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When invisible illness becomes visible

By Kelby Wingert

Living with mental illness is tough. It’s even harder when it’s written across your face.

For most of my life, I’ve struggled with my mental health. I have anxiety, clinical depression, trichotillomania and its cousin, dermatillomania.

Trichotillomania is a disorder where you have an obsessive compulsion to pull at or pluck hairs. It can be the hair on your head, your eyelashes, your arm hair, whatever. In my case, it’s my eyebrows. I have an overwhelming desire to pull my eyebrow hairs out. Sure, most women my age get their eyebrows waxed and pluck the occasional hair here and there. But the work I do with my tweezers isn’t about cosmetics.

The desire to pluck is always there, but it intensifies when I’m extra stressed or extra depressed. Sometimes it’s just because it’s a Tuesday. Mental illness is funny that way.

For me, the tricho only started getting really bad a few years ago. For most of 2017 and 2018, I only had about half of my left eyebrow — I had actually plucked a void in the middle of it. I spent more money than I’d care to admit on different eyebrow makeup. I tried all the pencils, the gels, the powders, but nothing really looked natural.

It took until the day I realized it wasn’t normal to keep a pair of tweezers in your purse, a pair in your backpack, a pair in your car and a pair in your desk at work. It would ruin my whole day if I ran my finger along my eyebrow and found a single little hair that I had a deep-seated need to pluck, only to find I didn’t have a pair of tweezers to do it.

That’s when I finally decided to get help.

After talking to my doctor about it, I finally had a name for the urges that plagued me nearly every single day — trichotillomania. I also learned that the incessant picking I’d always done at my skin — at scabs and bumps and moles — also had a name. It’s called dermatillomania.

I have a reminder of that obsession in the form of a scarred freckle on my arm that has been there since I was a little girl. I remember being in kindergarten and my mom shouting at me to stop picking at it and making it bleed. I’m 27 now and I still pick at it, sometimes intentionally and sometimes absentmindedly.

I was fortunate that once I decided to talk to my doctor, we were able to figure out a plan to help reduce my urges. Through a combination of medication and sessions with a therapist, I’m able to not just live with this mental illness, but thrive despite it.

I even have the rest of my left eyebrow back.

There is no “cure” for mental illness. Some days will be worse than others, but I’ve found that even just taking that first step to get help does exactly that — it helps.

Kelby Wingert is a staff writer for The Messenger