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The Myth of Eyelashes

By Kathy Y. Wilson · August 20th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide
I have pretty eyes.

When I was a girl, my eyelashes were so thick they curled back on themselves. They ringed my eyes like sideways wreaths.

I was about in the fifth grade the first time I ever did it. Life was leaving me.

I hated school -- a new phenomenon -- mainly because every day a raven-haired white kid with red lips named Robert put pictures of lynched black people on my desk. I hated home because I'd never lived in an apartment and ours was loud, the hallway was funky and the kids were rowdy.

My older brothers, Randy and Kenny, faught violently and often, also a new occurance. We acted out, flailing in our new environs.

Traumatized by our parents' divorce, our mother's financial strains and a new neighborhood and school, I started pulling out my upper eyelashes. The memory's clear across the inside of my forehead, like vacation slides.

It was an exquisite day, summer but not hot. Michigan-like weather when everything's clear, bright and breezy.

It was turning to one of those color-drenched evenings when it gets cool quick. Alone in my bedroom and perched at the window, my elbows rested on the sill and the drapes were back slightly. I watched the kids who didn't play with me, and it was just as well. I was in training to be a loner, anyway.

Inexplicably, my right hand went to my right eye. My fingertips grazed my lashes. "OW!"

That first yank hurt like hell. I thought my lid was bleeding, but it wasn't.

All junkies feel pain on that first hit. But we require more. During the years it became less an addiction and more an obsession couched in anxieties.

It was compulsive.

Yanking my lashes was an open secret.

Ultimately my smooth top lids elicited the occassional curious stare from people who noticed something wasn't quite right with my face. By the seventh grade they'd (temporarily) grown back. I'd settled into the semblance of a normal routine even though I'd attended three elementaries by junior high.

My dad -- with whom we were now living -- remarried in a whirlwind decision. All at once I got my period and two stepbrothers and started junior high.

I was the only girl in a house of four boys. I loosed my grip on whatever was mooring me to normal.

I pulled eyelashes with a vengance, out of anger and in fatigue. There was always anxiety.

It's taken me five days and counting to read Chris Charlson's Pulling Their Own Hair (issue of Aug. 13-19), a brief exploration into the impulse-control disorder of trichotillomania (TTM). I haven't finished it because I can't. It's literally too painful.

I suffer TTM, too.

I didn't know it had a name until I caught a 60 Minutes piece on it a while ago. I felt overcome by a similar headiness of relief/shock that rippled through me that first time I yanked, resulting in several jet-black lashes liberated on the tip of my right index finger.

It was strangely comforting, like vomitting. Otherwise, there's no comfort in TTM.

The pain of the public discourse of such a disorder is reminiscent of the physicalities of the disorder itself. Trying to read Charlson's piece made me wince with the same recoil as when I yank my eyelashes. Everythng about TTM makes me cringe.

At Greenhills High School, my best friend, Mina, first noticed my bald upper lids druing a casual conversation. She sat to one side, a perfect vantage point.

She gasped, drew back and laughed in one dramatic motion. I felt immediately ashamed, but still I blurted the truth. "I pull out my eyelashes."

Since, my friends have joined a "Kumbaya" chorus to try sparing my eyelashes. Nicole tried chiding. April inspects, then begs.

It's logic in an illogical predicament.

Stress -- deadlines, ideas, family, money, bills, sentences -- triggers and then traps. TTM comes on like a lover and stays like a relative. My lack of lashes is equal to the amount of my stress.

Used to be it was anytime, anywhere. Now I prefer to do it alone at night, while I'm overprocessing the day that's gone but I'm without any control over the day that's coming.

As a girl I did it, pardon the pun, with wide-eyed inocence. When I was in therapy I think we discussed it, but it got lumped onto my list of -isms to conquer.

Life can be like a magnet, collecting superfluous garbage -- like TTM -- that I must shake off to return to the core of myself.

I imagine the eyelashes of my girlhood. I long for the day when TTM, divorces, blended families, stressful jobs and slippery futures are signposts at my back.

I'm wondering now if the post-confessional sight of you who know me will make me anxious. Are they trying to peek at my eyelids?

Just thinking about it makes me want to pull.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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