Losing Your Hair Vs. Losing Your Mind

alopecia
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alopecia
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I change my mind a lot, but my hair always stays the same. People who know me have grown to associate my face with one constant: long, messy waves. I rarely cut it, rarely dye it, and rarely—save for the occasional lazy braid—style it. It’s become a half-hearted trademark because I’ve always been too scared (or maybe, too vain) to do anything drastic.

So when I started frantically Googling “Hot Bald Chicks” or “Natalie Portman circa 2005,” my friends started to wonder what kind of quarter-life crisis I’d hit.

In truth, there was no real crisis—I had noticed a few nickel-sized spots (behind my left ear, to the right of my middle part, and just above my neck at the back of scalp) where the hair had simply vanished overnight. At first, I chalked it up to testing too many types of shampoo. But when the spots grew, I panicked. I went to see my doctor, who quickly and easily diagnosed me with alopecia areata. It’s an autoimmune disorder where your body begins attacking your hair follicles in concentrated areas. My particular case—which is more common than you’d expect—is stress-induced. Apparently, I’ve had it my entire life but hadn’t shown any signs until I was in my mid-20s. (Side note: WHAT ELSE DON’T I KNOW ABOUT MY OWN BODY?!) He gave me a few shots of steroids and told me to come back in two weeks. Treatments can but don’t always help, he clarified.

At home, I jumped down the dark rabbit hole of WebMD, reading statistics to make me feel better. Some did: There are some 4.6 million cases in the US, and there isn’t much research to support if it’s entirely genetic or not. Most promising was the fact that 90 percent of alopecia patients with limited hair loss experience regrowth. But it being the internet, I also found enough evidence to stoke my paranoia. Namely, there is no cure, and about 10 percent of patients will never regrow their hair. Some sites even suggested I start wig shopping to cope.

Why do you care so much? It’s just hair. Losing it won’t affect your health, I tried to remind myself. It was psychologically draining to imagine myself without a head of hair. During this process, I realized how much I rely on my hair to protect me, to hide behind as armor. It’s been an archetype for femininity for thousands of years. And yes, cool girls around the world shave their heads all the time, cancer patients find the strength to deal with it, other more extreme cases of alopecia are coping and living with it now as I think about it. But am I ready to be part of that group? How would people see me if I’m the girl on the subway without hair or eyelashes? Would I recognize myself in the mirror?

I closed my laptop and mulled over what my bright-eyed, full-haired doctor had said: “Your case is stress-induced. Your body is having a physical reaction to an extreme amount of stress. Have you faced any traumatic incidents recently?” I scanned my recent history: surf accident in December while home for Christmas, boy trouble (nothing too far out of the ordinary), work stress, not sleeping a lot, not eating meat at the moment—check, check, check.

After a couple months, the obvious occurred to me: maybe if I de-stress, it will grow back. I became a saint. I left myself notes that looked like this:

  • Stop drinking (just in case, just for now).
  • Start eating meat again—for iron and protein.
  • Start going to yoga more regularly (no more “it’s snowing, I just want to order takeout and watch Netflix instead” nights).
  • Buy all-natural shampoo and conditioner and only wash my hair once every few days (So far, I've tried Aveda Shampure and Acure Moroccan Argan Stem Cell + Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner).
  • Use Viviscal Hair and Scalp Serum.
  • Stop blowdrying!
  • Take vitamin D, iron, and folic acid.
  • Stop hanging out with stressful people that complain too much about work and life.
  • Go visit your brother in Hawaii.
  • Don’t forget to eat lunch.
  • Keep Googling Natalie Portman, because she looks great bald and, worst-case scenario, you can too.

It’s now been one year since my first spot appeared. You can’t tell that I have it, but I know I do. I know other girls (and boys) around me have it too and don’t want to talk about it because it’s embarrassing, or they associate it with hair thinning (which it's not). But actively thinking about what would happen if the spots didn't go away—if I eventually lost all of my hair—did have one benefit: I finally got comfortable with that idea. Hair became less important to me; I didn't care about what people saw when they looked at me. Yes, I have an autoimmune disorder, and no, I don't want it to get worse, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if it did. So I calmed down. And slowly— slowly—baby hairs started to fill in the spots.

—Alyssa Reeder

Photo courtesy of the author. For more on hair growth, check out the products and treatments that will get your hair to grow longer, stronger, and healthier.