(Image credit: Andrey Pavlov/Stocksy)
Editor’s note: The writer of this piece describes her experience with the hair-pulling disorder trichotillomania.
It was December 2015, and I needed a distraction.
My anxiety had hit a peak, I was feeling lonely in a big city (New York), and it seemed my brain was rusting over. I am a creative person. I like being a creative person. But my 9-to-5 job working in social media, coupled with my hours-long Netflix binges after work and on weekends, wasn’t fueling that creativity.
At the time, I was beginning to follow a small community of “letterers” on Instagram. These were artists who had infused a new life and vivacity into traditional calligraphy—using thick markers, watercolor paints, and other elements to create simple, fun, handmade pieces. Sitting in the living room just before New Year’s Eve, I showed my mom a few colorful posts, did a little more research on the art, and purchased the kit.
Well, to be transparent: I didn’t purchase the kit. My mom purchased it for me, because as mentioned, I needed a distraction, and she wanted that for me as well. I was, quite literally, pulling out my hair.
I’ve long had trichotillomania, also known as “hair-pulling disorder.” It’s often associated with OCD, and results in a compulsion to pull out hair from all over the body—my weaknesses were my eyebrows and eyelashes. I had coped with this disorder for years, treating my brows with serums and layers of eye pencils; using stress balls to occupy my fidgety hands; experiencing a rollercoaster of growth and then regression when life got stressful. When I was feeling healthy, I might resist pulling altogether and occasionally stroke at my brows or run my fingertips over my eyelashes out of habit. When I was lonely, stressed, and overwhelmed, my eyebrows felt incredibly present on my face—they ached and pulsed, as though they were some appendage I had stubbed or cut.
I pulled out hair after hair, watching them fall onto my desk at work or onto the open pages of the book I read; I woke up some mornings to find several on my pillow; I went into a trance and pulled out so many that my brows had bald patches I thought would never recover. And I just assumed I would struggle with this disorder forever, that I would simply have phases of my life where I wouldn’t want to look into a mirror, that I would always carry a brow pencil with the dependency a toddler might place on a security blanket.
And then it was December 2015, and I found calligraphy.
When my beginner kit came, I peeled off the packaging and took my brand new brush pen to paper. I began writing the alphabet. The hypnotic-like trance I fell into, writing letters over and over again, felt a little bit like the hole I could tumble into when I pulled out my hair. Suddenly, Netflix was asking if I was “still watching” and hours had passed and pages had been filled with upper- and lowercase alphabets, names of my friends and family members, and words like “minimum” that beginners are encouraged to practice with.
And so, I made it my resolution: I would master brush calligraphy.
That February, after hours of practice and drills, and I opened a separate calligraphy account on Instagram (I wanted to share my work, but was mindful that my current followers were probably not interested). I had begun following artists and letterers as I learned my new skill, and what struck me was how positive they all were. I had never been one to engage with a community of bloggers or artists the way I began to engage with the calligraphy community.
When I opened my new account, and began putting my artwork out there consistently and confidently, and I found an oasis. I was motivated by the kindness of other letterers who complimented my style, asked me for tips (me! Who only had about a dozen pens to work with!), and encouraged me to try new things. When I dipped my toe into pointed pen calligraphy, the more traditional method, I wasn’t pleased with the result. I asked, “How do you make it look so easy?!” only to be met with encouragement: “YOU make it look smooth and easy!!” one “calligrafriend” commented. “Terrific!” said another.
Could it be that I’d found the most genuine, caring place on the Internet? My anxiety softened.
Of course, my new art wasn’t just an ego boost—it changed the way I operated my day. I was known to complain that “I don’t have time.” I was just so busy. You know what I discovered?
When you fill your days with things you love, your days open up.
After a long day at work, when I thought my brain was “fried,” the hours between dinner and bedtime were now filled with colorful quotations, handmade cards, and practice phrases. I challenged myself to learn new flourishes, try new techniques, experiment with new mediums. I picked up a paintbrush for the first time since middle school art class and taught myself how to imitate calligraphy with watercolors. I had the time, I learned. I had so much time.
My brows’ pulse became softer.
Today, calligraphy is more than a pastime and creative outlet. It’s given me a new way to raise my voice about issues I care about; it’s offered me an escape from an otherwise devastating 24/7 news cycle; it’s even made small talk easier. For an anxious introvert, there’s nothing better than mentioning calligraphy when meeting a new person: it’s an instant conversation-starter that doesn’t have to revolve around your job, your apartment, or where you went to college.
But most importantly, it keeps my hands busy. And after a long, stressful day, when I feel I want to pull out my hair, I reach for my pen instead.