A woman who was bullied in high school says the ongoing trauma has led to her ripping off her skin with tweezers and pulling out her hair for the past 18 years.
Marlene Mathivaud was 13 when she began to pull out her hair to cope with the stress of being bullied – a disorder known as trichotillomania – leaving huge bald patches that she hid under a bandana.
She soon moved on to ripping tiny patches of skin off her legs, a condition called dermatillomania, which means she no longer likes to wear skirts or shorts due to the scars.
Mathivaud, 31, who now lives in South-East London, has battled to stop herself tearing at her hair and skin but admitted the urge to do it is too strong to resist – and lockdown has made her conditions flare up again.
The Burberry sales assistant said: “I’d be at my desk trying to work during the pandemic and every 20 minutes I’d have to clear up the floor because there would be this carpet of hair.
“I’ve had moments where I’d look at it and start crying. I’m disgusted at myself for doing it – I know I should be able to stop myself doing it but I can’t.”
Bravely, she posted an image of her hair loss on Instagram in January to raise awareness about the disorders.
The NHS says trichotillomania is when “someone cannot resist the urge to pull out their hair” and dermatillomania is “where you cannot stop picking at your skin”. Both are categorised as types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCDs) and the NHS says they can be triggered by stress or anxiety.
“I’m tired of the stigma around my conditions and I want to change that. For so many years I felt ashamed of myself because it is something you have inflicted on yourself,” Mathivaud continued.
“But people assume you are choosing not to control it. It is important for them to understand that is not the case.”
Born in France, Mathivaud moved with her family to London aged eight – and when she was 12 they returned to Paris, where she found it difficult to make friends.
She recalled: “This group of girls took me under their wing and then suddenly they dropped me and I had no friends. And then people started to bully me – it was just a lot of name calling which I have kind of blocked out.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so I just took it and begun to stay away from people, reading books alone in the playground.”
By the time she was 13, Mathivaud was pulling out the hair on her head as a coping mechanism.
She said: “Kids in the playground used to call me names like ‘pirate’, but they still didn’t realise what was going on.
“My mum sent me to see a child therapist, but my family did not really know then what we know now about the signs of mental illness.”
Mathivaud was able to hide her conditions until the first day of starting high school. She said: “They had just passed laws about wearing veils in schools, so I was told I could not wear my bandana either.
“I felt horrible, like I was going to cry in the classroom. But luckily by this point I had a group of friends and two of them had seen a documentary about hair pulling, so they understood what I was going through and were disgusted I had to take it off.”
Mathivaud said she became strategic about where she would pull hair from, focusing on the sides of her head and letting the top grow out so she could gel it into a position which would cover the bald patches.
In 2012, Mathivaud began to see a psychologist about her disorders. “I began seeing a psychologist and one day, in the summer of 2012, I remember sitting on my bed and my hand started absently going towards my hair. But before I touched one, something clicked and I did not want to do it anymore.
“I think it was because my psychologist did not focus on my past, but about my hopes for the future – and this brought me some hope.”
Yet, the trichotillomania came back in 2016. “I still don’t fully know why. I began writing a book and I just needed a bit of relief. I would just pull one hair here and there, and I’d tell myself it wasn’t a problem.
“But when you are doing that every week, and then every day, it came back fully. I’d stop for a couple of months and then start again – but it has never fully gone away.”
The onset of the first lockdown took a toll on Mathivaud’s mental health, and her trichotillomania “spiralled out of control” as she worked from the flat she lives in alone, leaving huge bald patches on the sides of her head.
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But when she shared pictures of her struggle with her followers on Instagram, she was flooded with support. “When I posted that picture, I had been pulling my hair out every single day for a month. I was in a place where I felt I could become depressed, a horrible mental state.
“But as soon as I saw the messages of support coming in, I felt the burden of feeling ashamed lift a little bit. People were like ‘are you okay?’ and I said ‘yes, I’m okay – I have a mental illness, it is not the end of the world’.”
Mathivaud added that speaking about mental health is “so important”.
“One day, I know I will stop. But there is a timing for everything, and it is a long process. 18 years ago, I didn’t even know what mental illness was, and neither did my family or teachers,” Mathivaud continued.
“But now there is so much more knowledge out there that if you see someone showing the signs, make sure they seek professional help at an early stage before it has a chance to spiral.”
Additional reporting by PA.