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World Mental Health Day | ‘I didn't know what trichotillomania was, either’

Manjiri Indurkar's memoir, It's All In Your Head, M, chronicles the confidences a female body learns to keep. An exploration of the author’s mental health, it speaks to all survivors of abuse

Manjiri Indurkar
Manjiri Indurkar

It wasn’t until Manjiri Indurkar was in her 20s and living away from home that she began to suspect that all wasn’t well with her. Confronted with the vagaries of her health, Manjiri came to a realisation—her body could contain its secrets no longer. It was time to let go. Even as Manjiri grappled with the trauma and abuse she faced as a child, she tried to lead a regular, healthy life.

Her memoir, It’s All In Your Head, M, written with honesty and candour, chronicles the confidences a female body learns to keep. As much a coming-of-age story as it is an exploration of the author’s struggles with mental health, this reflective memoir speaks to all survivors of abuse, offering up a tale of strength and resilience and the ultimate potion of self-care: love and acceptance.

An edited excerpt from the book:

Mental illnesses are invisible disabilities most of the time... If you look at me, most days you won’t be able to tell that I have depression or anxiety or PTSD. The marks are hidden, unless you are self-harming and not covering up your scars.

But even within invisible disabilities there are some that are more invisible than others. Trichotillomania is one of them. No one talks about it and very few seem to know about it. After plucking my chin hair obsessively for a month, I finally had to admit to myself that this was not normal. I knew that it was keeping me numb. I knew that it was helping me distract myself. But I also knew that my hands itched to reach for the tweezer, more and more often. It was becoming difficult to stop. I was impossible to hide. I was becoming a freak show.

I turned to the internet for answers and Google put a label on my madness. For me, my hair pulling was a symptom of anxiety. Google said it was also associated with a hint of body dysmorphia, but I wasn’t ever diagnosed with it. I was doing it because I hated my facial hair and being without a strand of hair on my chin felt like it would make me look better, or at least acceptable.

Aren’t we always taught how we are supposed to be hairless? Hair on women except for their scalp is never acceptable. If you have been made fun of because of that beard-like hair, you hate it even more. The sense of relief that the hair pulling was bringing me aside, the reason I specifically went for the hair on my chin was because of the strong social conditioning.

Indurkar's memoir explores the various way in which mental illness asserted itself in her mind and body
Indurkar's memoir explores the various way in which mental illness asserted itself in her mind and body

The price of beauty is pain, after all. When I discovered my illness, I didn’t know anyone else who had it. Not a single character in popular culture was assigned this unglamorous illness. Some disorders are so invisible that you tend to not pay them attention unless they happen to you.

One day, I was sitting in front of my laptop, tweezers in hand, watching Grey’s Anatomy. I had seen all these episodes before, but I enjoyed the reruns and watched the show often. Suddenly I spotted a fellow sufferer of my new disease. In the show, a patient who pulled her hair when anxious was diagnosed with it. The next time it was Mitchell in Modern Family. And the latest was Adora Crellin played by Patricia Clarkson in Sharp Objects.

The great thing about pop-culture representation is that it makes you feel tremendously less lonely. I have what she has is a great way of explaining your tragedies to those who don’t understand. I remember feeling this rush of happiness when I saw that Grey’s Anatomy episode. I felt grateful as I plucked out another hair and placed it neatly in front of me.

Trichotillomania gave me a new kind of high. With each hair I pulled, I would feel relief spread all over my body. It would go away the second I stopped. Which is why I never stopped, I kept tugging at my chin. I kept pulling out every single strand of hair. Sometimes I would get so deeply absorbed in it that I would forget the world around me. I would forget that I was suffering, that I was afraid of dying, of falling ill.

That I had a relationship crumbling in front of my eyes that needed fixing. I’d forget everything. Maybe that was the point.

After spending time with my parents I came back to Delhi. A little different this time, a little more damaged. The hair pulling continued. It had reached such heights that people around me were beginning to get worried. Everyone would yell at me. Everyone but Avi. He never said anything about it.

Sometimes I wondered if he even noticed the madness I was subjecting myself to. I assumed it didn’t bother him because he never asked me to stop. And I was always grateful for that. At least here, in my house, I could do whatever I wanted to do with my body without being questioned.

Other friends would snatch away the tweezers and hide them. They would yell at me to stop. My obsession had begun leaving its marks—my relentless tweezing under my chin caused dark patches, that looked like a pair of lungs, to appear. I would often end up injuring my skin because, in my frenzy to pull out hair, I would sometimes end up tugging on my naked skin. I would pull the tweezers with such force that small pieces of skin would peel off. And then as scabs would grow I would keep probing the injured areas because the pain felt good.

The pain had become necessary for me. It numbed me when reality got too much to take, and jolted me right back when the numbness got exhausting. The pain would remind me I was alive without overwhelming me. This pain I could understand, I could live with. Instead of fixing my relationship or ending it, instead of taking hard decisions and acting on them, I kept myself busy with the hair pulling. The result of that still rests on my chin.

Excerpted with permission from It's All In Your Head, M by Manjiri Indurkar, published by Westland/Tranquebar, October 2020.

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