Empathy and an Eyebrow Wax

I remember one night at summer camp when my counselors sat us in a circle and asked us each to share a "physical scar" and "emotional scar" that made an impact on our lives forever. Twenty minutes later, our entire bunk of prepubescent sixth grade girls was sobbing uncontrollably. My friend turned to look at my blotchy face and bloodshot eyes, laughing through her tears, and said "You haven't even shared yet...". Hearing the stories of how those closest to me had been hurt, though, was more than enough to set off the waterworks. Since then, I've cried easily and often at the hardships my loved ones endure. I cried about my friend's depression, a friend losing his mom, another friend's breakup, and a friend's father's illness. The list goes on. I care deeply about each of these people and it hurts me to see them sad. But what I've always struggled to do is cry for myself.

One of the Internet's most magical talents is proving that we're not alone through "relatable" memes and gifs about experiences that I always thought were unique to me- from opening the fridge five different times in the hopes that an exciting new meal prospect will arise, to dancing at a party and suddenly remembering all of the injustice in the world. I saw one recently about the moment when you're doing everything in your power to hold back tears and someone asks if you're okay, at which point you have no choice but to unleash them. I laughed at how true it was for me, though I never knew thousands of other Instagram users across the globe felt the same way.

Yesterday was one of those moments. After a lovely afternoon of manicures and pedicures with my mom, I was scheduled for an eyebrow wax. I pretended not to be surprised that the woman whipped out all of the materials in the middle of the nail salon and got to work. I guess private rooms are an American thing. (We were in Amsterdam at the time.) Well, I had to hope that a Brazilian would have been a different story. I felt a sense of crippling anxiety as she smothered the hot wax on my forehead, but I did my best to brush it away and breathe deeply. Considering the mani pedi took over an hour, I knew she would be thorough. But when I looked in the mirror afterwards, I was horrified at how truly thorough she had been. My eyebrows looked so thin that you could barely see them. I faked a smile and told her they looked great, but my mom knew me well enough to see right through it. When we got outside, she asked the dreaded question. "Are you okay?" and I immediately burst into tears.

To an outsider, I would've looked like some vain college student who only cared about the way her eyebrows look. But let's save the spiel about society teaching women to hate the way we look and shaming us when we think otherwise for another day. What any onlooker wouldn't know is that, for roughly the past two and a half years, I have battled the psychological disorder trichotillomania. I pull my eyebrows or eyelashes out when I'm bored, stressed, anxious- you name it. I can't stop. I sometimes feel anxious or ashamed to go out in public. I am fearful of how people perceive me and my eyebrows. I wasn't crying because I didn't like the way I looked. I was crying because I had been pulling so frequently in the days leading up to that moment that I didn't know how I would manage to have any eyebrows left. I already knew I would continue to pull. I was crying because I realized I had an addiction, and I felt hopeless, and I didn't know how to say that out loud.

Since then, a million thoughts have raced through my mind. I've thought about how my experience with trich allows me to have newfound empathy for people with addictions to alcohol or drugs, and a frustration at the negative perceptions and labels our society imposes on them. But I keep coming back to the thought of how an unsuspecting stranger would've interpreted- and scoffed at- a twenty year old woman crying because she wasn't satisfied with her eyebrow wax, and how I make the same misinformed assumptions about people each and every day. If we simply allow ourselves to see others, to truly see our struggles as intertwined in theirs, maybe we will all move forward.

When I returned home from the wax and sought refuge in reading, as I tend to do, I flipped through the New York Times. My eyes landed on a headline about Sarah Palin's drug-addicted son, who was just arrested for domestic violence. As someone who stands against everything Sarah Palin believes and recently co-organized a protest against sexual violence on my college campus, my usual reaction would be anger and disgust. But something about my day made me feel sorry for him- for the fame and pressures his family lives under and the path to addiction and violence they must have led him to and for the way in which he was socialized, like all boys and men, to normalize and justify violence against women. And maybe I'm being too forgiving, or even, again, assuming too much. Domestic violence is still, and will always be wrong and the survivor he hurt still deserves justice. But I was proud of myself for seeing him as human and recognizing that he, too, is part of a broken system, and that he, too, has struggled. I'm not going to throw away all I've learned about race, gender, sexuality and all of the factors and aspects of humanity that divide us and I'm definitely not going to start preaching #AllLivesMatter. But I will keep working towards understanding the feelings and emotions that bind us all together- that are part of simply being a human. Because if many of the people reading this, who know me in various capacities and level of closeness, might have never guessed that this disorder is something I battle daily, then how much is there that I don't know about all of you?