GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- It's a disorder in which people intentionally pull out their hair or eyelashes.
The behavior only affects one to two percent of teens and adults, but can come with a lot of shame. It's a disorder one professional dancer with the Grand Rapids Ballet still struggles with years later.
"I was about nine when I started pulling my hair out, " Alexandra Meister Upleger remembered.
"I didn`t really tell anyone or my parents about it until I was about 14, so quite a few years I was doing it without talking about it."
It was a very long time for a child to carry a dark secret. Meister Upleger started dancing at a young age. She recalled how she started pulling out her hair.
"I started with my eyelashes. I used to do dance competitions and I would wear false eyelashes and the glue would get stuck. I actually started liking the sensation of the pulling of the eyelashes.
For a girl used to being on stage, Meister Upleger soon found her secret behavior was getting harder to hide.
"I picked on top of my head a lot and I would explain, oh I got a rubber band stuck and I had to yank it out," she explained.
"I started over plucking my eyebrows. And, that was, oh I accidentally plucked too many eyebrows. I had a lot of good excuses for why I was missing hair."
She could hide the bald patch in the back of her head by pulling her hair into a bun. But in high school, she finally decided to tell her mother.
Doctor Nika Fesler with Adolescent Behavioral Health Services said it's important that people who have Trichotillomania, a type of Body Focused Repetitive Behavior, not feel ostracized for it. A lot of times, it's a coping mechanism for stress or trauma.
"I think that that`s got to be really scary as a parent to see that something is going on with your kid that you didn`t know about," Fesler said.
She had a few suggestions for parents on how to handle this news.
"Saying what do you think about this? Is this something you want to change? Is this something you want to be different? Giving them some options. Maybe they`re not ready to take a step towards changing it and we could just talk about it to start with."
Meister-Upleger wishes she didn't wait that long to speak up. But, with therapy, she's been able to keep her urge to pull under control.
"I've met quite a few women who are my age and have never told a soul that they pick their own hair and when I speak freely about it, they realize this thing I`ve been hiding all of these years is something they need to take care of, but it`s not this big, shameful secret that you have to keep."
To learn more about the diagnosis and treatment of Trichotillomania, click here.