When I look at photos of myself as a child, I go right to the eyebrows. They were not as bad as my friend Abigail made them seem when she alerted me to their unfortunate prominence. (“You have a unibrow,” she stated flatly.) We were in sixth grade. If it had been 10 years later, when trends changed, Abigail might have asked me to share my secret for bold, beautiful brows. Instead, I developed a different brow secret.
I’m a puller. I yank out my brows when I feel nervous or worried. On a bad week, you can see my anxiety on my face, if you look closely. Of course, I won’t let you. With makeup, artfully swept bangs, or thick-rimmed glasses, I can hide my habit. And I do, whenever I need to.
I guess it started soon after Abigail shared her observation. I was upset and went crying to my mom about my unibrow. She took me to the salon, where a kind aesthetician tweezed “just the middle,” at my mom’s request. And I found the sensation kind of…enjoyable—like tugging at your scalp when making a tight ponytail.
Soon I began tweezing on my own, with zeal. I hoped perfect eyebrows would cancel out the braces, glasses, not-quite-A cups, and dark hair on my pale arms. There was nothing I could do about most of my flaws. But brows, I could tame.
Tweezing felt great, and kind of familiar; as a younger kid, I had occasionally pulled out my lashes. At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal—only a small bad habit (my mother would tell me to stop, just like a mom would say, “Don’t bite your nails”). But I was beginning to go too far. When my brows didn’t line up perfectly, I tweezed some more—way more—in search of that elusive (actually, impossible!) symmetry. My mom noticed how bare my brows had become, and she confiscated my tweezers.
I missed the sensation of plucking, which had become soothing. I didn’t think to sneak tweezers (I was 14 but very obedient). Instead, I started using my thumb and forefinger. This is when the real trouble began. (For the record, I realize how this sounds—like my story could live under the headline “Help! I Over-Plucked!” Truly, it’s not the same. Stay with me.)
Whenever I felt anxious or nervous, which was often, I would pull. It was comforting and numbing and relaxing. A pacifier. I particularly loved the feeling of pulling out a thick hair, one that had clearly been with me for years, growing strong. I found a strange happiness as I watched the hairs fall into my lap or onto the pages of my book.
You might not know this, but if you pull hard and clean, you can see a tiny, clear casing on the root of the hair. And if you’re in a dead-quiet room, pulling in the dark before you go to sleep, you can even hear a soft pop.
I remember the Day My Eyebrows Left, like a foggy, frightening children’s book. At 16, I was still anxiety-ridden about my looks and many other things. Once in a while, my mom would point out to me that my brows were getting thin and uneven. She’d check them under the “good light” in her walk-in closet and warn me that I was overtweezing. She had no idea that the patchiness was from fingers, not tweezers—and that this habit was not something I could curb. I thought if I wore enough brow pencil and kept my mood even, no one would notice.
But one day, my mom had an inkling that something was seriously wrong. She said gently, “I need to see what’s going on,” and she walked me into the closet with her. With a washcloth, she wiped away the layers and layers of pencil. There was nothing left.
We were both speechless. We hugged. I cried, overcome by a mixture of shame, anger, and relief.
Later that day, my mom took me to the makeup counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. Being at the mall, where I might run into people in my browless state, was terrifying. But we were quickly whisked to a back room by a saleswoman we knew named Nancy. (I didn’t even know the Saks makeup department had a back room.) Sitting in this space with my mother, I got a look at myself in a mirror: You don’t realize how important eyebrows are to a face until they’re no longer there.
As Nancy applied makeup remover to my arches, she didn’t say much. She examined me, then went farther back—into the back of the back room—leaving us tiny water bottles to sip. I was crying and couldn’t drink. My mom and I sat together mostly in silence, waiting for Nancy’s return. She brought back an eyebrow pencil and a gel and applied both to my forehead like a surgeon stitching up a patient. I looked in the mirror and exhaled. We left with both products, plus a clear serum that would help stimulate hair growth. I was relieved and grateful. In that moment, I felt my troubles were over.
It wasn’t that simple. Yes, I had a solution to my brow loss of the moment, but my anxieties were still with me. And, to cope with them, so was pulling. I tried therapy, where it was suggested that I get a stress ball or wear a hair tie on my wrist and snap it whenever I felt like pulling. I tried meditation. All were just Band-Aids. Eventually I became annoyed with the tool meant to distract me (or my wrist hurt), and I’d go back to pulling.
It wasn’t until college that I thought this behavior—which continued to flare whenever there was a change in my life or another reason to be anxious or nervous—might have a name. (For all its drawbacks, what I love about the Internet is its ability to offer clarity on the one thing that makes you feel most alone.) Freshman year, I plugged my symptoms into WebMD and was relieved to see a diagnosis: trichotillomania. Medically speaking, it involves “recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop,” and it’s related to OCD.
Many who suffer from trichotillomania feel saved by brow gels and pencils. But my relationship to makeup felt more like a dependency. I carried brow pencils and gels and serums in every jacket pocket. Despite my aversion to how I looked, I checked my reflection in any surface I could find—blank phone screens, windows, mirrors—to see whether I needed to reapply. If I found myself without a pencil, I bought one. I lost the joy of shopping for a new beauty product; it felt like filling a prescription from the doctor.
Anytime I needed to make a big decision (about whether to take a certain job, for example, or move to New York), pulling would get worse. I knew it was bad for me, but it was the only thing that felt comfortable and familiar.
These periods of intense pulling usually lasted about two weeks; then I would realize the damage. During these stretches, I would avoid mirrors entirely—literally getting dressed in the dark, or putting on makeup before I put in my contacts so my reflection would be blurry.
Then something happened. It was New Year’s Eve 2015. I was looking for a resolution and was toying with the idea of learning calligraphy. I mentioned this to my mom, and (lucky for me) she offered to purchase a starter kit. She saw it as a way to keep my thumb and index finger occupied.
I had no clue how it would change my life. Now I do calligraphy every night, for hours (often while I watch Netflix). It’s the best thing that’s happened to me, ever. I do work for others; I make gifts. I make all my own cards. If I have nothing to work on, I practice my alphabet or write out quotes.
I wish I could tell you my trich is gone forever. But still, today, my brows have a pulse. I’m acutely aware of where they are on my face, and I can feel individual hairs. Even though I’ve had a great year, I know there’s a chance trich will come back when life gets stressful again. And that’s kind of rough.
The most frustrating thing about it is not the plucking (which still feels great) or the potential humiliation. It’s that every time I look up the behavior on the Internet, I’m reminded that there’s no definitive cure. You might wonder what it does to an anxiety-ridden perfectionist to find out she can’t be cured. To have to accept some unsolvable, bizarre body impulse. To know that she can’t be fully fixed by a doctor or a pill or even an awesome, satisfying hobby.
I’ll tell you what it does: It makes her want to pull out her eyebrows.
About the author: Samantha Zabell is the social media manager at Real Simple. You can find her on Instagram at @samzawrites.