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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

“Karen, did you know you have some bald spots back here?”,  asked Penney, my favorite hairdresser, as she was trimming my hair. 

 With two young daughters, I had been too busy to notice extra hairs in my hairbrush.  Sure, I knew that it was normal for women to experience overall thinning hair after giving birth, but had never heard of losing hair in quarter size spots. 

 “You have alopecia areata,” stated my dermatologist a few weeks later. 

 “Oh, great,” I thought, “I have a disease I can’t spell, or even pronounce!”  It sounded more like the name of an Italian opera or a yucky vegetarian dish with sprouts than something affecting the hair on my head.  She went on to explain that it was an autoimmune disease.  Basically, that meant that for some bizarre reason, my body had decided that my hair follicles were dangerous to my health. It was like I had developed an allergy to my own hair and my body thought I would be better off without it. 

 “Do you think I will lose all of my hair?”, I anxiously asked.

 She responded, “I just don’t know, Karen.  The only predictable thing about alopecia is that it is totally unpredictable.”

 Well, I didn’t lose all my hair…that time.  My bald patches filled in and my life with hair went on, for a while at least. 
 A few years later, I began noticing significant hair loss.  There was hair on my pillow in the morning and gobs of hair around the bathtub drain after a shower.  After brushing my hair, I was shocked at the amount of hair left on the brush.  This time the dermatologist recommended cortisone injections to try to stimulate hair re-growth.  That meant many shots directly into my tender scalp.  Ouch!  The worst thing about those injections was that they didn’t work.  My hair continued to fall out at an alarming rate. 

 At first I could comb my hair a certain way to conceal my bald spots.  (When men do this they call it a “comb over.”)    When that was no longer a possibility, I started wearing hats; all the time and everywhere.  I like hats.  Hats can be fun.  They can definitely make a fashion statement.  But when one wears a hat to conceal a lack of hair, it’s just not as appealing.  Also, at some places like school and other situations, it’s just not appropriate or acceptable to wear a hat.

 It was at about this time that Jill, our six year old, was studying mammals in her 1st grade class.  She learned that one of the major characteristics of mammals was that they usually have hair.  Her teacher told me that Jill had asked, “If my mommy loses all her hair, will she still be a mammal?”  That’s funny to me now, but then I was mortified and depressed.  My self- esteem and confidence plummeted.  Why would this be happening to me?  It was perfectly acceptable for a man to be bald, but a woman?  I didn’t want people to be concerned about my health.  Thankfully, it wasn’t like I had cancer and was losing hair because of the effects of chemotherapy.  I was otherwise very healthy. 

 Hair is so important, especially to women, in our culture.  Just open any women’s magazine to see that every other page is an advertisement for some type of hair product.  Hair represents beauty and strength.  Although I had never been someone who spent a lot of time on my tresses, as a teenager I was proud of my trademark waist long, straight hair.  I might have worried about gaining weight or getting wrinkles, but I always thought my hair would stick around.  Losing my hair was just never a part of my vision for my future.

 In the over twenty years since my hairdresser spotted those first bald patches, my hair loss has progressed from alopecia areata to alopecia universalis. (Bald in “areas” to total body hair loss!)  When the loss has occurred to that extent, it is very unlikely that significant re-growth will take place.  I’ve pretty much resigned myself to that fact.   I especially miss my eyelashes.  A few years ago I had permanent eyebrows applied or “tattooed” on so my face wouldn’t look so naked.  I no longer am the “hat lady”.  Some friends finally convinced me to make the switch to a wig.  They accompanied me to the wig shop and helped me make a selection.  It was traumatic.  I felt like such an imposter, a fake, a phony.

  At first I was very nervous to go out in public wearing a wig.  I felt like the first thing people would think to themselves when they saw me was, “Wig!”  This made me extremely self- conscious.  It was hard to focus on what another person was saying when all I could think about was whether or not that person knew I was wearing a wig.  Now, about a dozen wigs later, I realize that people are not really all that focused on the details of another’s appearance.  What a relief!  I’m no longer as surprised to discover people had no idea my hair wasn’t real until I confided in them.  People see ME, not my hair, real or fake.

 Some larger cities have alopecia support groups.  I’ve never lived near one but have found many fellow “alopecians” and support online.  They share their favorite wig brands and commiserate about how wigs can be so hot and itchy.  It is comforting to know I’m not the only one dealing with this strange ailment.  To some degree, I feel like I have a responsibility to raise awareness about alopecia .  Usually, people I explain it to have never heard of this condition that affects approximately 2% of the population overall, including more than 5 million people in the United States alone.

 Who would have known there were so many benefits to being hairless?  I never have to shave my legs anymore and just think of all the money I save by not having to go to the hair salon or buy shampoo!  It’s really pretty easy to just shake out a wig, plop it on my head and go.  My home-grown hair never looked as good as some of my wigs.   I’ve enjoyed purchasing a few wigs online.    It’s really fun, when someone compliments me on my hair to say, “Thanks, I got it on E-Bay!”  Since my wigs are made from synthetic fibers, I do have to be careful when taking muffins out of the oven or cooking pasta.  The fake hair can get frizzy or melt.  But really, I cannot think of one thing I have not been able to try due to my lack of hair. 

 I have been fortunate that my family and friends have accepted my hair loss.  After all, Ryan, my husband fell in love with me and NOT my hair.  (It does help that he is fairly bald himself!)  I am still the same person, with or without my hair. I am so much more than hair. 

 This whole “hairy” challenge has made me more sensitive to problems other people are going through.   It seems like almost everyone has some issue they could easily let get in the way of being the person they want to be.  I’m the first to admit that hair is nothing compared to what many others are living.  In the big picture, hair is not a big deal.  It’s just not worth getting all “wigged out” over. After all, “Hair today, gone, tomorrow.” 





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