Hills woman speaks out about BFRBs

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published February 26, 2018

FARMINGTON HILLS — Most of us know someone who does this, or we’ve done it ourselves.

Picking nails, pulling hair or some other absent-minded tic. But for some, it reaches the level of compulsion, to the point of self-harm.

Individuals in the latter category are described as having body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRBs, which is a general term for a group of related disorders that include hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting, according to www.bfrb.org.

These behaviors, according to the website, are not habits or tics; they are complex disorders that lead individuals to constantly touch their body or hair, or to pull their hair out — called trichotillomania — among other things.

“This affects a lot more people than it might appear,” Ann Arbor-based psychotherapist Laurie Krauth said during a recent phone interview, adding that people with BFRBs “have a challenge that other people don’t.”

Krauth said that there can be a lot of overlap between bad habits and BFRBs.

“The real difference is the amount of distress and the amount of the ways that it creates dysfunction in our lives,” she said, adding that while some people might pick a pimple or pull out a strand of hair without thinking, BFRBs cross over into the truly detrimental.

“If they do it enough that it causes damage ... makes them feel badly about themselves, or it causes distress and affects the quality of their lives, that is the point at which it becomes something diagnosable.”

Livonia resident Roberta Slade knows a lot about BFRBs — she dealt with the disorder even before she knew it had a name.

“I started pulling out my eyelashes when I was 13, in seventh grade, in the Chicago area. (In) 1963, nobody knew what this was,” she said.

Slade said that she was ashamed of her condition and that she was blamed for what people called a “bad habit.”

“Why are you doing that?” people would ask her. “I had no idea. I just knew I had this urge to pull out my eyelashes.”

According to a press release, BFRBs affect about 1 in 30 people, but the condition more often than not goes undiagnosed and untreated.

Slade said the disorder damaged her appearance, and she asked herself why she couldn’t control it. Slade dealt with trichotillomania from the time she was 13 until she was 39.

“Twenty-six years before I even knew that trichotillomania existed,” she said, adding that she kept pulling out her eyelashes through college and marriage, and after giving birth. Before each personal milestone, she promised to stop, but she was unable to.

“Once I learned that it existed, I kind of reached out,” she said, finding care at an anxiety disorder clinic. “I got control of the pulling in 1991. I pulled … for 28 years, got control and been pull-free for 27 years now. … I created my own therapy. I used imagery and visualization and used that to empower myself.”

Slade will encourage others to get control of their BFRBs at a workshop 9 a.m.-5 p.m. March 3 through the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors at Birmingham Temple, 28611 W. 12 Mile Road.

The TLC Foundation, based in California, has a mission to end the suffering caused by BFRBs, according to its website. The group was initially named as the Trichotillomania Learning Center, or Trich, but it expanded to include all BFRBs.

Slade’s Farmington Hills-based support group, Trichsters Helping Each Other, or THEO, is co-hosting the workshop. She said that in 2013, when THEO was celebrating its 20th anniversary, she contacted the TLC Foundation to come to metro Detroit to hold its annual conference, which she described as “life changing.”

“I recommend them to anybody — they are across the country,” she said, adding that a lot of times, people can’t afford to fly across the country to attend a conference. That is what inspired her to ask the foundation to come to Michigan.

The workshop includes an overview of BFRBs, pharmacological treatment of BFRBs, therapy for BFRBs, creating a recovery plan and more. Speakers will include a University of Chicago professor, a specialist in anxiety disorders and BFRB treatment, and a mental health advocate.

Slade helped begin the support group 25 years ago under a different name to help others. Her co-leader of the support group is Bill Carey, 59, of Farmington, who has struggled with BFRBs and the additional stigma of being a man affected by a disorder that is mainly found in women, according to a press release.

The support group’s 25th anniversary is coinciding with the workshop program, which is designed for adults with BFRBs.

Krauth, the support group’s adviser, said that she has worked with a number of people with BFRBs, from skin picking to cheek chewing.

“My experience is that they are extraordinarily distressed by something,” she said, adding that they feel “really weak and ashamed” of what they are doing because it seems like it should be within their power to stop.

“They have a different set of triggers and some issues around stopping.”

Krauth said that treatment includes identifying what the triggers are and how to deal with them for individuals with BFRBs. Triggers can be emotional, physical, situational, biological or something else.

“There seems to be more biological evidence that people who find themselves pulling or picking are having the impulse to do it, and then they don’t have the same capacity to say ‘no’ to that behavior, even if they know it is not within their best interest,” Krauth said, adding that some people pick because it relaxes them or feels good.

Slade said that in her experience, puberty is around the time that hair pulling can start because of hormones and stressors.

“You’re changing your … school and social environment,” she said of some stressors the youths face.

THEO meetings are held at 1 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of each month in Classroom C of the Beaumont Hospital, Farmington Hills, Administration and Education Center, 28050 Grand River Ave. For more information, go to bfrb.org/detroit or email RSlade9627@aol.com.