Lena Dunham's August 19 Facebook post hurt my feelings. She wrote: "Don't let anyone with bad eyebrows tell you shit about life." Hundreds of people liked her remark. Not Me. Awash with diminished self-esteem, I commented, "Sometimes there's a reason why they have bad eyebrows! Trichotillomamia: an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Yes, I do this weird thing, an OCD that causes me to pick at my hair and skin. My first experiences began somewhere around age 13. I picked on myself when I felt picked on at school or home and late at night when studying for tests because I didn't know the answers or when I worried over upcoming tests.
A bad day in school, social anxiety or romantic rejection might spark an episode. Usually in the evening, a feeling of heated fingertips coupled with a compulsion that seemed to magnetize my fingers to my eyebrows, resulted in stroking, probing and picking of clumps of hair, over and over. Next, in the calming, soothing phase there'd be a gentle finger tip rubbing the now-sensitive area.
Then I'd race to a mirror aghast at the damage, seeing swollen, red spots of skin, tiny areas of blood, surrounded by dark clumps of stray hairs. At times a wave of nausea washed over me, seeing myself uglified by my own uncontrollable hand.
Like an overweight person who can't stay on a diet, I'd try to stop, but fail again and again. A traumatic day would result in a 20-minute episode that would irritate and ravage my brow and hairline, sometimes creating pain and infection, but mostly resulting in shame and embarrassment.
To compensate, I filled in the empty spaces with an elaborate configuration of colored powder, pencil, and brow liner to give the impression of realistic eyebrows, without appearing cartoonish or clown like. Aching with disappointment, some days my results were not so successful, as evidenced by a lifetime of photographs with visibly drawn on or surprised-looking brows.
Why didn't anyone help me? No one seemed to notice or comment except for my boyfriend Bill. He said, "Something on your face feels like barbed wire. Is it secret beard stubble? Why are there two eyebrows on my pillow?" Meanwhile, mom and my friends never said anything, thinking I was making a cosmetic choice. Now was the one time my mother chose not to voice her opinion? Her usual response to things was, "What did you do? What's wrong with you? You were pretty once."
Some consider Trichotillomania akin to nail biters, a more popular and easily identifiable self-destructive hard-to-break-habit.
Finally in my twenties, the remissions began -- times when I was busy with work, falling in love or on vacation. It seemed when I was happy or otherwise engaged, I stopped picking on myself. Eyebrow hairs grew back. I felt normal.
But one bad day could spark an episode, crippling months of remission and painstaking hair growth. My brows would be a battlefield of smooth skin surrounded by spiky clumps of hair fighting for their lives to stay rooted and stay put.
Individuals with trichotillomania may feel they are the only person with this problem due to low rates of reporting. I didn't understand the condition myself until I watched a PBS special on it, coupled with seeing Norman Lear discuss pulling his hair out and explaining why he always wears a hat.
After a few decades of remission with sporadic episodes, I finally thought the ravages of my OCD were over. My eyebrow hair was now visible, though sparse, but growing in gray and mainly white. This situation became especially harrowing in my mid-fifties, when most women lose their eyebrows and eyelashes anyway. So even though the behavior has become manageable, the cumulative effects are that eyebrow hairs are meager, grow in clumps and are spiky, if they're there at all.
Some say eyebrows are an important feature on one's face. They help telegraph emotion and curtain the eyes, known as the windows to the soul. To some, my concerns may seem self-centered. I realize that people who've recuperated from disfiguring diseases or comparable behavioral issues are left with missing body parts, bad teeth or compromised livers, a lot worse than funky brows.
How did I stop? Over the years I learned that hypnosis helps, using behavior modification, replacing one activity for another. When I feel the urge to pick, or otherwise self-gnaw, I chew gum instead. That calms my need to pick and pull.
Finally, fed up with make-up that never quite looked right, I got eyebrow tattoos. As someone who'd never considered a tat anywhere on my body I was apprehensive. But this seemed like the right thing to do. Yes, the tiny needle hurt. Then there were a few days of itching and scabs. I was forbidden to touch the area. It's been a month. Now my brows look gentle and effortless, down right natural. At last, in my 50's I'm feeling pretty again.
So Lena, the next time you leave your house after turning the light switch on and off a few (eight) times, and clicking the lock, your tongue, shoulder and ear, if you see someone with bad eyebrows, just smile and embrace the sisterhood of the OCD.
For more by Arlene Schindler on Huffington Post, click here.