I don’t remember the first time I ever picked out my hair, but fourth grade is when the habit made its presence most known. I still remember the feeling of my bare scalp as my little ten-year-old finger glided across it, marking the path of newly cleared brush. I felt a confusing combination of pride and horror at my ability to pick out my hair with such thoroughness.
Fourth grade was an otherwise unremarkable, generally underwhelming school year. It felt like an intermission between fun-filled third grade and almost-in-middle-school fifth grade. As my teacher rambled on, I’d look out the window at the Bayou City’s lush green trees poking up from behind the houses across the street from my school, thinking and picking and picking and thinking. The woman who pressed my hair on a biweekly basis would soon lay hands over my bald patch, praying for my healthy hair to return.
Hair picking is not an easily detectable activity. In my mind, it registers that I’m picking my hair out only when I survey the aftermath in some set of mirrors rigged to see the back of my head. In the act of picking my hair out, it’s more like I’m just feeling my coarsely coiled hair against my smooth scalp. I might want to feel my hair while reading a magazine. While thinking of the answer to a math problem. While waiting at a stoplight. While talking on the phone. While vacuuming. While doing anything or nothing at all.
Like the waves that dance along the Galveston shoreline, my penchant for picking my hair is fierce at times, subdued at others. I’d love to correlate my hair picking with stress. For instance, I’d feel such a sense of relief knowing that the pressure of switching careers or the anxiety of paying bills explains my internal need to pick. I’ve Googled trichotillomania, the hair-pulling condition, and reviewed the list of symptoms so many times. I’ve taken these findings to therapists over the years, but like most of my Google sleuthing suggests, diagnosing trichotillomania is inexplicably hard to do. And instead of focusing on a potential diagnosis, my therapists have opted to work through my anxiety and depression in hopes of abating my need to pick. I’m left singing Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” but directed at myself. “Don’t touch your hair, when it’s the feelings you wear.”
At some point, my little sister started calling it “picking your polka dots.” She coined the term when she was just a toddler, already aware of the discomfort associated with the term “naps.” My best friend learned this terminology as we traversed the social minefields of middle school and high school together, and she’d gently urge me to stop picking my polka dots in college, too.
After swapping the stress of finals for the incessant demands of corporate America, my partner became my compassionate vigilante. “Aa! Aa!” he’d verbally swat toward my arm, bent in hair-removal stance. Or sometimes on a lazy Saturday on the couch, he’d ask, “How’s your patch coming along?” He was hoping for a report of reduced hair picking. We were two engineers trying to problem-solve for the root cause and subsequent solution.
At a family wedding, a relative asked my partner, “What happened to her hair?” His tone was sincere. My partner, well-versed in black hair care by that point, reflexively said that it breaks easily when styled with heat. Years later, he’s still not sure if he was trying to divert from the truth. He didn’t even conceive of “She pulls out her hair” as a viable answer.