'Trich' questions

Marni Bates tries to suppress the memory of a high school mock trial that almost exposed her shameful secret.

In front of her peers, her trial coach asked her to pull her bangs back for a more professional look. Bates refused. He nagged and pressured her, but Bates knew that pulling her bangs back would reveal a small patch of hair — evidence of her hair-pulling habit.

"I physically couldn't stomach the idea of pulling my hair back," said Bates, now 19. "It was so hard to know what their reaction would be."

Bates, a graduate of Ashland High School, hid her compulsive disorder for years until she was encouraged to write a book for Health Communications, Inc., publishers of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. Her autobiography, "Marni," was released to bookstores Monday. The 190-page book is a testimony of her life and her hair-pulling habit, called trichotillomania, or "trich."

"I didn't plan on writing on it because I was so ashamed," Bates said. "I did want to write about trichotillomania at some point, but I didn't know how to go about it."

Bates and two other teenage girls who had compelling stories to share were selected by HCI for a series titled "Louder than Words." The others were Chelsey Shannon, whose father had been murdered, and Emily Smucker, who has the West Nile virus.

Bates met a woman at a Willamette Writers Conference who recommended her to the HCI editor and also encouraged her to apply. Bates sent in her biography and a writing sample. She began writing the book at the beginning of her freshman year at Lewis and Clark University in Portland. She submitted a chapter a week to her editor.

"There's some embarrassing stuff," she said. "I wrote like it was just for me and my editor, who I was very comfortable with. Then it was out there, and I couldn't take it back."

Trichotillomania, the irresistible need to pull out your hair, is a variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, said Dr. James Hancey, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University and director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Clinic.

It is most common in women and normally begins during the grade school or middle school years, he said.

"It's a lot more common than people are aware of," Hancey said. "It can be tremendously debilitating and greatly constrict social life."

Because people with trich are often ashamed of their habit, they go to great lengths to hide it, Hancey said. About 2.5 million Americans have trich.

"The thing about trich is that it's really easy to hide so you don't know that anyone has it, giving you the feeling of isolation," said Bates. "Finding someone who knows exactly what you're going through is such a relief."

Bates began "pulling" just before high school.

"My sister brought my eyebrows to my attention when she said I had a unibrow," she said.

Bates said she pulled when she was stressed or sleep-deprived and trying to stay awake.

"I had no idea what was going on, and for awhile I thought I had lost my mind," Bates said.

She pulled her bangs, eyebrows, eyelashes and behind her ears. When it became obvious in one area, she would pull somewhere else, she said.

"At one point, I think about 30 percent of my hair was gone," she said.

She would use headbands, hats, scarves and eyebrow pencils when necessary to hide her habit.

"It feels really good," she said. "It's kind of like cracking your knuckles. You kind of feel relaxed."

Bates said people with trich are plagued with fear that someone will discover their secret. They're afraid the wind will blow up their hair to reveal a thin patch, or that the rain will clump their bangs together and show where the hair is missing. They won't go to sleepovers because someone could tousle their hair and find that bald spot, Bates said.

"I had people come up to me that I didn't really know and ask, 'What happened to your hair and why don't you have any eyelashes?'" she said.

Bates hoped that by writing the book other girls with similar experiences would realize that trich is only a small aspect of who they are.

"I've met other kids with trich because of this book, and the more I discuss what I've been through, the more comfortable with myself I've become," Bates said in the final chapter of her book.

Bates still fights the urge to pull. For most people with trich, it's a lifelong disorder, she said.

"I have a feeling that for me it will be a lifelong thing, but it might get light to non-existent to where my life isn't affected by it," Bates said.

There is no remedy she knows of to fully control the urge. Bates said she found that it helped her to tell someone who could keep her accountable when the need to pull was strong. She also said that having someone take away the tweezers and staying busy helped her minimize pulling.

"I'd love to say it is in the past, but it's something I deal with every day," she said. "The most difficult part about having it, is the blow to your self-esteem."

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