The Cost of Pulling Out My Hair
The first time I looked up the price of hair extensions and wigs, I was very young, broke, and living overseas, and I had no idea how to buy fake hair if it wasn’t quietly shipped to a U.S. address via Amazon. There was no way I could trust the postal system in the country where I was living, because I’d heard too many stories about boxes arriving with the flaps slit open, or never arriving at all. So spending a few hundred bucks on an impromptu, round-trip visit to Boston seemed like a reasonable investment at the time. It was the surest way that my extensions would arrive safely in my hands, and I needed those extensions, badly and urgently, because I’d pulled out nearly all of the hair on the left side of my head.
In the end, I never took that trip—I coped by generous use of hairpins and woolly hats. When I was back living in the U.S., I went through the usual culture shock spiel: I marveled at the variety of cereal brands in grocery stores, reveled in hot showers, gasped at the price of avocados. But most of all, I was grateful for how much easier it was to buy stuff to cover up my bald spots.
The first time I pulled a Jessica Simpson hairpiece out of its packaging, it looked like flat furry roadkill. Wearing it was even stranger, as though I was walking around with a cat digging its tiny claws into my head and making my neck sweat uncontrollably. My Effortless Extensions came in a bright pink, velvety folder, and somehow magically defied gravity and clung to my scalp via a thin loop of plastic. My fake bangs were so long they made my eyelashes itch, and when I trimmed them, I looked like a sadder Lena Duham in the “Girls” scene where she chops off her hair.
All the fake hair I’ve bought is the relatively cheap synthetic kind, which goes brittle after a few months of wear. I still got compliments: my hair looked great. My hair looked different, what did I do to my hair? No one has ever suspected that I pull it out. The more products I bought to cover up the damage, the easier it was pretend that things were not that bad, and the more I pulled, the more I needed to keep buying things like wig combs and fake hair shampoo and bottles and bottles of Toppix, which is a magic black dust that you pour over your head, in order to make your glaring white bald spots disappear. I pulled and I spent money. I spent money and I pulled.
I’d never heard of trichotillomania—the official name for hair pulling disorder—until I was idly Googling in my college library one night. No way, I thought, scrolling through pages and pages of search results. I thought this was just some funky thing that I’d invented, the first person in the world to do so, in order to keep from biting my nails. Even in my high school journals, I couldn’t admit to myself that this was happening. I referred to it as smoking. As in, today I sat on my bed and stared into space and smoked for 30 minutes.
I don’t remember when it started. But I do remember leafing through my fifth grade journal. In one entry, in between complaining about how much my sister hogged the bathroom and lusting after Juan who sat across from me in class, I had an all-caps freakout: THE BALD SPOT OH MY GOD WHAT DO I DO IT’S SO BIG OH MY BIG. I was 10; now I’m 30. I gave up journaling my despair over how bad my hair looks long ago.
The other important trichotillomania expense that requires careful planning and budgeting is haircuts. This isn’t because there’s a lot of them: I’m averaging about one haircut per year at this point. But if you don’t want to deal with a hairdresser squinting at your scalp, pulling at the wispy baby hairs behind your left ear and saying coldly, there’s almost nothing on this side, then you better take a Klonopin and get your ass to a trichotollamania-friendly hair salon. This one in particular has become my go-to place, every time I pass through New York City. I don’t think I’ve ever spent less than $180 for a cut plus tip, which is maybe what some women spend on their hair upkeep every month, but to me that’s expensive. I would love to be able to get a $30 trim every other month, but I’m not really paying $180 for the haircut itself—I’m paying for the ability to whisper, I pull my hair out when I’m stressed, and receive an understanding nod in return, instead of a mystified stare.
To me, that’s worth every penny. When you’ve created giant, spiraling bald spots on the crown of your head, when you have no one to blame for it but yourself, believe me, going to the hairdresser is your worst nightmare. My throat tightens up just by thinking about one of those places: the gleaming mirrors, the rows of svelte hair product bottles, the stylist with the bleached cowlick who takes your bag and offers you a cup of tea. So I plan for my haircuts a year in advance, as though for a marathon: January, I’ll be visiting the East coast, so I’ll visit New York and stay with Em., and by then maybe the patches on the side will have filled in a little bit, so that it looks more even?
It doesn’t end with the haircuts, the extensions, the extra-large bottles of Toppix; I also need to budget in the cheap, backup products. Run out of Toppix and waiting for the next shipment to arrive? Head to the drugstore, buy black eye shadow, brown eye pencils. This will do in a pinch, to cover up the bald spots – although there are some brands (I won’t name names) that are pretty much useless when it comes to coloring over your scalp; you’ll feel like you’re scrubbing a dull crayon against your brain. Buy hair mousse, hair spray, hair gel, for plastering down half-ripped bits of hair that insist on standing proudly erect; for making sure your part swoops unnaturally far to the right.
Even worse than the money is all the time that gets wasted on trichotollamania. I can’t count the number of times I’ve arrived 20 minutes late for a dinner reservation because I can’t get my hair extensions clipped firmly enough to my head. Or those obsessive evenings spent photographing the top of my head from different angles, just to make sure everything looks as bad as I remember it. Then there’s the Internet rabbit hole of hair extension purchases: Is it time to buy a wig? Or pay someone to manually glue fake strands of hair to my scalp? What about giving synthetic hair bangs another shot?
Adding all of this up, I’d say I probably spend just under a $1,000 a year in trich-related financial matters (if I count the cost of transportation back and forth from my beloved New York hair salon). Not exorbitant, but still, it’s a sum that seems to point to such a simple solution: My wallet will thank me. My emotional health will thank me. My vanity will fall to its knees and start weeping in gratitude.
But stopping hair pulling requires a different kind of budget, one that I’m all too familiar with. Time to pull out that debit card and buy armfuls of office toys—tangles and spinner rings and squishy smiley-faces—because that’s all my hands need, right? Distraction. Buy chewing gum, carrot sticks, soy nuts, celery, to work out all that nervous energy through my jaw. Buy books with titles like The Hair Pulling Problem and The Art of the Compassionate Self; buy apps intended to help alcoholics stay clean, day by day. Switch therapists. Buy exercise DVDs. Buy pounds of nutritional yeast, because somewhere on the Internet, that’s a theory, that sufferers of trichotillomania pull their hair out because of a yeast deficiency. Buy Vitamin E, calcium, magnesium.
Still, the pleasure that you get when that dark strand of hair pops out between your fingers, as easily as though it were leaping in joy towards you, the relief that comes from rolling it between your hands, dropping it on the floor—well, I can’t put a price on it. My trichotillomania keeps demanding moremoremore, and I’m the sucker who’s all too willing to keep paying up. Trich makes me happy. Trich makes me miserable. And still, I keep reaching for that debit card, and still, my hand keeps reaching for my head.
Anonymous is trying to get a better handle on her hair pulling, sitting in front of her laptop somewhere on the West Coast