As a child in Georgia, Emily Kight was told that if she found an eyelash that fell, "you could make a wish and it would come true. My family unit was dissolving," she says, so she hunted for eyelashes she could turn into wishes.
"I started wishing for things to be different. I also remember wishing for world peace and treats for my cat and stuff for my sister."
Those wishes did not come true. When she could not find enough eyelashes that fell, she started picking them, starting a destructive behavior that plagued her for 20 years.
Known as the hair-pulling disorder, trichotillomania (TTM) is an impulse that can be triggered by anxiety. It affects five million Americans.
"I started on eyelashes, but moved on to eyebrows," Kight says. "I felt ugly for my entire childhood. When I got older, I realized scalp was better to pull from because you could pull more hair and hide it with a hairstyle or a hat."
Feeling shamed, she was unable to look people in the eye. "I was really lonely for a long time until I got to college" at Temple University, she says. "I met other people who were gay, super-overweight, or trans, or different in another way," which made her feel less out of place.
I met Kight about seven years ago, when she was a photo intern at the Daily News. I had no idea she suffered from TTM, because she hid the damage done to her red hair. And she did not know that I had suffered from TTM off and on, usually in periods of personal or professional stress. For me, it was twisting hair on my head, which eventually led to big bald patches.
"My body literally craves the sensation" of the pulling, Kight says. It's hard to explain why destructive behavior offers any kind of comfort, but it does.
Visits to psychologists didn't help Kight, nor did well-meaning suggestions from friends that she "just stop."
There is no cure, but Kight, now 27, has come up with a treatment.
How she got there was a strange zigzag.
She graduated from Temple in 2011 "with a stupid film and media arts degree that's embarrassing to me now," she says with a toss of her head. "I got into photojournalism right when the economy eliminated that as a real job. Bad timing, but you have to adapt and get the skills the economy needs."
Her return to college was financed by a modest cash settlement of a sexual harassment complaint she lodged against a former colleague at a local educational media company who was stupid enough to text her, providing her with proof.
Back in school, the creative/liberal arts student found she had an unexpected talent for science. She currently does cancer research at Temple as part of a merit scholarship program.
On her own time, she bioengineered a product she named Prohibere, a lotion that creates a tingling sensation on the skin that squelches the urge to tug on hair. It will be available on Amazon in two weeks.
Kight lives in the Temple neighborhood with her fiance, Michael Kelly, an engineering student who she says is her "right hand" in the Prohibere startup.