Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
–Anne Sexton, “Wanting to Die”
How to begin.
Have you ever tried to kill yourself because you’re having a bad hair day? I have. …Normal people have bad hair days often, of course. You have bad hair days, probably, I’m sure. “Ugh, my hair looks terrible!” “…OMG, I got such a bad perm!” you say to yourself. But you don’t mean it. You don’t really feel it. And you don’t try and commit suicide because of these things. But I did, and that’s the difference between me and you. A bad hair life, that’s what I’ve got. Please allow me to explain.
I have a mental disorder known as trichotillomania. Trichotillomania, also known as “TTM.” You’ve never heard of it. That’s okay.
There’s not much about death by hair in our films or in literature, thus far. Which figures. It’s so rare; no one has heard of it. …Which is why I was startled to see something about it in a Diablo Cody movie, of all the goddamn places. Yeah; a few months ago, I went to the movies. I never go to the movies. The movie was called Young Adult. In it, Charlize Theron plays a novelist who goes back to her home town. Her character is an alcoholic. Her character also yanks out chunks of her hair in her spare time. I didn’t know this would be on the menu; I didn’t know that this would be a thing that happens in the film. She pulls on her hair. She does this absentmindedly, almost, while her thoughts are on other things, while she’s watching TV, for example. She does this to such an extent that she gives herself a bald patch on her head, and has to wear a wig to cover the patch up. …Oh god, I thought.
I watched this, frozen in the theater. I couldn’t lift my popcorn to my lips. Other people were just watching it normally. And then I thought: …Maybe this is good? I mean, hey, it’s not good-good; it’s a depressing movie. But it’s what I do in my real life. And now that there’s a film about it, it will be five percent easier to explain my thing to other people. “Hey, have you seen that movie…?” I can say.
What the film character has, and what I have, is a mental disorder known as trichotillomania. Trichotillomania, also known as “TTM.” About one percent of Americans have it — approximately three million people. It strikes equally among men and women. In Ancient Greek, trich means “hair,” till(en) means “to pull,” and mania — well, “mania” means that you’re crazy. A hair-pulling crazy, that’s me. Sadly, I can never remember how to spell trichotillomania; I’m forever adding an extra i or leaving off one of the ls. I feel like you should at least have a disorder that you can spell. But even though I can’t spell it, I definitely have it.
It has to do with shame; it all has to do with shame. The shame of feeling that you look ugly. And then the shame of trying to correct this. The shame of feeling that your hair’s so ugly that you have to tear it out to correct it. Everyone’s gotten a bad haircut or a bad perm. But only a few of us take matters into our own hands in this way. Actually tearing your own hair out of your head. …The shame of trying to look better, and then the shame of making yourself look worse via your own actions, of giving yourself bald spots, of making yourself go bald. Shame upon shame upon shame. So much shame. Some people die from it.
Some people die of it. People can die from trichotillomania — and not just from committing suicide. Although suicide is definitely one way to go. Eighty of percent of people with TTM contemplate suicide. I’m twice as likely to kill myself as someone suffering from clinical depression; three times more likely to kill myself than if I was bipolar.
Some people die from it. There’s a variant of TTM known as “Trichophagia.” In this version, you pull out your hair and then eat it. This too is shame at work. And I admit it; I too have felt this odd urge — sometimes, just after pulling a piece of hair out of my head, I place it between my lips, to taste it; to test it. And then I remove the hair. I never understood why I did this until I read about Trichophagia: I understand now that I was trying to hide my shameful activity by literally swallowing it; hiding in the safest place of all, the living sarcophagus that is my body.
Some people with Trichophagia do swallow their hair, though. They swallow so much of it that it chokes their stomach and they die. This really happens. Death by hairball — choking to death like a cat — that seems like a bad way to go.
But I didn’t die that way. I chose to try another way.
The first time that it really happened to me, I was alone. At night. At night I was alone. I was on a date, but I was alone. I had moved to Florida, which was already a disaster. “…Florida?” I said to myself, before I moved.
TTM is brought on by stress, they say. …And in the six months preceding the date, I had had my house and all my belongings destroyed by a hurricane, both my parents had come down with cancer, and I had dropped out of law school. Now, I was working seventy hours a week for a U.S. Senator. He was a state Senator but he wanted to be a national Senator, and we were ruining his campaign. This all happened in 2006, the year that the Democrats won back the Senate — the year that the George W. Bush experience reached its absolute nadir.
The campaign took place in Florida, which is a state that I have never particularly enjoyed. I go to the beach, and I’m bored after fifteen minutes, while other people are still unpacking their tanning lotion and getting set up. Then, I go to the beach store, buy a chocolate-covered banana, and look at the pet hermit crabs. I have always wanted to buy a pet hermit crab, but I never have bought one. I have no idea why not — they only cost about fifteen dollars. And it’s not like I can’t handle the awesome responsibility of being a pet hermit crab owner. The worst case scenario is that the crab dies. And the best case scenario is… also that the crab dies. Anyway, so I buy a banana, look at crabs, and then I’m bored all over again. Then I start whining and asking if we can go back to the house.
Anyway, so that’s where this campaign took place: in Florida. The campaign headquarters was in a very posh resort town which I’m not going to name. I’m not going to give the Senator’s name either, but let’s call him Warren Worthington III. He was a Democrat, and he was running for the national seat against the incumbent Republican, who we’ll call Carl Von Evilwhite, Jr.
I was a liberal-arts graduate with an MFA in creative writing. My thesis had been short stories about various girls that I had slept with. I dressed at all times like a retarded slacker. Thus, it would have taken an imaginative leap to see me as a staffer on a national Senate campaign. But in this case, it took no leap whatsoever. My friend was the Communications Director, so I was hired on the spot.
I haven’t come up with much wisdom in my short, sad life, but one piece of wisdom I have come up with is this: never take a job that you can’t imagine yourself doing. I couldn’t imagine myself as a successful Senator’s aide, and I really couldn’t imagine myself living in Florida. I had always imagined myself living in the opposite of Florida: Vermont, say, or Quebec. Or Greenland. Somewhere up to the North, is what I’m saying. What would I do in Florida? All I could visualize was Miami Vice, which I had never really watched anyway. My idea of Florida was a parody. I pictured myself becoming laid-back and wearing lots of white linen. “Cool for that, brospeh,” I would say, in my chilled out voice. I would go for drinks at a place named something like Shooters II: On the Beach. I would jog along in the surf, pass some hard-body babe lying on her stomach, and then slowly reverse jog back to where she was, and stand there, jogging in place, while I flirted and glanced at her abs.
So I couldn’t really see the whole thing as being a good fit for me, is what I’m saying. But I took the job anyway.
My first day at the job didn’t go that well. I had driven 1,500 some miles from Washington D.C. to South Florida; to Exit 81 on the interstate (only eighty exits left in America). Due to my proclivity for sweating insanely, I waited until I was in the parking lot of the Senator’s office building to change into my suit. My friend met me there. Still, during the ninety seconds that it took to walk from my car to the interior of the building, the baking sun took its toll on me. I managed to sweat through my shirt, my undershirt, and the suit itself, grey capsules pooling under my arms. Ugh, I thought.
I was introduced to the Senator. I shook his hand. I wanted to be like, “Hey, can I take off this suit? Because I think I might die if I don’t.” But I said nothing.
Then the Senator cleared his throat and addressed me for the first time.
“Failure,” he said to me, “is not an option.” This was discouraging news. Especially since for me, failure is always an option. I could already envision myself rushing through the door in my suit, a pile of papers cascading from my arms as I ran: “Sir! We need to reconsider the failure option!”
The problem with people who speak in cliches is that they force you to speak in cliches right back at them. Already, as I grappled for a response to his inanity, I could feel the vestiges of my normal personality floating away from me. …Goodbye, goodbye. What I normally would have said was: “‘Failure is not an option?’ What were you, re-watching Apollo 13 last night or something? …The fuck?”
Instead, I squared my shoulders up and said, “Sir, failure is never an option.”
He looked at me like I was a goddamn genius; like I had just coughed up a pearl of wisdom. This was one of the more frightening things that had happened to me thus far. I had literally cycled through a list of options in my brain, like the Terminator in The Terminator, until I came up with the dumbest possible response. And he loved it. He shook my hand.
It seemed like a good idea to step away from the Senator at this point. This was not in any way decreasing my stress, I felt.
— Read Part Two here —
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