Like comedian Amy Schumer, I have trichotillomania. Since high school, I’ve been pulling out my eyebrows and, occasionally, my hair and eyelashes. I’m lucky not to have a serious case; even after a day of heavy plucking, I can usually cover the bald areas of my brows with makeup and blame the thinner areas for over-tweezing. Yet I know all too well the shame that Schumer and so many other people with this little-known but fairly common disorder describe.
Pulling your hair out is rude and embarrassing, and although I know, rationally, that it’s coerced and therefore not voluntary, it’s hard not to feel guilty for causing such damage to my body. The fact that trichotillomania is so rarely mentioned in the media compounds these emotions; the less information and support available for a condition, the more isolated and abnormal those who suffer from it feel.
As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t even know that my tendency to repeatedly pluck my eyebrows had a name, let alone had millions of fellow misfortunes.
That’s why a major star like Schumer talking openly about the disorder and incorporating it as a storyline into his new Hulu show “Life & Beth” is so important. In the penultimate episode of the semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about a successful woman reflecting on her past, a young version of Schumer is seen being fitted with a wig while a therapist informs his mother that Schumer suffers from trichotillomania. It’s a moving and evocative scene, made all the more significant by the star’s March revelation that, like her character, she has long lived with the disease. “I thought putting it in there would be good for me to alleviate some of my shame and maybe hopefully help others alleviate some of theirs too,” Schumer told The Hollywood Reporter.
Last week, she said instinct proved to be correct. She told radio host Howard Stern that although she felt “ugly and unlovable” growing up, and even today, she still has “so much shame” about the disorder and its impact on her life, speaking publicly about her experiences has helped her let go of some of that shame and “accept” trichotillomania as part of who she is.
It was definitely helpful to me. Hearing Schumer speak openly about his condition and his feelings about it was a necessary reminder that I am not alone in my struggles, nor should I be ashamed of it. This conversation is fairly new; As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t even know that my tendency to repeatedly pluck my eyebrows had a name, let alone had millions of fellow sufferers as well as a therapeutic path for treatment.
If I had known, I would certainly have been less ashamed and perhaps even asked for help from others. I would have been reassured to know that while pulling my hair out may have made me feel “weird” or “bad”, I was actually much more normal than I thought. Although the cause is unknown, research has indicated that genetic and environmental factors may be involved, and many people with trichotillomania also have similar compulsive conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder or skin disorder.
In reality, trichotillomania is much more common than it seems. The Center for OCD and Related Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital estimates that 1-3% of the US population is affected by the disease. Women are much more likely than men to be diagnosed, and the disorder usually occurs in early adolescence (although it can start at any age and, as in Schumer’s case, last until the adulthood). There are also tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy to address this. In CBT, therapists help patients with trichotillomania change their thought patterns around behavior and find other, less harmful ways to channel their compulsion.
But because of the silence that existed – and largely still exists – around trichotillomania, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized my condition was both widespread and treatable (if not curable), due to the combination of a good therapist and a friend who spoke about her own struggle with the disorder. I’m grateful for both, but I’m frustrated that I’ve spent so much time feeling unnecessarily bad about something that’s both common and out of my control.
By revealing her experience with trichotillomania, Schumer and celebrities like her (including actress Olivia Munn, who spoke out about the disease years ago) are helping to erase the stigma that has long existed around the disease and give it much-needed visibility.
As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine telling a soul how many times I plucked my eyebrows out, let alone write about it in an article. All that silence, however, didn’t make me feel better or make the behavior go away; on the contrary, it only served to make matters worse. So I’m grateful to people like Schumer who are breaking that silence to tell those who suffer from trichotillomania that they’re not as alone as they feel – and in fact, they have a support group of millions of other people just like them.