A few years ago, I saw a girl named Rosie, who I’ve known since I was five years old. We’d fallen out of touch but met again at a party, where we reminisced about our time co-creating the most popular club in first grade: The Teddy Bear Club. (I’m still not sure exactly what we did in this club—appreciate teddy bears)? Together, laughing, we wondered if our elementary school gym teacher, who must have been 100 when she was teaching us how to square dance and lift a giant parachute, was still running the gym classes.
“Remember,” Rosie asked, giggling. “When you pulled out all your eyelashes in second grade and then cried at morning meeting about it?”
I froze. I actually didn’t remember. Chances are, I blocked out that particular meltdown; in the early years of my trichotillomania, which started when I was six, I’d had many of them. I cried to my mom after I realized my eyelids were yet again bald after plucking every last one out by the root during a family viewing of the movie Blank Check. And another when Babs Bunny from Looney Tunes pulled out all her eyelashes from stress, and my cousin, in front of everyone, yelled, “Look, it’s Lucy!” If I’m bored or stressed—anytime my hands find themselves without something to do, really—I pull. And when I was a kid, after I’d pull them, I’d break down soon after.
I wanted to scream at Rosie. Not because I was mad, but because without knowing it, she’d revealed my biggest secret to a party full of people. I knew what she said would instantly make anyone who heard look at my eyelids. I could feel their eyes start to raise a fraction of an inch from my pupil to what should be my lash line, where they would notice the black streak across my lids isn’t three dimensional, just one: A layer of eyeliner that I’ve cast to play the part of eyelashes, which I draw on every morning. I haven’t left the house without it since I was 13.
Instead, I said, “Yeah, that was weird.” Like me pulling out all of my eyelashes wasn’t something I’d been dealing with for the last 20 years of my life, but a weird fluke that happened during a particularly stressful portion of second grade (long division, probably). “Cool tattoo,” I said, changing the subject.
Later, I crept away to the bathroom and did what I do five or six times a day: turned on the light that most brightly illuminated the mirror and put my face up to the glass. I stared at my bald eyelids, checking for any new growth. I looked at my eyes in profile and tried to imagine if the 10 or 11 eyelashes I did have, the ones that had been spared an untimely death (for now), were enough to convince people I had a full set. Maybe people with very blurry vision would be fooled, but it was pretty obvious, overall.
…Once my brain decides my eyelashes need to be removed, [my hands] work without my input, like a very determined gardener weeding a vegetable patch.
Some nights, I stay up until morning because I can’t fall asleep until I pull the perfect eyelash. There are differences in the way an eyelash feels: Some are deeply rooted and pull out with a thick, wet tip. These are good ones. Some, the ones I’ve pulled out over and over, have flimsy, black tips. These are disappointing to pull.
On nights like this, I get up to wash my face over and over again, trying to straighten out the lashes I’ve curled into corkscrews with my fingernails, the way ribbon on a present curls with scissors. I try to tell my hands to stop, but when it comes to my eyelashes, my hands only half belong to me. For most tasks, I’m in full control of them, but once my brain decides my eyelashes need to be removed, they work without my input, like a very determined gardener weeding a vegetable patch. My arm gets sore, but I can’t stop.
My eyes are always full of cat hair, dust, and sand. A giant scar runs down one of my corneas from a scratch I got from one of these foreign bodies my eyes could not defend themselves against without a barricade of eyelashes. I see it all the time.
I get out of bed and read online forums for people like me: trichotillomaniacs. I don’t talk about it with anyone. It’s not really something you chat with your friends about over brunch. “Is anyone else getting another mimosa? Hey, by the way, I can’t stop ripping my own eyelashes out of my head. Can someone pass the hot sauce?”
For a while, I wore fake eyelashes, which seems like an obvious solution. But fake eyelashes are made for people who have real eyelashes—they often flop over your eyes like Snuffleupagus’s when you have nothing to support them (last summer, at a wedding, a friend had to pull me aside to tell me my eyelashes were dangling off my face).
And when you do find falsies that stay up straight, they are almost never made to look natural: They either have gaps between the lashes where your real lashes are meant to fill in, or they look so gaudy and huge that wearing them on a daily basis makes everyone wonder if you just returned from dancing at some sort of daytime nightclub.
I turned 30 this year, which marks almost 25 years in my quest to remove every single eyelash from my head. Doctors have told me that eventually, they won’t grow back. A few months ago, for the first time, I noticed they were finally right—the tiny buds that usually showed up a few weeks after pulling were making less regular appearances. I secretly snuck onto Sephora.com and bought a $75 eyelash serum, which I told my husband only cost $50. Because while he is the only person I can talk about my trich with, I knew he wouldn’t understand that I’d literally be willing to pay any price to have real eyelashes: $75, $100, $1,000, seven years of hard labor abroad a questionably sound sea vessel, literally anything.
I wonder sometimes why I had to have a compulsion like trichotillomania instead of a weird birthmark shaped like Yoda, or strangely small ears, or anything less embarrassing them my own lack of control plastered on my face, right in the eyeline of everyone I have ever met. It seems a bit harsh.
But then again, it doesn’t cause me any real harm besides how I look, and occasional minor eye damage. I’m healthy, despite this minorly broken part of my brain. Even as far as trichotillomaniacs go, it could be worse. Some people pull out all the hair on their heads, and I’ve never touched my head hair. Doctors have told me that it’s only cosmetic.
The way you know if a cartoon character is a male or a female is this: Look for the eyelashes. Minnie Mouse is just Mickey with three curved lines drawn above her eyes. Lola Bunny sports a flutter of eyelashes, while Bugs only rocks his expressive eyebrows. Daisy Duck would just be Donald in a dress—if it wasn’t for her long eyelashes. Maybe it’s only cosmetic, but it’s hard not to feel like eyelashes are what make the girl.
I hope that one day I can stop, that I will grow a whole set of eyelashes and not have to wear a protective layer of eyeliner like armor. I’ve tried therapy a few times, and while I know other people have had good results, for me it never seems to help. The only times I’ve been able to grow my eyelashes back were when I’ve pushed myself hard for a specific reason: I grew them back once when I was long distance from my boyfriend to surprise him. I grew most of them back for my wedding.
But eventually it takes too much mental energy to hold my hands at my sides, and I give in again. All the milestones I set for myself have come and gone without permanent change. I used to tell myself, “By the time I graduate college, I’ll stop.” “By the time I’m 25.” “By the time I have a real job.”
At some point, maybe I should change the goal: Try to leave the house bare-lidded, embrace being Donald in a dress instead. But for now, I keep the shame nearly secret and blame myself for what my hands can’t stop doing.
Maybe when I’m 35.