Ellen has been involved with TLC since 1998 and attributes much of her continued success in treating her hair pulling—and in life—to the knowledgeable professionals and caring friends she has made in the BFRB community.
Unfortunately, they do not offer advanced degrees in pulling or picking, so I was forced to pursue my second passion: mass media communication. As a student at New York University, away from home for the first time in my life, I was faced with an abundance of new challenges surrounding the same old hair-pulling problem. All of a sudden I was surrounded by strangers who hadn't known me since I was a little bald-headed kid. I had to live in same room with another girl for the first time ever, and if I thought I had a lot of reading and paper writing to deal with during high school...well, this was a whole new level. Needless to say, it was enough to make me pull out my hair.
As it turns out, the drama queen of a theater major I had been assigned to room with didn't like my hair pulling. And even though she knew it was a "real disorder" (I had made the mistake of telling her all about trichotillomania early on) she still used any stray piece of hair in the room or bathroom we shared as an excuse to treat me badly.
But this story does have a happy ending! Amazingly, I was able to navigate the bureaucracy of the country's largest private university and actually advocate for myself to get what I needed. I didn't even know there were options when I first approached my residence hall manager to complain of my roommate's harassing behavior. But I soon learned that resources abound for those willing to take advantage of them. I was fortunate to be at a large, urban school with access to top quality professionals. I know many college-aged pullers are not so lucky. Still, if you are willing to do the work and stand up for yourself, you may discover a pool of support systems designed to help. I can't tell you how to make it through college without pulling your hair, but there are definitely some options for dealing with the issue and finding accommodations that you need. The following is a guide to what I have found based on my own experience and some research.
Office for Students with Disabilities
This should be every picker and puller's first stop once you're enrolled in college. Every college has to have one to make sure they are complying with federal laws. If you are having a hard time identifying your school's office, try looking for someone with a title such as "Section 504 Coordinator," "ADA Coordinator" or "Disability Services Coordinator." In order to register with this office, you will need letters from your primary care physician and/or psychiatrist and psychologists who have treated you. You will have to show proof (most likely a letter) that you have been diagnosed with a recognized condition and are being treated for it, and as such, academic accommodations need to be made. If you have other disabilities such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities you will want to document everything with this office so you will be eligible for a variety of different services. Services usually offered include private housing options, extended time on exams, academic adjustments, note-takers, and even books on tape which are usually provided for blind students but could arguably be beneficial to those with BFRBs.
I was easily able to obtain a private room after I complained that my roommate of two months was harassing me due to a medical condition. This is the long and short of it and if you are in this situation, you are entitled to be removed from it. Whether or not you choose to tell someone about your BFRB is your choice but once you do, remember that as a condition with an actual diagnosis you cannot be treated badly because of it. Obtaining a private room was simultaneously the best and worst thing I did for myself during college. The privacy was great in many respects—my school's coordinator thought he was being funny when he said I could "let my hair down" literally in my private room. However, the privacy gave me plenty of alone time to engage in my pulling and picking, which wasn't exactly what I had hoped for. A private room can also be socially isolating and remove you from the typical college experience, so don't go in thinking that it's the best option automatically. However, for those of us with extreme shame surrounding our bodies and our hair and skin, it may be the most viable option for living comfortably in a dorm setting.
Extended Test Time
I personally did not take advantage of the option for extended test time during college because my anxiety and pulling didn't center around taking tests. However, if it had, this conceivably would have been an option for me. I encountered a student recently who said that her school wouldn't allow her extended time due to trich—in which case you may have to include a diagnosis of anxiety, which wouldn't be too hard for most of us to get. I do believe, however, that if you really need something and are willing to assert yourself you will be able to get it. Your college does not want you to call the ADA and file a complaint of discrimination due to a medical diagnosis.
This is one of the most interesting and possibly useful resources that I personally did not use. Schools are required to give blind students textbooks in audio format if needed and I believe there is a case to be made for pullers and pickers to receive the same. When reading is a significant trigger for so many (all?) of us, having a book on tape could drastically reduce the urges and opportunities to pull. I have no experience testing this but, again, I strongly believe that with the right letters from one's doctors, it could be accommodated.
Student Health Center/Counseling Services
Your college most likely has a low cost or no cost health center which should include counseling and therapy—though it's likely to be only a short term option (with a maximum number of sessions) and may only be for acute crises. Still, familiarizing yourself with these services can only help you in the long run. Unfortunately, your school's doctors, nurses, and counselors will likely know nothing about body-focused-repetitive behaviors. Good thing TLC has pamphlets and brochures for you to post around the health center - the staff will be educated in no time! In all seriousness, taking some literature to the person you'll be seeing can only help you—and those with BFRBs who come after you. Make it a personal mission to leave every health care provider you encounter better informed about picking and pulling than when you met him or her.
Methods for Managing BFRBs on Your Own
As much as your school may try to help, you have to take ownership of your picking and pulling and help yourself as well. All of these services that may be useful will only work if you use them. The same goes for other strategies: they aren't going to work if you don't practice them. For example:
- Study in small or large groups or, at the very least, in public at the library, and write papers in the computer lab or on your laptop in public—basically put yourself in places where you are less likely to pull and avoid studying alone.
- Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, good food, water, and exercise so that you're not exhausted into succumbing to your urges. I know college is a time for nonstop fun and partying, but getting worn down is only going to make it harder to keep yourself from engaging in behaviors you'd rather not do.
- Plan ahead and work on time management so that you don't have to cram or stay up all night to finish a paper. It's easier said than done, but putting undue stress on yourself is a surefire way to lose control of your picking and pulling. Plus, if you only need to work on a paper 30 minutes per day over the course of several weeks, you have a greater chance of not slipping into hours of unwanted behaviors.
- Work on your picking and pulling strategies, such as carrying a fidget toy, chewing gum, or wearing gloves. There is no reason you can't squeeze silly putty in class or carry around a stress ball.
- Reach out to your professors or other students for help BEFORE there is a problem. You don't have to go into specifics, only whatever you're comfortable with sharing, but telling people you have an issue before it's a problem will make them more likely to be understanding and helpful when there is one.
- Set aside time for enjoyment and the activities you're passionate about on a daily basis if possible. Seek out recreation, sports, art, music, volunteerism, etc., to feed your soul. I have found that I do not pull when I am feeling "right" in the world, that is, when I'm doing things that make me feel whole and complete.
So there you go—my personal guide to making it through college with your hair and skin intact. I can't say that I was a perfect example (I definitely didn't follow all of my own advice all the time) but I lived to tell about it and so will you. For more information, contact your university's Office for Students with Disabilities and check out the Department of Education's website: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transition.html