Hauling a tripod only marginally smaller than she was, my 5 foot nothing best friend struggled down the school corridor. A camera strap was clamped under one arm and a school bag over the other. She had two jobs for today: keeping me calm and filming my talk. Judging by her load, she intended to take her jobs very, very seriously. I stifled a grin.
We all waited in the bathrooms of the gym, four of my best friends and I.
The shuffle of unbuckled t-bars and the muted voices of my passing peers sounded more ominous than they normally did – like a brewing storm preparing to swallow me whole. They were probably filing into the year level meeting talking about the latest cat fights and boy drama or the stack of unfinished assignments piling up on our desks. Not for long though.
Apart from my friends, nobody knew I had Alopecia. Since getting my suction-based wig almost 5 years ago, I had hidden my condition from almost everyone. It was an exhausting way to live. So today, in front of all my peers and teachers, I was giving a 15-minute presentation about my hair loss journey.
The bathroom was too small to get any real pacing done, so I fidgeted in one corner, trying to shake the dread oozing through my body.
There were many things I was afraid of: people finding out I didn’t have hair, what they would say about me behind my back and once again being given the ‘bald girl’ label, like I had in primary school. What if my difference robbed me of a real place to belong? Worse still, what if people didn’t understand why my condition had been such a traumatic experience? After all, there are many illnesses which are worse than mine.
But I wasn’t the person I was pretending to be and that needed to change. There was a whole new Stef banging on the inside of my ribcage, desperate to get out and show the world who my condition had made me.
‘Okay Stef, it’s time for us to go up and join the others,’ my friend smiled. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be great. We believe in you.’
‘Can you sit in the front row?’ I pleaded. They nodded and took turns hugging me.
As they filed out of the bathroom, fear went back to slobbering in my ear and putting its tongue in my thoughts.
I’d imagined this moment many times over the years- not me staring at grout in the bathrooms (that’s not exactly the stuff of fantasies), but using my experiences with Alopecia to help others.
For many years I had wished for my hair to grow back with every superstition I knew of, for the world to take away my difference. But 5 years on and I didn’t want this chapter of my life to end without it being published.
The funny thing was that I was in that bathroom with two opposing of fears. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be accepted as I was and I was afraid that I would spend my life pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
When it was time for me to enter that hall in my rainbow headscarf and ostentatious outfit, I threw open the double doors and smiled. Never before had I seen that many mouths pop open in surprise. It was like imagining the audience in their underwear, without having to suffer the indecency of doing so.
I told them how you’re never truly helpless because the one thing you can control is your perspective. I told them that normality is the biggest hoax in the history of the world and to embrace what made them a unique. Most of all I told them about a Stef that they had never been introduced to.
My friends sat in the front row, some with tears streaming down their faces.
When it was done, the whole room erupted in cheers, whistles and applause. Friend upon friend piled onto me in the biggest group hug I’d ever been a part of. They were crying. I was laughing. It is without a doubt, one of my most treasured memories.
Over the next week people stopped me in the corridor. Sometimes it was just to hug and thank me for sharing my story, sometimes they’d cry and sometimes I’d get to hear a small part of their journey. I needed to take a leap of faith to realise what an amazing group of people I was surrounded by. Fear has this way of filtering out the positives, until all that’s left are the ghastly ‘what ifs’.
But the thing is, in order to turn a dream into a reality, we need a small amount of fear to motivate us. We need to be afraid of not getting the life we truly desire.
So what matters is not that we feel fear, but how we respond to it. Do we run and hide? Do we avoid everything that could cause us pain? Fear is a brick wall and once you break through it, you might find that what’s on the other side is so much better than you imagined it could be.