Page last updated at 23:35 GMT, Monday, 6 July 2009 00:35 UK

Women who tear their hair out

By Michelle Roberts
Health reporter, BBC News

Neomie and Jaya
Neomie (right) and daughter Jaya have first-hand experience of the condition

Impulsive hair-pulling, or trichotillomania, is a recognised but little understood medical condition.

Experts believe there is a genetic element to it, but stress also appears to play a part.

Neomie De Costa, now 47, was 11 when she started tearing her hair out.

"It was a very difficult year for me.

"A lot fell apart at that age.

"I'd recently lost my grandfather, my parents were divorcing and my sister who I was very close to was getting married and moving away."

I removed all the hair on my head quite a few times
Neomie De Costa

Like many with trichotillomania, Neomie said she got some sense of relief and satisfaction from pulling out her hair.

"It was a physical thing. The top of my head would itch. It felt like insects were crawling under the skin and the relief came with pulling the hair.

"It became a ritual. After I pulled out a hair from my head I would look at the root and examine it perhaps rub it on my lips or eat it.

"Mostly it was hair from my head, but occasionally my eyebrows and eyelashes.

"I removed all the hair on my head quite a few times."

Urges and rituals

Neomie has since stopped her hair-pulling, but it has left its mark. She wears a wig as only a third of her hair has grown back.

Neomie attributes much of her hair pulling to stressful life events - she was a victim of child abuse and rape.

She also found certain foods triggered her hair-pulling.

When I get the hair I've pulled out I like to rub it between my fingers
Lois Pallister, who has trichotillomania

"Chilli causes me very bad urges. Peanuts, sugar or anything with glucose syrup in it is also very bad for me."

Neomie's daughter, Jaya, who is 26 and also lives in Bournemouth, has trichotillomania too.

Neomie said: "We know there is a genetic element. But my daughter has seen the devastating effect it had on my life and she has been more controlled with her hair pulling."

The two set up a website in 1996 to help others with trichotillomania.

Lois Pallister, a 46-year-old driving instructor, also runs a support group for people with trichotillomania.

For Lois, her condition, which started when she was 13, has a trance-like property.

"It began when I was twiddling off my mascara and I pulled out an eyelash and I discovered I liked it.

"I still do it now. I have no eyelashes or eyebrows left.

"When I get the hair I've pulled out I like to rub it between my fingers. It's the ritual that is important for me.

"I do it when I am watching TV and particularly if I am tired. I trance out and almost don't realise I am doing it.

"I've tried to stop and have had cognitive behavioural therapy but that didn't help me. I'm going for hypnotherapy soon."

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