Sandy Rosenblatt, of Rockville, Md., applies makeup to mask her missing eyelashes. After living 32 years with Trichotillomania, she recently decided to tell people she has the hair pulling disorder.
While Trichotillomania remains a foreign word to many – it did garner some attention last year when actress Olivia Munn revealed she pulls out her eyelashes – the scientific community has made progress in understanding the disorder. The new edition of the DSM removed criteria that people feel tension before pulling and gratification afterward, since it's different for everyone. Lindsay Woolman, author of "The Perfect Pull," a fiction book about a teenage girl with Trichotillomania, describes the sensation as "an intense urge that comes over you."
"When you're doing it, it's very relaxing," she says. "It's very slow and methodical. It just slows your mind down."
Woolman, 35, started picking her skin and acne at age 11. Over the next few years, she moved on to pulling her eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair. The one area off-limits: her scalp. "I've been able to hide it," she said in a phone call from San Diego, where she lives.
In her 20s, Woolman found a support group that helped her become pull-free for three years. But she relapsed during the writing process of her book. Having forgotten the sensation, she plucked a few hairs as an experiment. "I started pulling again just trying to get the description correct, and get the sensation and the feeling as accurate as possible," she says. "As it goes having a disorder, I've got it in me really strong, so I ended up starting over again pulling and haven't been able to stop."
[Read: The Do's and Don'ts of Healthy Hair.]
Rosenblatt recently managed to remain pull-free for five weeks. Then she had one stressful weekend and couldn't resist pulling out her corner eyelashes. Sitting on her couch in Rockville, Md., she points to the corner spot facing the TV. "For a long time, I avoided sitting there," she says, eyeing the spot as if it were a beloved enemy. After a tiring day, Rosenblatt would sink into the corner to watch "Game of Thrones" or "The Voice," absorbing the show while running her fingers around the crown of her head, searching for the hairs that feel "different."
"It's a specific hair I'm going for. There's almost a satisfaction in it when it comes out. It's like a soothing mechanism," she says, slowing her voice down as if feeling the pleasure from a pull.
Rosenblatt, an executive director of assisted living homes in the Washington area, shared her secret in October when she wrote a piece for The Huffington Post. Since then, five of her friends have confided in her that they, too, have the disorder.
Some people spend their lives feeling ashamed, believing they're the only person on earth who inflicts self-harm by ripping out their hair. It's something Jillian Corsie, a 25-year-old filmmaker in New York City, wants to change. She doesn't have Trichotillomania, but a close friend growing up did, and the fact that so few people know about it bothers her. "This disorder is three times more prevalent than anorexia," she says. "Why is it that we don't know about this?"
A year ago she started "Trichster," a documentary that follows eight people with the disorder. The film (set to be released spring 2014) is intended to raise awareness and fight the stigma that people with Trich are ugly freaks. "I'm trying to show them as people first and those who have a disorder second," Corsie says. "I'm trying to humanize something that a lot of people see and wrongly perceive."
Sandy Rosenblatt at age 8. “I have no eyelashes on top or bottom, and I was pretty miserable at this point,” Rosenblatt says. “I also have a bald spot on the back of my head you cannot see.”
Rosenblatt, who now publicly blogs about Trich, once distanced herself from the girl who was tripped by kids on the bus. She pushed aside the ex-boyfriends who told her to wear fake eyelashes because "they would make her prettier." Though she stashes black noir eyeliner everywhere – her car, purse, desk drawer – to mask her missing eyelashes, she's slowly allowing people to see her without makeup. And she's strong enough to look at photos of that 7-year-old girl – photos she once told her parents to hide – because she's accepted this is who she is.