Fresh off her recent co-hosting gig at the Oscars, comedian and actor Amy Schumer is starring in the new Hulu series Life & Beth, which she also wrote and directed. But while she’s enjoying success in the spotlight these days, she’s also been keeping a secret. “I’m proud that my big secret only hurts me, but it’s been what I’ve carried so much shame about for so long,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in March.
Schumer hopes that by talking about the disorder she still struggles with—and featuring it as a plot point on her new show—she’ll be able to help others who deal with the same problem. Read on to find out more about the condition that Schumer kept a secret for so long.
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Schumer has struggled for years with trichotillomania—also known as hair-pulling disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, trichotillomania is “a mental disorder that involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop.” Some people’s affliction with the disorder is mild and not immediately apparent, because their urges are more manageable. But when she was in school, Schumer’s condition was so severe that she ultimately wore a wig to cover up the bald patches caused by the disorder—and “everybody knew,” she said of the wig.
Schumer still deals with trichotillomania. “It’s not that I used to have this problem and now I don’t,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s still something that I struggle with.”
Trichotillomania is thought to be caused by a combination of both biological and behavioral factors, according to the Cleveland Clinic, although the exact cause isn’t known. Some people who suffer from the disorder also deal with mental health issues, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But it’s also thought to be genetic, as the risk of developing the affliction is higher in people who have relatives with trichotillomania. Schumer—mom to son Gene David with husband Chris Fischer—worries that her toddler may have inherited the disorder: “Every time he touches his head I’m having a heart attack,” she said.
Stress can be a reason behind trichotillomania, and Schumer first experienced symptoms during an extremely stressful time early in her life, when her parents, Sandra and Gordon, were experiencing upheaval. As Schumer wrote in her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Sandra’s affair—with Schumer’s best friend’s married father—led to the breakup of her marriage to Gordon, who had been struggling with multiple sclerosis and alcoholism.
The symptoms of trichotillomania may seem obvious, as it’s also called hair-pulling disorder, but there are different aspects to it. The Cleveland Clinic reports that the person with the condition feels “tension” before pulling out hair—and then a sense of fulfillment once they’ve acted on the urge.
Often, the disorder is made visible by patches of missing hair on the head, as well as eyebrows and eyelashes, that have been pulled out. And sometimes there may also be other behaviors involving the hair, such as “inspecting the hair root, twirling the hair, pulling the hair between the teeth, chewing on the hair, or eating hair (called trichophagia).” Just as Schumer did with the wig she wore to school, many people will try to cover up the bald patches of hair, both to conceal their disorder and to try to cope with their sense of shame and embarrassment.
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After Schumer opened up about her secret to The Hollywood Reporter, fans took to her Twitter page to thank her for her brave revelation. One person wrote about her six-decade battle with the condition, saying “Like you, I have felt so much shame over the years.” Another thanked Schumer for “sharing your ‘big secret,'” adding that “Mental health conditions like trichotillomania may not be curable, but shame is.”
Indeed, Schumer has been open about the fact that she still struggles with the disorder—but she says she’s found some relief.
Other sufferers of the condition may find help, as well. The Mayo Clinic lists several types of therapy, which include habit reversal training (which tries to teach new methods of dealing with the urge to pull hair), cognitive therapy (which will “identify and examine distorted beliefs you may have in relation to hair pulling”), and acceptance and commitment therapy (which helps the patient “accept [their] hair-pulling urges without acting on them.”
Treatment of her disorder has helped Schumer open up about it. “I really don’t want to have a big secret anymore,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I thought… it would be good for me to alleviate some of my shame and maybe, hopefully, help others alleviate some of theirs, too.”
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