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Growing Up with Alopecia Areata

Growing Up with Alopecia Areata

I was eight years old, in March of third grade, when we tucked oversized T-shirts into spandex shorts and carried on unaware of our imperfections. It was this pivotal third grade year, when I was supposed to be concerned with which doll to play with at recess, that I was forced to grow up: I was losing all of my hair. It was a loss of innocence that brought about premature self-awareness. It began with a small spot at the back of my head, a small patch of flesh that peeked out under my ponytail. But other patches surfaced and grew and spread. At eight years old, I was confronted with biting self-consciousness that even adolescents twice my age wouldn’t encounter. At eight years old, I was bombarded with allergists, dermatologists, and holistic specialists. At eight years old, I was overwhelmed with blood tests and complicated explanations.

 The name-calling and the abrasively sympathetic looks had their affect on me. No matter what age you are, you notice these things and you find that they get old fast. From eight years old and on into junior high, hair became a highly sensitive issue. By ten I had lost all of the hair on my head, including my eyelashes and eyebrows. To this day I don’t even have hair on my arms or legs. But it wasn’t just hair. It was how I saw myself and how others saw me that mattered too much. It still matters too much. It’s too easy to say it’s only hair. Later, in middle and high school, the preoccupation with my hair spawned other preoccupations—from weight and body image to self-esteem issues. My preoccupation with hair loss did not end when my hair grew back in junior high; the preoccupation remained in high school and will no doubt follow me into college.

What has occurred between that monumental point and now has been a series of minutes, days, and years that mesh together and overlap. What can come out of a tremendously traumatic experience like that? Only growth can come out of it. Only redemption. I have learned to cope. They say, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” At eight I didn’t completely understand what this meant. Most eight-year-olds wouldn’t. But it has become a mantra that means so much more. It means not only will I overcome it, but I will also be a better person for it. I believe that it has been vital to hold on to those emotions of a confused child, to not tuck them in the pockets of my subconscious, but to remember all of it: every tear, every exhausting cry, every moment that I put my hand to my head to feel the skin that I never grew accustomed to seeing. Because I’ve learned from it. All of it.

At seventeen, upon the eve of my senior year in high school and the eve of my adulthood, I spoke to young tweens at the NAAF conference in Tampa about my experience. I had been ridiculously nervous in the months preceding the conference; I wasn’t sure I would be able to give enlightening advice to kids that were in the same position that I was just six years ago, and it tore me apart. I wanted to make them feel better. I wanted them to think it was all right and everything would be okay. But I didn’t know if I could do that for them if I couldn’t do it for myself. I have found that every time my hair starts to fall out again, every time I find a new patch on my head, it’s like the first one. It’s just as confusing, just as dark and lonely as the first time, and it will always continue to affect me in the same way.
After speaking to the tweens, I felt a profound connection to them. I realized how much they were all like me at that age: full of questions and fear, not knowing what to do or say to kids at school or how to cope, just searching for affirmation. I couldn’t make promises that everything would be right again or their hair would grow back tomorrow like I know they wish it would. But I could say that they’d get through it. Because they will. Because I did. Because I will.

 

 

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