A bald spot and a secret: One woman's life with trichotillomania
An electric razor buzzes in Julie Mason's hand. She brings it up to her head and starts guiding it through her hair. Strands start to fall, and soon she's shaved a bald patch that matches the bald patch from all the hair she's pulled out of her head.
Mason has trichotillomania, a mental illness that causes obsessive and compulsive hair pulling. The person pulls their hair out, and they don't have any control over it.
"[Trichotillomania] is one of a range of illnesses under the bracket of body focused repetitive behaviours, and that also includes skin picking, cheek biting, and nail biting," said Mason.
When she was in high school, her parents started finding hair balls around the house that could only have come from her. She didn't realize she had a problem, instead she thought she just had a bad habit.
It wasn't until Mason developed a bald spot on the top of her head that needed to be creatively covered up that she realized she was doing something no one else was doing. But she couldn't stop doing it, and she couldn't tell anyone. That was the start of her having a secret.
"It was so important to me that people didn't know, because I didn't want anyone to have any fuel to put me in the weird category," said Mason.
Her family doctor referred her to a child psychologist, who gave her the diagnosis. They said it was hardwired, meaning that she would never be able to stop. All then 15-year-old Mason heard was that she had something that made her ugly that was never going to get better.
"Imagine telling that to a teenage girl, that you have this thing that makes you do this thing that causes you to be ugly."
For a while Mason was in denial, and started wearing wigs — she says she was able to pass for normal — but when she was in university she realized she couldn't ignore it anymore.
Mason started cognitive behavioural therapy, which helped her gain some control over her mental illness. She also started shaving her head.
"The head shave really helped me to directly confront my thoughts around beauty and being acceptable in society," Mason said.
"It also gave me a break from the relentless hair pulling. At the time that I shaved my head, my head was really sore and I had a lot of shame and I thought 'if I can just shave whatever hair is left, it won't be a burden to me anymore,'" she said.
Mason has kept up with shaving her head, and does it every few weeks. It's something she's embraced — she likes the G.I. Jane look — but it's also helped her reconcile life with trichotillomania.
"I had thought forever that I could be Julie and a hair puller, or I could be Julie and happy, but I could never be both. I think that I've really worked hard to remind myself that maybe I can be happy and a hair puller, and maybe happiness doesn't actually have to do with hair."