As I stared at myself in the mirror, I thought
‘You look like a pig. Pig-girl.’
My eye scrutinised the minutia of my face with my mother’s magnifying mirror. Up close, it was quite obscene; blocked pores, pre-pubescent blemishes and eyelashes 5 times their normal size crawling over my eyelids like black spiders. Disgusting. So with a deft flick I tweezed them all out. It was an imperfection I could control. There was redness of course, but the skin closed behind them as if they had never been there. Close sesame.
Then I squinted at myself through folds of perfectly hairless flesh. My eyes were smaller and uglier than they had been. Pig eyes. I felt finally like I was looking at myself. As ugly as I felt inside, I now looked it on the outside.
My finger stroked the eyelid of where my eyelashes used to be and I suddenly noticed the black dot of a new eyelash trying to struggle its way to the surface. I knew I had to wait another day before I could pull it out; the root would not yet be a translucent white sphere, but instead a malleable black seed that would stick on the mirror where I could examine it. I itched to get to it; an blot on the otherwise perfectly pink lid. Just seeing it made me feel anxious.
I was and am privileged. As a child, my life was largely monotonous. I was part of one of the many fragmented families of the middle class. Upwardly aspiring. Full of deceit and social etiquette. And secretly, very unhappy.
Anxiety doesn’t care about privilege. In fact my privileged circumstances were both directly and indirectly, were the cause of it. I acknowledge my privilege; I acknowledge my opportunities; I acknowledge that the existence of privilege puts many at a disadvantage. Seemingly, we–the privileged ones–would lose out if privilege were eradicated. I call bullshit. Privilege harms us all; both structurally and personally.
My privilege allowed me to gain access to a new, very expensive and academically challenging school. I was eleven and it was also the year my parents divorced. My mother, who taught at a boarding school, had taken one of the cottages on the grounds. ‘A Godsend’ is what she called it, partly because I could attend my new school during the day, travelling back and forth–a round trip of 4 hours–and then do my two hour homework alone in the library on campus whilst she patrolled the corridors, until the boarders retired and we could go home at nine, just to have it start again the next day. My place on the social ladder had to be fought for; and so my life became a fight. Usually it was a fight to be who I wasn’t and i was an anxious child.
The way anxiety manifests is for most people, a secret. It is rare that someone who cuts, will parade their cuts out in the open, nor that someone who bites their nails will flutter their fingers. Far more common that the cuts will be on the underside of the arm, under clothing and that person who bites their nails will hide their hands. The desire for secrecy is paramount. And in my world, I needed to keep parts of my life secret from my all invasive, overpowering, socially climbing and privileged mother. I was also taught to keep up appearances. She would notice of course. Because she noticed everything. And then I would be punished.
But surprisingly wrapped up in her own misery from divorcing my father, she did not. Even though during this time she commissioned a photographer to do a happy mother-daughter portrait which stood on her bedside table for the next six years. Who would have guessed that the high achieving little girl who was–to all the outside world–a perfect privileged child, was so busy hating herself? In fact from that day to this, no one ever remarked on the fact that for over a year I had no eyelashes; You’d have to look for it to know it and you’d have to know it, to look for it.
The exhibition of my anxiety was not as severe as cutting, nor as noticeable as pulling out hair on my head although ‘true’ hair pulling sufferers will go to extraordinary lengths to disguise it. Even there I failed. Mine was only my eyelashes, a tiny effort to break out of my mould, as I lived in terror that someone would see it. In my head I concocted hundreds of untold stories – why they fell out, when it happened, who I was going to sue for it (we all used Pear’s soap back then, so they figured in most of the scenarios).
Back in 1986, I didn’t know there was a word for what I did. It was just part and parcel of the many abhorrent behaviours that I thought made up my inadequate self, ever striving to be socially acceptable in my middle class world. But years later, I found one.
It’s is one of a set of body oriented disorders. In my case it was a result of my anxiety; a manifestation of low esteem and an inability to match up to what the world expected of someone who had had access to everything money could buy. It’s masochistic, in some cases dangerous, and in all cases a sign that someone is not able to cope with their reality. And as with many masochistic habits, it is a horribly spiralling circle. The more you pull, the uglier you look, the more shamed you feel and the more anxious you become and the more you pull.
How I cried when I first found out I had been suffering from an illness, after years of thinking that I was just disgusting and shameful. I was also suddenly and peculiarly very grateful for my privilege.
Because whilst anxiety didn’t care about my privilege, my privilege allowed me easier access to education which helped my research into the disorder. My education and background helped me get a high paying job which allowed me to pay for expensive therapy as an adult which has helped me to address the root causes. Later, as it turned out, the high paying job had to go. It made me too anxious.
All that education down the drain, said my parents sadly.
At the age of twelve I suddenly stopped. Fate intervened and put paid to my eyelash pulling when my mother and I had a car accident on Christmas eve. I nearly died; car accidents don’t care about privilege either. But my privilege gave me access to a private hospital for brain trauma (which means I’m not quite as crazy as I might have been). It also cured my trichotillomania because, you know, if you aren’t conscious it’s difficult to continue a compulsive disorder.
When I woke to a new reality 6 months later it was a different and eyelash full world. The scars criss-crossing my face meant I looked ugly enough not to have to pull them out again. But it also meant that my privileged, airbrushed world shunned me.