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Childhood bullying led to woman ripping off her skin and pulling out her hair for 18 years

A woman has told how childhood bullying led to her ripping off her skin with tweezers and pulling out her hair for the past 18 years.

Marlene Mathivaud was 13 when she began to pull out her hair to cope with the stress of being bullied, a disorder known as trichotillomania – leaving huge bald patches that she hid under a bandana and left her looking like “she was recovering from cancer”.

She soon moved on to ripping tiny patches of skin off her legs to find relief, a condition called dermatillomania, which means the Burberry sales assistant cannot now wear skirts or shorts due to the scars.

Marlene, 31, who lives in South-East London, has battled to stop herself tearing at her hair and skin but admitted the urge to do it is too strong to resist – and lockdown has made her conditions flare up again.

She said: “I’d be at my desk trying to work during the pandemic and every 20 minutes I’d have to clear up the floor because there would be this carpet of hair.

“I’ve had moments where I’d look at it and start crying. I’m disgusted at myself for doing it – I know I should be able to stop myself doing it but I can’t.”

Bravely, she posted an image of her hair loss on Instagram in January 2021 to raise awareness about the disorders.

The NHS describes hair pulling disorder as “when someone cannot resist the urge to pull out their hair” and skin picking disorder as “where you cannot stop picking at your skin”.

Both are categorised as types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCDs) and the NHS says they can be triggered by stress or anxiety.

Marlene said: “I’m tired of the stigma around my conditions and I want to change that. For so many years I felt ashamed of myself because it is something you have inflicted on yourself.

“But people assume you are choosing not to control it. It is important for them to understand that is not the case.”

Born in France, Marlene moved with her family to London aged 8 for her father’s job – and when she was 12 and they returned to Paris, she found it difficult to make friends.

She recalled: “This group of girls took me under their wing and then suddenly they dropped me and I had no friends. And then people started to bully me – it was just a lot of name calling which I have kind of blocked out.

“I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so I just took it and begun to stay away from people, reading books alone in the playground.”

By the time she was 13, Marlene was pulling out the hair on her head as a coping mechanism.

Within months, her long, thick locks had been replaced with short, patchy hair all over her skull aside from the nape of her neck, which she hid under a bandana and said made her look like she ‘was recovering from cancer’.

She said: “Kids in the playground used to call me names like ‘pirate’, but they still didn’t realise what was going on.

“I remember I used to sit in our TV room at home and just pull away at my hairs with my sister sat next to me. She’d tell me to stop it but I just couldn’t help myself.”



Marlene in summer 2020 between lockdowns

She added: “My mum sent me to see a child therapist, but my family did not really know then what we know now about the signs of mental illness.”

Soon she was pulling out hairs from her legs and, at 14, this led to her picking her skin too.

Marlene said: “I would take a pair of tweezers and pull at a hair follicle on my legs, but I would pick the skin too, and it would leave all these tiny little scabs which have now turned into small white scars.”

She went on to say: “I never did this around anyone, only in my bedroom. I think it was because I realised on some level that is was more disgusting than pulling out my hair.”

The acts are both accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction she finds it hard to explain.

She said: “I’m not proud to admit this, but it is the best sensation.”

She continued: “When it comes to pulling out your hair, it is a whole process – you don’t just pull any random one.

“Your hand is guided by instinct and when I find the perfect hair and pull it out, I just have this happiness, accompanied by a sensation of feeling comfortable.”

Marlene was able to hide her conditions away from the world until the first day of starting high school, aged 14.

She said: “They had just passed laws about wearing veils in schools, so I was told I could not wear my bandana either.

“I felt horrible, like I was going to cry in the classroom. But luckily by this point I had a group of friends and two of them had seen a documentary about hair pulling, so they understood what I was going through and were disgusted I had to take it off.”

Instead, Marlene said she became strategic about where she would pull hair from, focusing on the sides of her head and letting the top grow out so she could gel it into a position which would cover the bald patches – a technique she still uses to this day.



Marlene’s hair regrowth in 2015

In her last year of high school in 2006, aged 16, things got worse when she stopped eating properly, losing 11lbs in a few months.

She said: “When you have OCDs that are left untreated, they have this rippling effect. You feel so bad in your own skin that you need a way to compensate somehow, and that is why my eating disorders began.

“At first, I did not even notice I was not eating – it took people telling me I was not eating anything to realise.”

Her concerned mother again sought professional help – but a friend also tried to help her during a Saturday shopping trip.

She said: “My friend bought me a bar of chocolate and made me eat a piece in front of them.

“I suddenly realised what I was missing, so I bought a travel bag full of sweets and ate them all.”

After this, Marlene said, she began binging which is also very dangerous.

She continued: “I would try to get rid of what I had eaten, either by being sick or taking tablets.

“But somehow, over the course of a few months, it slowly stopped. I realised I could have a little bit of what I liked rather than binge.”

By the time she began studying graphic design at CREAPOLE technical school in Paris, her eating disorders were under control.

And after finishing her masters degree in creative advertising in Lille, northern France in 2012, Marlene had a breakthrough with her hair pulling.

She said: “I began seeing a psychologist and one day, in the summer of 2012, I remember sitting on my bed and my hand started absently going towards my hair.”



Marlene in Thailand, when she bared her legs for the first time in public in swimwear

She continued: “But before I touched one, something clicked and I did not want to do it anymore.

“I think it was because my psychologist did not focus on my past, but about my hopes for the future – and this brought me some hope.

“I called my mum within minutes and told her the hair pulling was finished, and she was just so happy.”

A few months later, Marlene moved to London and began a career in retail.

But the skin-picking never went away, and the trichotillomania came back with a vengeance in 2016.

She said: “I still don’t fully know why. I began writing a book and I just needed a bit of relief. I would just pull one hair here and there, and I’d tell myself it wasn’t a problem.”

She went on to say: “But when you are doing that every week, and then every day, it came back fully. I’d stop for a couple of months and then start again – but it has never fully gone away.”

Due to the scars on her legs, Marlene does not wear shorts or skirts.

She also avoided swimsuits on public beaches – until a family holiday to Thailand in 2019 when she finally plucked up the courage.

She said: I had no idea how good it felt. It was warm, I was in the sea and I could swim around. But the minute I got out of the water, I rushed back and wrapped myself up in a towel.”

Marlene, who is single, said her conditions did not help in her previous relationships.

She said: “Having an OCD creates a lot of insecurities, so it is hard opening yourself up to someone else about those and finding someone who can understand them.”

But Marlene is learning to open up more about her conditions to the people she cares about.



Marlene’s hair loss now

She continued: “Friends and colleagues always ask me ‘why do you always have your hair up in one style?’

“Now I am open about it.”

But she still hides her scars from her workmates.

“If I am trying on clothes with work friends and we’re in the changing rooms, they’ll ask why I don’t just get changed with them,” she said.

“It is just something normal for them, but for me it isn’t at all. I would love to feel normal for a day.”

The onset of the first lockdown took a toll on Marlene’s mental health, and her trichotillomania spiralled out of control as she worked from the flat she lives in alone, leaving huge bald patches on the sides of her head.

But in January, she shared pictures of her struggle with her followers on Instagram, and was flooded with support.

She said: “When I posted that picture, I had been pulling my hair out every single day for a month.”

She continued: “I was in a place where I felt I could become depressed, a horrible mental state.

“But as soon as I saw the messages of support coming in, I felt the burden of feeling ashamed lift a little bit.

“People were like ‘are you OK?’ and I said ‘yes, I’m OK – I have a mental illness, it is not the end of the world’.”

She went on to say: “It doesn’t matter if you have an 18-year-long history of OCD like me, or anxiety for a year – it is still important to talk about it.”




With an end to the latest lockdown in sight, Marlene is hopeful for the future.

She concluded: “One day, I know I will stop. But there is a timing for everything, and it is a long process.”

She added: “18 years ago, I didn’t even know what mental illness was, and neither did my family or teachers.

“But now there is so much more knowledge out there that if you see someone showing the signs, make sure they seek professional help at an early stage before it has a chance to spiral.”

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