'It's just hair' became an almost mantra in my head when I discovered my first bald patch.
I had just returned from the appointment with my dermatologist where she diagnosed me with alopecia areata and telogen effluvium. Her shocked statement of “Oh wow” when she poked around my scalp took away any thoughts of “Maybe it's not that bad.”
I had noticed my hair brush had been collecting more and more hair in it most days as I brushed it into a ponytail. I found strands around the house, and even a few clumps coming out when I brushed my hair off of my shoulders. I had enjoyed short hair for much of my life as one of my best friends in high school used me as her guinea pig for cosmetology school. It was only in the last few years that I started to grow my hair out and keep it long. I loved it, and I loved that I could finally do a bit more with it. But this much hair loss so suddenly seemed very abnormal.
After a few showers where the drain was covered with my hair, and finding a clump of hair on my shirt sleeve several times, I decided I should see if something might be off. We have some thyroid issues in my family so maybe that was now wreaking havoc on my system. I went to my general practitioner for a blood work panel, but she wasn't available for an appointment for several months. After seeing my results though, she wrote back and said, “Everything looked normal.” I asked her to check again, because how could I possibly have all this hair loss? “Nothing is off that would cause hair loss” was the reply, and we could revisit when I saw her in a few months if it still kept up. I slept on it and after waking up to another pillow full of hair, I decided to get another opinion.
It turns out, hair loss related problems tend to fall under the realm of dermatologists as well. Mine has a much shorter wait time so I booked to see her just a few days later. I was filled with apprehension and dread as I waited in her office.
I tried to hold back tears as she immediately told me her suspicions. How could she know so quickly? I had explained what I'd seen and the amount of hair loss I'd been experiencing. She asked about my recent year and any things that might have been triggers. 2019 was a doozy and there were a lot of stresses in my life, including work stress (job uncertainty, then changing roles), family medical health, buying and selling a house simultaneously, multiple destination races, and the overall pressure I put on myself to keep things together though it all. And, oh yeah, husband and kids! Anxiety has always been something I've struggled with, but I thought I had plenty of 'tools in my toolkit' to deal with it. I kept telling myself 'this too shall pass' when something would happen, but it clearly had started to take its toll. My dermatologist told me that my system essentially had 'an atomic bomb of stress' placed upon it and this is how my body processed it.
Her assistant took pictures of my head and scalp and I wondered more and more what exactly they were seeing. Also, what solutions were there? None guaranteed. Oral steroids were not recommended and the results weren't 100%. Cortisone injections to my scalp are painful but could help to reduce the inflammation of my immune system attacking my hair follicles (the alopecia in action). Reduction of stress? That's where telogen effluvium comes in. Stress related hair loss. Essentially 'try not to stress as much' was the recommendation. She did say that because most of the big triggers had passed, this should, in theory, be easier to control. If only we had a crystal ball of the future, huh?
She did the first round of steroid injections of about a dozen spaced throughout my head. It was as you could imagine... not pleasant and I tried not to cry with each shot. Once she was done, she recommended that I come back in a few weeks to check in. She said I would likely lose up to 60% of my hair in this process and at the moment, she couldn't confirm if it would grow back or not. Only time would tell as she evaluated the effects of the treatment.
I rushed home, sobbing in the car as I drove. When I got home, I immediately grabbed a handheld mirror and looked at the spots they had been photographing. I hadn't even realized it, but I had a gaping bald spot on my head. How long had that been there? How could I have missed it? I melted into a puddle of tears on the floor of the bathroom.
I know it's just hair, and I've really never put that much thought into my hair, but now that it was falling out and I couldn't control it, it seemed like so much more.
My husband was amazing, being there to comfort me. But his comments of “Don't be upset, it's just hair” were not the soothing words I needed to hear. I know it's just hair, and I've really never put that much thought into my hair, but now that it was falling out and I couldn't control it, it seemed like so much more. He did come back later and say "I've never done this before, I won't always say the right thing, but I'm on your side and we'll get through it together." He's a keeper. We had a lot of discussions about how I needed to process this news and understand what it meant. Part of that also meant tons of research. I started looking up everything I could about alopecia and joining online support groups.
I had been following fellow Oiselle Volée teammate Lindsay Hannah for quite some time. She's fairly close to me in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is active in races that I've participated or had interest in. In addition, she has an incredibly inspiring story about her own journey with alopecia. She has a different type, but in reading through her posts on Instagram and on her blog, I felt incredibly inspired and drew so much strength from what she shared. We had chatted a few times on social media, but I reached out to her shortly after my diagnosis. She was so kind and supportive, and really helped me to process my diagnosis both in my early days and as I crossed various bridges of processing my hair loss.
As the days passed and more and more hair was falling out, I started to notice additional patches popping up. I didn't want to leave my house. I spent a lot of time crying in my bathroom, trying not to let my kids see because I didn't want them upset. I decided to visit a wig shop to see if I could get an option that would make me feel comfortable enough to go outside. Thankfully, there was a shop fairly close to my house and across the street from one of our local hospitals.
I entered the shop and started to explain to the woman who greeted me about my alopecia diagnosis. I was already in tears, but also feeling ashamed as it seemed too frivolous to need a wig for my hair loss, when most of their clients are dealing with cancer and chemotherapy. But the staff of the wig shop was so kind and gave me several options to start trying out. I wanted something natural looking, but ideally not too hot—if you've ever run or worked out with me, you know I sweat the second I start warming up. I found a wig that seemed as close as I was going to get. But I felt self-conscious, as it had so much volume and was more hair than I've ever had on my head in my whole life. Apparently it can be a problem with some wigs as they just have a lot more volume or don't quite sit as naturally as my own hair would. And the price was astronomical. I couldn't believe how much a natural hair wig could cost. But after calling my husband, he encouraged me to go forward with it if it would be something that helped me feel like myself again.
As time passed, my hair loss continued on. It wasn't slowing down, and I found more and more bald patches every day. I had a few close friends that knew, but I felt weird bringing it up in conversation and also still felt guilt that this was self-inflicted. I know that's not how it works, but as someone who loves to stay busy, I worried that taking on too much was the cause of my problems. Why would it finally have this result, though?
I realized that my tools for dealing with anxiety weren't working for me.
I realized that my tools for dealing with anxiety weren't working for me. I started seeing a counselor again, as she'd helped me process tough times in the past. Sometimes, you just need to accept that professional help is needed. She has really helped me to process this, and in one of our recent discussions, I mentioned that I was toying with the idea of shaving my head. By this point, I had probably lost 50% of my hair. The top of my head was sparsely covered, and even wearing workout bands weren't covering my patches. After another day of seeing my hair cover the bottom of the shower drain, and seeing the condition of the hair drying on my head, I brought up the topic of shaving my head to my counselor, and she agreed that the amount of anxiety I was suffering as a result of seeing my hair fall out might be alleviated if I instead saw my hair potentially growing back in. Or if anything, I wouldn't be faced with the constant reminder of it falling out. It was time for a fresh start.
It's just hair.
I told myself that as I brought the scissors to the sad, limp ponytail that I had tied up. I couldn't do it. I took a moment to breathe and some tears started to fall. My husband gave me a hug and told me I didn't have to do it if I didn't want to. But I did. I needed this fresh start. I took the scissors to my hair and cut off the ponytail. There was no going back. I was so tempted to leave it as it was—a horrible chopped bob. If I could just get to a hairstylist, maybe they could salvage it! But salons weren't considered essential and were all shut down. (Oh yeah, we're in the middle of a global pandemic! No stress there!) I knew a pixie cut at this point would not solve my problem. The top of my head was still covered in bald patches. Let's just do this.
We talked to the boys about it so they wouldn't be suddenly shocked to find that I had no hair. They were more interested in watching TV than watching my head be shaved, so we just assembled our makeshift 'salon' in the garage. After setting up a tarp and folding chair, my husband got out the beard trimmer. I had googled “how to shave your head” because, honestly, how does one shave their own head? The general consensus was that the beard trimmer would work just fine. My husband trimmed up some longer chunks of hair so the beard trimmer wouldn't get caught, but it still did. I flinched every time he brought it towards my head, but about halfway through the process, I was just eager for it to be done and to see the end result. What would I be left with? My husband insisted that I had to wait until he was finished to reveal the 'masterpiece' of my shaved head. I asked him “Is my head shaped funny?” He replied, “Is that a thing?” I said, “Of course it is! That's everyone's biggest fear about being bald!”
When it was time, I closed my eyes for a moment before taking a look at my reflection. It wasn't quite what I expected, but I felt reassured. My head wasn't a funny shape. Because the hair that remained was all (mostly) one length (aside from the patch shave job from James... he's not going to take up stylist as a career choice anytime soon), the bald patches were less visible because I had a little bit of regrowth already from the cortisone injections.
I'm trying to find my new sense of femininity.
Since shaving my head, I have felt so free and liberated. My anxiety has decreased in a major way. I was initially nervous when going for my daily walks and runs. Whenever someone would drive by I would duck my head. But gradually, my confidence has come back. Showers are amazing. No more hair loss and hair pooling at the bottom of the shower. And drying time? What's that? I've definitely had moments where I move to instinctively push my hair back and realize that there's nothing there. But every day it just becomes a distant memory. I'm embracing all the accessories like scarves, jewelry, and playing with makeup again. I'm trying to find my new sense of femininity. It's not as scary as I thought it would be, and while I wish I could have done this sooner and saved myself so much heartache, I know I needed to get to the point where I was ready for it mentally on my own time.
I hope my story helps others who are facing a similar experience. In a recent follow-up doctor appointment, she mentioned how she has seen a huge uptick in the amount of people coming in with hair loss and being diagnosed with alopecia specifically. While there could be many reasons behind this (genetics, hormones and medications that can affect them, stress, etc), it also makes me wonder how many people are silently suffering from this? Or the influence of those who are sharing such as with recent revelations as Ricki Lake, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Viola Davis, and Kiera Knightly. I don't know to what extent my hair will grow back, and from what I've read, it sounds like it could flare up again at any time. So in the meantime, I'm going to rock my short hair and enjoy every cool breeze on the top of my head as I run this summer (just need to remember to put sunscreen up there, too).
It's just hair.