23 08/01/2012 life Stress

On Anxiety and Adolescence: The Bald Truth About My Brows

I’ve very casually slipped that fact that I have to pencil in my eyebrows at least a few times, like here, and over here… and lots of ladies everywhere require the aid of a pencil or a little powder to just fill in our brows so they’ll appear more full or more even. Some people have fair complexions. Some people overplucked during the 80’s 90’s uh-oh’s their youth, and need to correct matters, otherwise they look like they’re in a constant state of surprise. Gives a whole new meaning to the term high brow. (By the way, unless you’re a Marlene Dietrich impersonator, this is probably a bad look for you.)

My friend, and fellow Urban Mom Nancy inquired about this in the comment section of a recent post, saying, Can I just mention that you are officially the only person I have ever been friends with who draws on her eyebrows, you don’t smell like mothballs and wear tent dresses… please explain.” (I love her.) And I will now oblige you all… here we go.
I am not a war-era film star, nor did I ever get over-zealous with my tweezers back in the day. No – I pulled the hairs out with my own two hands.
Sometime during my mid-twenties as I set up house with my then-boyfriend (now husband) and was embarking on a new chapter in my life, I woefully discovered something… weird. I noticed lots and lots of hair on the back of the couch where I’d been sitting, watching TV or reading. I mean, lots. As if I’d been shedding, only I didn’t have any recollection of being the culprit myself. As it came to Martin’s horrified attention, I thought it best to look into what was suddenly up with me. I looked up “hair-pulling” and Google spit back something like this:
trich·o·til·lo·ma·ni·a: compulsive hair pulling. An impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to scalp hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, or other body hair. Symptoms usually appear before age 17, though age 13 on average. Affects roughly 1% of the population, and more common in girls than boys.

Holy crap. That’s me.

I’d had to fill in round bald spots in my eyebrows with pencil before, and I lost eyelashes in the middle sections all the time, but I didn’t pay it a lot of attention, really. I’d just try to gloss over it with makeup, telling myself I’d been picking at a small pimple in my brow, or managing an irritation that got out of hand. I just rubbed my eyes too hard… I’d tell my mother in years past when she’d notice how bald my lash line was.

Upon closer investigation and much deeper research, I discovered that I’d been pulling my own hair out, on and off, since I started middle school: the hardest two years of my life.

For me, those years were tough when I changed schools – my parents moved me to a better school in a better area of town, rather than have me enter the feeder school from my our district. It was a good move, but I went from a large school to a much smaller one, with maybe 50 kids in each of the seventh and eighth grades. And this school was predominantly whiter than the school I’d come from, which was decidedly more international.

This was not necessarily a problem, but it was the close ties these new kids had with each other that was – these kids had known each other since their infancy, it seemed. They’d grown up next door to each other, and their parents were friends. They all went to the same sleep-away camps together, for prior. They took ski lessons. Some rode horses. Some had older brother and sisters who hung out together, so they were already alumnae for cool-kid parties and things.

They were blonde and preppy and monied and handsome, and they went shopping at week-ends to places like Roots and Beaver Canoe and bought Treetorn sneakers and Swatches, and went to WHAM concerts, and had sleep-over birthday parties that not everyone could possibly be invited to, but really that just meant everyone but me… (That can’t really be true, but it certainly felt that way at the time.)

And never mind that whole part about trying to have a boyfriend, ohmygod. Just… no. That was NOT happening.

Socially I was having a bear of a time. I couldn’t crack the tight bonds of these girls – about twenty or so with which to make friends in my grade – and I just floundered, miserably. They weren’t mean girls – not really… they just weren’t as inclusive as I had wanted or needed. My schoolwork totally came second to all this social-stuff, which drove my father completely crazy. I sat through a million we-came-here-so-you-could-have-a-be
speeches when I brought home near-failing grades. And it didn’t help that my main teacher that year seemed pretty sure I was an idiot – he tried to console my parents once by saying, “She’s a fast runner… an excellent athlete, really… maybe she’ll get a scholarship to school?” M
y father nearly had a stroke, I’m so sure.

I cried a lot that year.

And I think sometime during the eighth grade, I plucked out almost all my eyelashes, and under the makeup, I had two neat, bald-to-the-skin circles in the thickest part of eyebrows. Then I started on two favourite spots on my scalp, but I had hair enough to hide them in those days.

Things improved for me incrementally by the ninth grade, when we all moved on to high school, but this time I could cast a much wider net with which to find friendships – and many of the friends I made then remain close in my heart to this day. I flat-out refused to go into the gifted programme, as I should have – I just couldn’t bear the idea of being the black kid AND the smart kid. And after my father didn’t have a stroke over that either, I found I wasn’t as plagued by anxiety during those years as in the ones prior. By that, I mean my issues with hair-pulling came and went, but socially I was much happier. It peaked again after I moved cities and moved away from a life that was safe and familiar when I was in my twenties. Among other things, I was lonely again.

Loneliness can be a terrible thing… inclusion is better.

I was severely stressed. And it was manifesting itself all over the back of my couch. As I researched and became more aware of my issues, I made changes in my life to calm myself, and try to control the compulsions, which often become habit-forming. It’s like an itch that only feels better once scratched… tough, but not impossible to overcome. Over time, I’ve become much better. I very rarely pull anymore.

But here’s a thing about eyelashes and eyebrows: eventually they stop growing back. They’re not completely gone, but I feel the need to fill them in before leaving the house. Seriously. Thank goodness for excellent makeup, and my steady hand with a pencil and an angled brush. Well, I’ve had years of practice after all.

Now when I feel a familiar tingling in my scalp (in two specific places on my head) I think carefully about what’s going on in my life. I think about it rather than try to push it away or drive it out of my mind. But I’m better at this now, because I know the patterns. I’m forty, not fourteen. I usually “get” what’s up with me, before I run into serious problems, and I can be cool. Everything is going to be okay, just relax.

So, that’s my story. *waggles eyebrows* I’m not shy about talking about it anymore… any questions?
  • Tracey

    Idas, you’re just so… my goodness, you always knock me out, woman! Thank you SO MUCH for such kind words.
    John Hughes’ films were just the best BEST thing for me (for us all) during those times… hiding our bizarreness can be so tricky, and I loved seeing all his stories in the theatre, and letting all his excellent lines wormhole deep into my mind. It’s sad he’s gone so soon.
    I cherish you, too. xoxox

  • Tracey

    It wasn’t so bad – we have such a lovely community around these parts, don’t we?
    And yeah – I share your dislike of Treetorns aussi. Kinda glad I didn’t acquire any…

  • Tracey

    I wish I’d known you too, Alice! And I figure you get a waaaaay better life when you don’t peak in high school. It wasn’t the worst for me either, but I’m still glad I don’t have to go back. 😉

  • Idas

    There are many John Hughes’ truths.
    If we were dues, it would suffice it to slap you on the back and say:
    Tray, look at the balls on you.
    However the female equivalent escapes me…
    All I can muster is a thank you for sharing that the nice girl does get to kiss the hot guy over the glowing birthday cake.
    The John Hughe’s quote in particular I found relevant in my teens:
    “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”
    (The Breakfast Club).
    I’ve also been thinking a lot about John Lennon and Yoko Ono (no idea why) and this quote comes to mind:
    “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
    ― John Lennon
    You are loved and loved Tracey. What an honour to know you.

  • Julie

    thanks for sharing that, it was probably one of the hardest things for you to do! you’re making me wonder if that’s why i’m a “picker”…fortunately it’s my legs (and because i’m a waxer as well) but i can’t get a bald spot there to save my life.
    i really dislike tretorns! 🙂

  • Alice

    (Wow, I worked in Thorncliffe Park for YEARS when I first moved back here! It’s changed though, wow, so different from when you were there.)
    I had the great benefit of going to a small alternative school for 7/8, and the difference that made was HUGE. I was shy, but with only 63 kids in the school and most of them a little offbeat, it was a fantastic environment for those really crappy years.
    It was high school in the Beaches that put me into the same sort of environment you had, where those kids had known each other forever, and all seemed to have the perfect lives and clothes and money that I didn’t. It was also a very white school, which was weird coming from growing up in chinatown, but as a white kid, I it was just weird, not difficult. I always thought the few black kids or asian kids must have felt pretty weird, even if the neighbourhood and the attitudes were pretty progressive.
    I found one or two friends I was super close to (still am), and did okay, so luckily, high school was neither a peak nor a horrible time. I did pick my school partly for its smaller size, partly for its language programme, so it did keep me in a smaller pond still, but the shy didn’t go away any until much later, all the same. Wish I had known you!
    Me, I’m not a hair puller, but I have the annoying compulsion to pick at any bump on me, which grosses me out, but this hasn’t stopped me yet, all these years in. Keep thinking I need to work on that…

  • DesiValentine

    ((hugs)) I hope so, too. For my kids, so far, there is no ‘them’. So far, they take ‘ethnic’ features in stride like eye colour and hair colour and leggings and bluejeans. I LOVE that! And you’re right, the anxiety response in junior high had absolutely nothing to do with ‘them’ and everything to do with my struggle to figure myself out, cope with the pressure I put on myself, and otherwise survive adolescence. Crazy diamonds, yes. They are that 🙂

  • Tracey

    Hi Heather!
    Listen: you don’t have to be a mom, and you certainly don’t have to be Canadian to feel part of our community here… you need to be a human person, with feelings, and with a sense of humour, and a thought in his or her head – this is all we require to humour/educate/influence/inspire/enjoy here. I’m so happy you felt like commenting!
    We all have our peccadilloes… and laughter can be the very best medicine, I reckon. I also understand what it takes to comment sometimes, so THANK YOU SO MUCH for taking the time, and I hope you will chime in whenever you feel the urge.
    I feel your comfort – for that I thank you. Keep on reading!! 😉

  • Tracey

    I think everyone finds some kind of angst to glom onto… whether mild or severe.
    Let’s hope for “mild”. 😉

  • Tracey

    Dude, you’re sooooo right – adolescence is a bitch, no matter how you slice it. Yes. Just… yes.
    The majority of beings suffer somewhat during this time of life – we have angst – it comes with the age. Some have it rough, and some have it waaaaaaaay worse. I wasn’t bullied or anything – I can also count my blessings here.
    I never heard the SOB/SNOB acronyms before… I grew up in Thorncliffe Park, north of the Danforth, east of Pape. The entire world was accounted for in our neighbourhood, I think, from high end to low end. Schooling in Leaside was… new. Good, but different. Anyway.
    As for the dumbing down thing… I sooooo wish I hadn’t. (And sorry for that call you received back in the day, ma belle…) A protective mechanism that didn’t really work. Anyway. I guess that’s why there’s no PhD diploma hanging on my wall now. Boo! Suck!!
    PS – Thanks for thinking I’m awesome… I’m glad your hair is growing back, lady!! xoxox

  • Tracey

    Sweet lady, my friend, my Village,
    You didn’t force… you reopened a thought I’ve always had about sharing, and I decided it was high time. Thanks for the nudge.
    Sharing is good… and yes, the “brave” sharing is a good thing. And it’s nice to see I’m not alone in this. 😉

  • Tracey

    Oh, how I wish we were neighbours too, dear lady…
    You read me loud and clear – it’s so interesting to find how common this kind of thing can be – and I don’t mean to say it’s because of “them” – it would have probably manifested itself this way with whatever kind of stress I would have felt at this age, even if I was completely comfortable with the company I was keeping at that time.
    Black kid + smart kid = uncomfortable, sometimes. Yes. Only, how I wish I had felt differently, or been stronger at the time. Le sigh. Such is sometimes the way… I hope my kids will feel more comfortable in all things, so they can shine on, like the crazy diamonds they are.

  • Heather!

    Tracey, I’m not Canadian and I’m not really a mom either (stepmom to kids who don’t live with us), so in a way I don’t ‘belong’ here. I don’t know how I first came across UrbanMoms, but I’ve been reading it for about a year or so…mostly because I love reading what YOU write! For real. Usually you crack me up, but it’s also posts like this that make me feel a little bit like part of a community because there are people who are brave enough to share some part of themselves, their story. I, too, can relate to some of the issues you have mentioned here. Many of us, much more than will comment, I’m sure, can relate to them. And sometimes it just feels good to know you’re not alone, you’re not the only one dealing with some ‘weird’ problem. I have weird problems. Usually I laugh about them, but the truth is, it is comforting to know that other people have or have had them, too. Thank you!

  • Sara

    Our school was an interesting one eh Kath? Can I tell you that I was a NOB apparently but NEVER heard those acronyms until after I left. I’m now a proud WAY SOB!!! High school was such a stress bag. I’ve talked to people since who thought I was totally secure and in the ‘popular’ group. I never felt like that once when I was there. I hope it can be smoother for our kids.

  • Tracey

    Man, nervous barfing sounds like hell… that’s gotta be rough! Glad all your eyelashes came back – it’s been such a long time with me, they’re forever sparse. (I wish that would happen on my legs!)
    You’re awesome too, lady. xox

  • Tracey

    Thank YOU for reading, Julie… takes one to know one. 😉

  • Kath

    Ah, Tracey, you are indeed a brave lady (along with being all kinds of awesome). I don’t pull my hair out, but I have struggled with alopecia areata in recent years (brought on by stress) and have had various patches of baldness in different places on my scalp, the worst being a 10cm diameter bald spot right smack on the very top of my noggin last summer. Being hairless is such a difficult thing, isn’t it? And such a fine line, too, between being too hirsute and not having hair where we’re supposed to, right? And now that you mention it, I do have a weird compulsion to “play with” my eyebrows (just ask Jen), but it’s never caused the hair to fall out (more’s the shame, as my brows are like two fuzzy caterpillars that would send even Brooke Shields running for the tweezers).
    I too struggled to fit in with the Tretorn-wearing, equestrian ski bunnies who all knew each other from kindergarten onwards and saw each other every weekend at the country club and every summer at their exclusive private camps. I went to a huge high school with a large catchment area, and to this day I remember the acronyms “those” kids had for where the different groups lived: were you a SNOB (slightly north of Bloor)? Or, like me, a poor SOB (south of Bloor)? Shockingly, I can only remember there being one black kid in high school. But I can remember his name, and it seems to me he was the valedictorian of our class.
    I’ll also never forget learning the ‘dumb yourself down’ lesson – a popular and cute boy asked me for my phone number in grade 11 or 12. I handed it over, and waited with bated breath for him to call me that night. He did. I was ecstatic. He asked me only one thing: “can I borrow your History notes?” Just recalling that story hurts, and I am 43 freaking years old.
    Shit. Adolescence is a bitch any way you slice it.

  • Nancy

    Oh Brave girl. Sorry I pushed you to tell. You are something else. Beautiful and heart wide open. We all have our hang ups and when I stop counting mine I will write about them too.
    Self talk is pretty great but the trick is letting the strong calm voice rise up over all the other ones. I am working on that.
    xxooxxo thank you for the brave sharing

  • DesiValentine

    Oh, honey. I wish we didn’t live on opposite ends of the country. My mum moved me to an all-white, rural school when I was fourteen – all so we could have a better life. Except, of course, I didn’t ship there with the rule book they had all been growing up with since they attended Sunday school together eight years ago. I had the wrong skin and the wrong clothes and the wrong hair and the wrong everything. They weren’t mean. They just weren’t mine, and they didn’t want me to be theirs, you know? So, now I have short, thin, eyelashes with a couple of small bald spots. I know about being careful not to be the smart kid. Being the black kid was absolutely more than enough. I skipped a lot and wrote essays the night before they were due and got extra creative with the long answer questions on final exams so I would stay at the bottom edge of the honor roll and never, ever have to face the additional segregation of ‘gifted’. Not there. And I stopped competing in track, too. I’d held the record 50m and 100m time for my old school, and it only took one run at my new school to convince me I did not need to stand out like that, either. What’s ironic is that this effort to blend was always futile. And maybe that’s why the anxiety manifested itself that way.

  • Sara

    Oh my friend. I was an eyelasher puller outer all through the same time period that you write about (on top of many other things that I know now were anxiety related). What pleasure I got from having a spot on my eye lid with no lashes. Odd thing is – they did grow back. But I think I stopped doing that when I started nervous barfing (not bulimia…just so nervous I wouldn’t eat or I’d gag….welcome to my postpartum). You’re so awesome Trace – what a great, honest post.

  • Julie

    Wow Tracey. Thank you for sharing this with us. It reminds me of my highschool days in a predominately white school (I’m mixed). I thought you were a cool kat before, now I think you’re courageous AND cool. Thanks. Just thanks.

  • Tracey

    [insert long sigh] And now, I just want to hug you and hug you, Ali… yes, when anxiety is high, this kind of thing creeps back in, but it’s good to identify what’s up, and stop yourself – that works for me. I’m so happy you shared, too. 🙂

  • http://www.alimartell.com alimartell

    um. YES.
    I have a spot at the back of my head that I occasionally go back to when anxiety is particularly high. mine is not hair pulling actually…but it’s more like…scalp picking? But it’s sort of the same with me…when I have the thought to pick at it…I remember…I think about it. And I stop myself.

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