- Ruth Walters developed trichotillomania when she was 14
- The condition developed after she thought her drink had been spiked
- She thinks the trauma of the experience triggered the condition
- She has pulled out so much of her hair she feels she has to wear a wig
- Is now having treatment and raising awareness about anxiety disorders
05:38 EST, 18 March 2014
13:54 EST, 18 March 2014
A young woman left bald by a condition which compels her to tear out her hair says she will not allow the affliction to destroy her life.
Ruth Walters, 22, began plucking and picking at her hair following a traumatic incident eight years ago.
Since then she has pulled out clumps of hair as a way to ease anxiety in trance-like episodes which can last for hours at a time.
Ruth Walters wears a wig and says she is terrified of it falling off in public and revealing her real hair
She suffers from the condition trichotillomania, which causes her to feel compelled to pull her hair out, resulting in baldness
Today, Miss Walters, of Grantham, Lincolnshire, wears a £3,000 wig to hide her baldness from strangers.
She said: ‘It’s my safety blanket. My hand is always close to the top of my head and I pluck hairs while I’m driving, working and eating. The only time I don’t do it is when I’m fast asleep.
‘I’m determined to get the better of it. I’m sick and tired of feeling as if I’m lying to people.
‘Opening up about the condition will break down any denial I’m feeling and help me start to fight back against it.’
Miss Walters traces her compulsive behaviour to when she was 14 years old, when she believes she was involuntarily drugged on a night out with friends.
She said: ‘I have patchy memories of having one drink, then leaving the pub and going to my friend’s house. That’s all I remember of the night.
Miss Walters spends hours at a time pulling out her hair while in a trace-like state
Miss Walters (pictured at 14, just before the condition developed) believes the condition developed as a result of a traumatic experience eight years ago when she believes her drink was spiked
‘Although I have no recollection of most of the evening I’m inclined to believe my drink was spiked by someone at the pub. That’s the only explanation which makes any sense.
‘Anything could have happened to me while I was unconscious, which is an extremely frightening thought.’
As her anxiety mounted she found the most effective way to reduce her stress was to pick at stray hairs.
WHAT IS TRICHOTILLOMANIA?
Trichotillomania is a condition which causes a person to feel compelled to pull out their hair.
They may pull it out from their head, eyebrows, eyelashes or the rest of their body.
It is an impulse-control disorder which causes the sufferer to feel an intense urge to pull hair and a growing anxiety until they do so.
After they have pulled out some hair they feel a sense of relief.
The condition can be so severe that it causes bald patches.
It can also cause feeling of guilt, embarrassment and may lead to low self-esteem and even depression.
The most effective treatment is therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
The condition is most common in teenagers and young adults and is thought to affect up to four per cent of people.
It is more common in girls than boys and usually starts in the early teens.
Source: NHS Choices
She said: ‘My sister noticed I had been pulling at the gap separating my fringe. She noticed the signs because she had previously done the same thing for around nine months. The behaviour is quite closely linked to genetics.’
When she was 15, Miss Walters was referred to her GP who diagnosed trichotillomania – a complex psychological disorder spanning categories of self-harm and addiction.
Like many sufferers, Miss Walters became depressed when she realised what she was doing.
She said: ‘When I’m doing it, I’m not aware of what’s going on around me – the plucking is the only thing I’m focussed on. I’ll sit there for hours doing it, not moving, not going to the toilet, not eating.
‘It’s a very intense feeling which relieves something, although it’s difficult to describe what. It’s the equivalent of shooting up morphine to get off your face to forget about things. It serves the same purpose.
‘From the early days I was conscious of what I was doing and I knew it was out-of-the-ordinary. It’s a bit difficult not to notice when half your hair is collecting on the desk in front of you.
‘It’s sobering when you realise the severity of your behaviour. It can trigger a spiral into depression.’
Today she is receiving treatment through medication and cognitive behavioural therapy and is being supported by Josh, her boyfriend of three years.
She said: ‘It’s got worse over the last eight years. Josh doesn’t care what I look like, but he cares about how I’m feeling and knows it’s something I need to address on my own. If he could fix it, he would, but he knows he can’t.
‘I care a lot about fashion. I always pay close attention to what I’m wearing and I’m careful to look nice. I was even approached by modelling scouts when I was younger at a fashion show in London, and then again later at university.
Miss Walters (pictured wearing a wig) said: ‘It’s my safety blanket. My hand is always close to the top of my head and I pluck hairs while I’m driving, working and eating. The only time I don’t do it is when I’m fast asleep’
Miss Walters says wearing a wig makes her feel she is being dishonest to herself and to everyone else
‘I’m known as the girl with the confidence and the great hair. But once that’s all stripped away, people would realise the great hair is a wig and I’m very insecure.
‘When people say I look pretty I think, “if only you knew”. Until I can show what’s going on beneath the “mask” I put on for people, I feel as if I’m being dishonest to everyone and myself.’
Miss Walters wears a high-quality wig which she ordered from America. Such hairpieces are worth thousands of pounds, but they are prone to movement, leading to embarrassing moments.
Miss Walters said: ‘My worst fear is a gust of wind catching it and sending it upwards, revealing my secret.
Miss Walters (pictured wearing a wig) said: ‘When I’m doing it, I’m not aware of what’s going on around me – the plucking is the only thing I’m focussed on. I’ll sit there for hours doing it, not moving, not going to the toilet, not eating’
‘My family want to me to shave my head, but that’s an option of last resort.
‘You only need to talk to chemotherapy patients to appreciate what it means to women to lose their hair.
‘My hair still feels like a huge part of my identity and to get to a point where I decide to get rid of it completely would be a massive step.’
She said a low point came shortly after she achieved her psychology degree, when she was working as a carer for people on the autistic spectrum.
She said: ‘A patient grabbed my hairpiece and lifted it up, showing my real hair underneath. It was mortifying. I’d only divulged the truth to my managers, and the wig coming off showed everyone that I was dealing with issues of my own.
‘Whenever I disclose the situation to people they’re very kind and promise not to be judgemental.
Miss Walters (pictured wearing a wig) said: ‘This is an intensely personal issue, but looking beyond my situation, I think there should be more done to raise awareness of conditions like trichotillomania’
Miss Walters is having treatment and also hopes to raise awareness about anxiety disorders
‘But the truth is people do judge you on how you look – and they judge you as a person, not just the way you appear. I wonder all the time what people’s responses would be, what they would think of me.’
Miss Walters says there should be greater understanding and education about anxious disorders and how they affect young people.
She said: ‘This is an intensely personal issue, but looking beyond my situation, I think there should be more done to raise awareness of conditions like trichotillomania.
‘People are suffering because the problem is often not diagnosed and treated correctly, and I don’t think that should continue.’
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