When Colleen Segriff leans forward you can see where the bald spots have started to grow in.
It’s been a month since she’s pulled a hair out of her head.
“Right now, I’m just going with it,” she said, smiling.
Segriff has trichotillomania. Literally translated, that means “hair-pulling craziness,” Segriff said. It’s a disorder that involves recurrent urges to pull out hair – from your scalp, eyebrows or even your eyelashes – but beyond that, its cause and treatment are still medical mysteries.
For 37-year-old Segriff, it started with pulling out her eyelashes at about nine years old.
Her parents took her to her pediatrician and later to the hospital, but no one could explain what was going on.
“I remember my pediatrician saying, ‘Well, are other kids pulling out their eyelashes?’” she said.
“There was really not a lot of knowledge”
Pulling out eyelashes evolved into pulling out eyebrows.
Eyebrow pencils and dark eye makeup became her shield, but things were never simple.
“It took a lot of effort and it was really scary for me in different circumstances to be exposed in that way.”
In university she started pulling hairs out of her head. That was a lot harder to mask.
“Going to the hairdresser was stressful. Going swimming was stressful. Things like that, where it was harder to hide where I was pulling,” she said.
For Segriff that was a turning point. She decided to get help and finally received an official diagnosis.
Hair pulling is part of a group of disorders collectively known as body-focused repetitive behaviours.
Aside from pulling hair, people under the BFRB umbrella can also pick at their skin or even severely bite their nails.
These repetitive self-grooming behaviours sometimes get to the point where they can cause significant distress to a person’s life and also shame.
“People think it’s just a really bad habit. They think that they’re the only person who does this really strange thing,” said Sarah Robertson, founder of the Canadian Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours Support Network.
“But it’s not. There are so many other people.”
BFRBs like trichotillomania affect two to five per cent of the Canadian population, or approximately 2 million adults and children, according to the national advocacy organization.
The disorders are considered part of the obsessive compulsive disorder spectrum, but are not the same thing as OCD.
Robertson said the top theory right now is that it has something to do with genetics. There could also be environmental causes, or it could be trauma-based, she said.
“I know that it feels good and it sooths me and it’s a compulsion. It’s so strong,” Segriff said.
She describes pulling on hairs as similar to weeding a garden.
“When you pull out a weed, there’s a pull, a tug, and then a release. It’s like that.”
That release of pressure feels good, she said.
With her eyelashes and eyebrows it was also about balance.
“If I pulled out more on this side, I’d have to pull out more on that side. To create balance.”
“You’re completely conscious, but sometimes I can zone out, you know, like when you’re driving.”
Segriff said she would sometimes drive her car with one hand on the steering wheel and the other pulling out hair.
She’s tried therapy to stop and is also on medication.
She credits a hypnosis tape, combined with other factors with helping her for the last month.
Stress levels, combined with eating right and exercising can all contribute to having good mental health, she said.
“I think a combination of those factors. I would never say to someone else suffering from this condition that you can be hypnotized and be cured.”
The first week in October is Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours Awareness week in Canada.
Both Segriff and Robertson agree that the public stigma that comes with these types of behaviours is strong.
The public perception is that these are habits that people can “just stop,” Robertson said.
“But it’s not a habit, it’s more serious than that.”
Isolation can lead to depression, Segriff said.
She has lived in the Yukon for the last seven years working as a teacher and now at the Yukon Literacy Coalition.
“It’s actually pretty amazing the number of people that identify somehow with a body-focused repetitive behavior,” she said.
“Trichotillomania itself, I have met many people who have that, and because I’m open about it people talk to me about it.”
Being open has allowed her to talk to the parents of children dealing with BFRBs and help articulate things that the kids might not be able to explain.
“I got to a point in my life that I stopped wanting to hide it because I felt that too much energy was going into trying to mask it.”
Since the medical community has no concrete answer at this point, peer support can be even more helpful than a doctor, Robertson said.
As part of the upcoming awareness week, Segriff is hosting a drop-in public event.
The first BFRB Yukon Peer Support Group Meeting is taking place Monday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Family Literacy Centre in the Canada Games Centre. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Ashley Joannou at