I spent 8 hours a day plucking my hairs
A WOMAN who became obsessed with plucking her eyebrows has spoken about the addiction that she says ruined her life.
Charlotte Starling has dermatillomania – the compulsion to pluck hairs.
Here the Norwich mum tells her story to KELLY STRANGE.
“I WOULD do anything to find a way to pluck hairs,” says Charlotte.
“It’s like a drug and I’m an addict. It’s made me devious and dishonest because I will do anything to find a way to pluck hairs and get that sense of relief.
“But I’m determined to control it for my family and I want to raise awareness of the condition so it is taken more seriously.”
Charlotte is 27 and plucking has left her fingertips permanently disfigured and her face and breasts scarred for life.
Ironically, she says it started because she wanted to look better.
Charlotte explains: “I’ve always obsessed about plucking my eyebrows.
“I wanted to get the shape just right and would spend ages plucking out the tiny hairs until they were perfect. Like all young women I wanted to look my best.”
But her fixation took a dangerous turn when her daughter Louise, now ten, started school. Charlotte was just 16 when she gave birth to her daughter on the TOILET. She had no idea she was pregnant when she nipped to the loo in the middle of the night and suddenly felt the urge to push.
Charlotte says: “I’d had a bad stomach all day and thought I was constipated. I pushed and heard a cry. When I looked down the toilet there was a baby. I was so shocked I screamed for my mum and she scooped it out.”
The pair were rushed to hospital and later given a clean bill of health.
Charlotte decided to call her 7lb 10oz daughter Louise — a playful nod to her unusual birthplace.
She says: “The doctors estimated that she was three to four weeks overdue. I know people find it hard to believe but I honestly had no idea at all. I was too young to recognise the signs.”
Charlotte and her 17-year-old boyfriend vowed to bring up the baby themselves.
She says: “I loved being a mum and dressing her up and showing her off. She became my life and I doted on her.”
The young parents split when their baby was 18 months old and, in time, Charlotte met her current fiancé Martin Thompson, now 36. She says: “I had my baby girl and my fiancé and life was wonderful.”
Charlotte’s problems really began when Louise started school, aged four.
“She had been my life, night and day, for four years ever since I was 16 years old,” explains Charlotte. “Because I had her at such a young age, I’d never known any other way of life — and I was totally lost without her. Since I’d become an adult my job was to look after Louise. When she was at school I didn’t know who I was and I started suffering severe anxiety.”
One morning, to keep calm, she started plucking her eyebrows.
Before she knew it, SIX HOURS had passed and it was time to collect her daughter from school.
Charlotte says: “Because I’d got through the day without a panic attack, I did the same the next day.
“It became a coping mechanism.
“Every day I would drop her off and rush straight home, draw the curtains and start to pluck as a way to keep my thoughts controlled and my mind calm.”
But with no stray hairs left on her eyebrows, she turned to the backs of her fingers — then moved on to new areas when her fingers became too bloody.
She says: “I could pick at the same tiny hair for hours. It would bleed but I still got a sense of relief when I got it out.”
Come 3pm she was able to pack away the tweezers and become a mum again.
She says: “It was like a switch would flick and I could go back to what I knew, which was looking after my daughter, cooking her tea and reading her stories.”
She also managed not to pluck when her fiancé had a day off. “It was only when I was alone that the anxiety came and the compulsion to pluck would take over.”
Before long, Charlotte was getting up during the night to pluck in the bathroom.
She says: “Martin was starting to notice how much time I was spending in the bathroom, so I would tell lies to cover my tracks. I started inventing stomach bugs so I could spend longer plucking.
“If people were about and I needed to pluck, I would do my eyebrows because nobody questions that.”
She compares her battle to the struggle of an alcoholic.
“I knew it was out of control but I still had to pluck my eyebrows. I couldn’t just stop but I couldn’t control it either.”
To avoid suspicion, she tried to pluck only hidden areas of her body.
She says: “My breasts were the worst. I would pluck the tiny hairs from my chest until my bra was soaked with blood.
“I would have to wash and dry my clothes and the sheets before my family got home, to avoid suspicion.”
She kept her scars hidden from her partner by dressing and bathing in the dark.
Charlotte says: “He knew I wasn’t body-confident so he never questioned it.”
After three years Charlotte tried to get help from her GP — but was dismissed.
“I tried to tell her that my plucking was taking over my life, but she just told me to stop,” Charlotte remembers.
When she confided in her friends, they LAUGHED at her. She says: “Nobody seemed bothered, so I told myself not to worry about it and just carried on.”
But the following year Martin’s mum, Kathy Thompson, caught sight of Charlotte’s scarring. Charlotte recalls: “I was getting changed and she saw my chest and gasped. She was shocked when I told her about the plucking. She sat down and told me it was very serious and I needed help.
“Telling Martin was the hardest part because I’d done such a good job of hiding it. He was devastated and begged me to get help.”
Finally, in 2011, Charlotte was referred to a psychologist and diagnosed with the condition dermatillomania.
She says: “Martin cleared out all the tweezers. He found more than 20 pairs hidden in plant pots and drawers.”
But the urge to pluck remained — and in desperation Charlotte searched the house for tools to pluck with.
“I used my daughter’s pencil sharpener, needles and knives — anything with a point that I could use to pick the hairs out.”
When those objects were confiscated, desperate Charlotte even broke into her fiancé’s shed for a pair of PLIERS.
But her lowest moment came when she started growing her nails to file into points.
“I turned myself into a pair of human tweezers,” she says.
After seeing the lengths to which she was prepared to go, worried Martin even offered Charlotte his body to pluck to save her own.
“He hoped if I plucked him I would stop hurting myself. I started on his back but it didn’t give me the same sense of satisfaction.
“That’s when I realised it wasn’t about plucking. It was about punishing myself.”
Her wounds were becoming infected and sore but Charlotte refused to see the doctor because the infection gave her something else to pick.
Finally, earlier this year, Martin was left with no choice but to stop work as a plumbing and heating engineer to become Charlotte’s full-time carer after she was registered disabled.
“I can’t believe it started with plucking my eyebrows and turned into this,” she says.
The urge to pluck is still there but she fights temptation by bathing in the dark and dressing in high-cut tops and long sleeves.
“If I can’t see the areas I would pluck, it’s easier not to think about it,” she explains.
She also sleeps in her clothes to avoid the temptation if she wakes at night.
Charlotte remains hopeful that, with counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and the support of her loved ones, she will get better.