washing machine. I have a perfect attendance record at work but I phone in sick, my thoughts too jumbled to deal with data. I peer into the mirror. No baldness. Am I missing something? I contort myself into a knot to examine the back of my head. Have the non-best friends already noticed? Is there sniggering I haven’t spotted? Pointing? Why would I pull out my hair? The anecdotes all mention stress. Am I stressed? Haven’t I noticed that either? Why would I be stressed?
I sit on my hands. I don’t trust them.
Maybe I’m lonely? I’ve always been a loner so that’s nothing new. I’ve never had a boyfriend. Or a close friend. I’m closer to my cat than anyone human. OMG. What if I target my cat? What if I start pulling out clumps of fur when she cuddles on my pillow every night? I feel like a psychopath. If I made an appointment with a shrink, I’d describe myself as self-sufficient rather than maladjusted. You can’t write off someone who gets promoted as often as I do. Would they promote a misfit? Is being in charge is too much for me to handle?
I can’t settle, even in my favourite chair. My nightie feels tight. Maybe I’m fat? Surely I’m not too fat to have a boyfriend? Fatter girls than me walk past me holding hands with someone. My boobs look like udders in a bikini. I remember rushing out of the change-room, in case an assistant barged in to offer her advice. But I never go to the beach so why would that worry me now?
It might have worried me a bit when I was younger. I remember being jealous of an anorexic girl in my class. She looked like a skeleton. All those lovely bones. I prayed she’d infect me but I’m too greedy for anorexia. Google has PAGES on anorexia but basically you aren’t going to get there unless you stop eating. I’m too hungry to do that. Second-helpings are part of my DNA. Bulimia sounded a better option. I showed real flair, shoveling down anything that crossed my path. But the key to bulimia is the toilet visits. According to Google, that’s a ground rule for successful bulimia. I could never make myself vomit, no matter how far I stuck my fingers down my throat. I never progressed further than a few bouts of dry retching. The binge ingredients wouldn’t budge. They hung around on my hips. On my bottom. On my belly. My fingers were useless at being stuck down my throat.
Why are they so skillful when it comes to pulling out my hair?
I return to Doesn’t it Hurt? Is it my new bible? Not that I had an old one. Maybe that’s what I need? Can I drum up a different epiphany? There’s a whole squad of Christians at the office. Lots of Muslims. Maybe I should sidle over and claim to have found Jesus? I don’t have a clue who the Muslims would find. Maybe Allah? I’d rather find a boyfriend. I’ve eavesdropped on a gang of non-best friends giggling about their conquests on Tinder but I don’t think I can go there, despite my keyboard skills. What if the pulling gets worse? No-one wants a bald girlfriend.
The anagram-addicted section of my DNA registers TLC. Tender Loving Care sounds like something anyone in the TTM gang would need but it translates to something entirely different in this context. The Trichotillomania Learning Centre. It comes over as the ultimate solution for hair-pullers. Virtually every one of the writers finds salvation when they log onto online counselling. Half of them become TLC disciples, delivering speeches all over various continents. Getting us together. Dishing out advice. Buy a stress ball. Tape your fingers. Use organic shampoo. Keep a journal. Etcetera, Etcetera. Most of them swear by CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. They all sign up – for a fee, of course. In American dollars. They find conferences to attend but no-one mentions one in Cape Town. Not that I’d go. What if I see someone I know? I’m firmly in the closet when it comes to pulling out my hair.
I log into TLC only when the first bald patch appears.
I’m pulling my hair out in fistfuls by then. Awake at 2.00am, my scalp throbbing. I can’t stop my fingers. I’m desperate to feel the follicle dislodge from my scalp, to feel the root against my lips. I’m disgusted when I part them to let my teeth bite down. I’m disgusted. I’m disgusting. But that doesn’t stop me. I drown in shame when a hair-free patch beside my ear catches my increasingly vigilant eye. I panic. Try to hide it. Do I dare to go to work? What if it’s windy? What if I don’t notice? What if they do?
I leave the office early. Computers are portable – but people aren’t. They need to ask me questions, now that I’m the one in charge. They start to raise their eyebrows as my work-from-home routine increases. I still have my own eyebrows at that stage but I’m neurotic that my fingers will attack them next.
I need help.
Someone. Somewhere. Anyone. Anywhere. I can’t survive this on my own. But how do I keep it secret?
I’m a computer hot-shot so I know all about the dangers of a paper trail. I register a new address. firstname.lastname@example.org No names involved. Anonymous. Mania is not a word that anyone would associate with Zoe – I’m the least manic person at the office. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t dance on the table at the office party. I don’t even GO to the office party. I’m not manic. On the surface anyway. I take a deep breath before I start typing.
I get an immediate response. It’s a test. They need to assess the level of my pulling tactics. It’s anonymous. No names required. And it’s free. I might as well try it. The questions are multiple choice. Frequency of urges. Intensity. Effects. I spend a long time deciding on my answers before I press Send. Another immediate response. The severity of my case is rated 70%.
That sounds bad. Very bad.
The response is from someone named Steve and he’s based in Chicago. One of the millions of Americans. He’s very persuasive about online therapy. Maybe he’s not one of the millions. Maybe he’s just a salesman? I’m suspicious but I don’t press delete immediately. 70% is not a score I can shrug off. I read every word of Steve’s pitch. It covers inter-connected thoughts. Feelings. Behavior. Negativity. Not good enough. Disgusting.
I feel as if he’s describing me.
He moves onto solutions. Reflection. Challenge. Habit Reversal. He mentions worksheets. Personal therapists. It sounds like a lot of exposure. More than multiple choice. He mentions clomipramine. Maybe I can just swallow a pill? But if they work, why aren’t the millions of Americans all swallowing them? I somehow know it’s going to be harder than swallowing a pill.
I need advice. I can’t possibly ask someone at work. The office is staffed with non-best friends. I can’t tell one of them. Imagine the gossip! They’re already gossiping about my work-from-home routine. Asking me why. I can’t brush them off forever. Especially if all my hair falls out. What if I’m bald? Maybe I’ll tell them I have cancer? It would be easier to have cancer. I wish it was cancer. I could blame chemo for the bald patch. With TTM, I can only blame myself.
I decide to register. My promotions mean that money’s not an issue. Even in American dollars. I’m anxious when I key in the credit card details. I don’t want to blow my cover but what are my choices? Again, an immediate response. It must be automated. No problem with time zones. It delivers a list of emails. A long list. Not as many as a million but I suppose we haven’t all heard of TLC. Or we’re put off by the dollars. Maybe the ones who are rated at 30% don’t feel it’s necessary to go any further?
But my result was 70%. I need to go further.
I scroll down the list. I’m attracted to the ones who don’t use their real names. Maybe they feel as furtive as I do? I like the sound of Zephyr@gmail.com Zephyr and Zoe. Maybe we have more than the alphabet in common? Maybe Zephyr will be easier to talk to then Anthea and Andrew? I like the sound of her when I open her email. I’m sure she’s a girl. What if she’s a boy? I’ll have nothing in common with a boy.
Zephyr describes herself as a creature of habit. She always eats the same food. Wears the same colour. She sits on the same spot on the couch every night. I like that. I’m reading her email in my favourite chair. It feels as if we’ve bonded. Order and punctuality are the cornerstones of my life. She includes a paragraph that makes me feel better. She’s rational about her pulling. Puts in perspective. She says some people overeat. Some drink too much. Others do drugs. Some are compulsive joggers. Some gamble. There are multiple activities that people feel compelled to do every single day. Zephyr pulls out handfuls of hair.
That’s all I say when I type my reply. Press Send.
Noma-phobia is rampant as I wait for a reply. I check my phone frenetically. Even though I know she might live in Los Angeles. Google says there’s a 10-hour time difference. Zephyr’s probably sound asleep but I’m desperate for a response. I’ve sent an SOS. Will she register the urgency in the two words I mailed?
Me too. What could be more urgent than that?
But Zephyr never replies.
Not after ten hours. Not even after twenty. I force myself to look at the list again. This time I close my eyes and jab at the screen with a pencil. It lands on email@example.com Sounds like another ten-hour delay. But maybe she lives on the east coast? Maybe she’s from New York? And I can be sure she’s a girl because her name is Carole. And because her email is all about penciling in her eyebrows. Applying false lashes. Hoping it’s just a fleeting problem that will eventually go away.
That’s exactly what I’m hoping so I write Me too. Again. Press Send. Again.
But this time I get a reply! We start up a correspondence. Share pulling experiences. Times. Tactics. I’m thrilled! This feels like progress! It feels like friendship! My confidence inches up. One day, Carole doesn’t get back to me as promptly as usual so I contact another name on the list! A reply from the new one is waiting when I check my phone at lunch time! And there’s also one from Carole!
My life takes on a new dimension. The evenings start to fly by. I press Cut. Copy. Send. They don’t all reply but lots of them do. It’s reassuring to read them voice the same reservations about themselves as I feel about myself. I identify with the one who checks her garbage to see how much hair she’s thrown out that day. I cringe in sympathy with someone who describes how the boys at school pull off her wig, laugh at her baldness as they throw it over her helpless head.
I’m still pulling two years later but by then I have 342 friends in my contact list.
I’m riveted when one of them asks if I live in Cape Town! I’d described my horror the day before. I told them there was a strong South Easter; I’d spent hours hiding the patches before I went to work. The South Easter destroyed my disguise the minute I stepped out of my car. Everyone could see. I was so flustered that I dropped my keys. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Should I cover up the patches? Should I look for my keys? The girl who emailed me knew all about South Easters because she lives in Table View. Table View has the strongest South Easters in Cape Town.
Her name is Jennifer – she wants to meet me for coffee!
I’m terrified. Wracked with indecision. Do I want to face a real person? Someone who knows? There’s a safety net on email. I’ve shied away from people who ask to be a Face Book friend. I don’t have a Face Book account, simply because of the face aspect. My face is a secret. So is my hand-writing. Anything that would show who I really am.
But I’m tempted. There’s something so normal about a coffee date. The non-best friends are always nipping out for a coffee. Together. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a coffee? It’s just coffee, I explain to myself. I’m not going to take my clothes off. I can keep my hat on. And it’s in Table View. I live in Newlands. Table View is on a different planet, if you live in Cape Town. No-one at the office lives in Table View. No-one will see me.
‘Great!’ I say when I write back. ‘Anywhere in Table View is fine for me! How about after work on Tuesday?’ There’s even less likelihood I’ll see anyone after work. The non-best friends are rushing home to bath their babies.
She suggests The News Café because it’s close to her office. I don’t like the look of it when I Google. Too open and sophisticated for an undercover meeting? But the address is 1Beach Boulevard so it should be easy to find- I’ve never actually been to Table View. Why would I go there? Why would anyone go there, I wonder, as I drive past rows of modern houses. So different from shady Newlands.
But it feels like an adventure! It IS an adventure! Maybe Jennifer and I will hit it off? Maybe she’s best friend material? Maybe I am? I feel almost grateful to my bald patch for putting us in contact. What could happen?
Maybe the road to Table View will become more familiar after tonight?