Ever think about pulling your hair out? Some people can't think of anything else. For them, hair-tugging is an obsession. Trichotillomania, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a mental disorder characterized by the "recurrent pulling out of one's hair resulting in noticeable hair loss."
Thanks to the Internet, so-called "trichsters" from all over the world are able to find -- and apparently help -- each other.
A woman named Amanda confessed on her home page that for years she hated herself because she lived with a deep dark secret -- she nervously plucked hair from all over her body. "Then 18 August 1996, one of the biggest days of my life arrived. I searched on the Internet for the word hair-pulling. I discovered then that I DID have the disorder ... I could see immediately that I felt and did exactly the same things as everyone on the BB. I just started crying and I didn't stop crying for months!"
But she did stop pulling her hair. Amanda created a Web page full of photos and information on her battle with trich. Her story and photos inspired others, including a woman named Christine L. Christine found Amanda's Web site and learned that Amanda "has pulled a few more years than I have." Christine pored over Amanda's pictures. "Wow, she is really beautiful," Christine writes on her home page. Amanda has "gorgeous hair and it gave me hope." Stephanie, a wife, mother and teacher, has posted photos of herself to illustrate her personal struggle. Discovering that others are going through similar self-torture, these women say, helped them to stop.
At the center of the trichotillomania world is the Fairlight Bulletin Board where trichsters swap stories of tribulations, treatments and triumphs.
The Internet is one gigantic group-therapy center, with room after room of patients discussing and dissecting their disorders. On Monday, Tipper Gore will even get into the act when her White House Conference on Mental Health is simulcast on the Web. Mental health problems, she says, affect some 50 million Americans.
For instance, the folks who wake up in a cold sweat, screaming, confused, out of breath and convinced that their bedroom is crawling with snakes, tarantulas or sinister people. Now these people don't have to wait for the doctor's office to open the next day. They can go straight to David Richards' Night Terrors Web site and talk to others who have experienced similar episodes.
On the message board you can read about a man who swears out loud while he's dreaming and another who punches his bedmate. Several postings point out that people are truly relieved to discover that they are not the only ones undergoing such weirdness.
Does such knowledge really help folks recover from problems and get their lives in order, or does it merely support odd behavior of the "it must be okay because other people do it" variety? In the case of the trichsters, there seems to be solace in numbers. In some other groups, the benefits of online sharing are not so evident.
Join Linton Weeks today for Navigator -- Live, a live Internet show, 2 p.m. Eastern, at Washingtonpost.com. Self-styled cybersatirist Bob Hirschfeld (www.bobsfridge.com) will be answering questions about humor online -- what's funny, what's not, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Linton Weeks can be reached at email@example.com
GETTING THERE: Amanda at http://www.home.intekom.com/jly2/index.html; Christine L. at http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Palais/6769/hair; Stephanie at http://www.geocities.com/~modularforms/trich.html; Fairlight at http://www.fairlite.com/trich; Night Terrors at http://www2.miracle.net/~dwr, and the White House Conference on Mental Health at http://www.mentalhealth.gov