My alopecia story is a fairly short one. In November of 2017, my first patch of alopecia appeared. By March 2018, I was bald. By May, I had no eyebrows or lashes.
I always liked my hair well enough, but never thought of it as something that defined me. When I began to lose it, my biggest priority was maintaining an outward appearance of normality. I wasn’t unwell in any way and didn’t want anyone’s pity, so I was determined to hide my alopecia from the world. I’m lucky in that I wore a hat to work every day, so I could hide the coalescing bald patches with headbands and just put the hat on when I got to work. As things progressed though, the scraggly strands that remained became harder to hide and the person staring back at me in the mirror looked sickly.
The weekend before my 28th birthday I shaved my head to get a custom wig made. I was surprised to find that I actually felt much more myself without hair – like I’d taken control of something that for the previous few months had been taking control of me. And, as it turns out, my bald head isn’t too badly shaped! I bought an interim wig which was a few shades too dark and sat differently to my natural hair, but fortunately, I’ve changed my hairstyle often enough in the past that most people took the change without batting an eyelid. I told myself I could live with this – as long as I could keep my eyebrows and eyelashes I’d be fine.
When my eyebrows and lashes began to go, my confidence plummeted. When they were gone completely, looking at myself in the mirror became the biggest challenge of the day because I didn’t recognise the person staring back at me – I was completely disconnected from her. I’ve always kept things natural so the idea of using makeup and falsities to define my features was also very difficult to grasp. I was so sure that everyone would notice and I somehow felt that was the worst thing possible.
My mental health suffered significantly. I was so incredibly lucky to have supportive friends, family and a GP around me who were understanding, kind and patient, but along with my hair, I lost my confidence and my identity. I withdrew, engaging with others only when I had to and only enough to get by. I had no desire to socialise and while I was sometimes able to force myself to attend planned events, I certainly never actively sought them out. I stopped exercising – something that has been central to my life for as long as I can remember. I told myself that if I could only accept my alopecia, my mood would improve. Eventually I sought help and began treatment for depression and finally, thankfully, I was able to see everything so much clearer. It turns out that in fact, I needed my mood to improve and to care once more for myself in order to accept my alopecia.
It has taken me 12 months, but I’m now in a position where I once again feel comfortable in my own skin. With my hair, eyebrows and lashes on, it’s not quite the same person staring back at me in the mirror, but it’s someone I have connected with and I’m content that this is the new me. Completely bare, on the whole I’m comfortable, although there will always be rare days where life throws a little curve-ball at me and the image in the mirror doesn’t sit quite as well.
Throughout the last 12 months, one of the biggest hits has been my reluctance to take part in exercise including running and team sport, for fear of accidentally exposing my secret to the world if my hair were to misplace itself. A friend of mine opened an indoor cycling studio at just the right time and attending classes – infrequently at first – allowed me to exercise by myself in a dark room on a stationary bike with little risk of people realising my secret. Over time, as my fitness has improved in parallel with my mental state, I’ve been able to engage much more in the classes. I now attend more frequently with friends and am excited by the prospect of socialising with post-workout coffee dates (in our active-wear, of course).
I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity the Alopecia Areata Australia Foundation has provided me in sponsoring my membership with Studio 360 Cycle. I’m excited to take part in a month-long challenge they have coming up and to push myself physically like I used to.
This is my first time sharing my alopecia story. Recently I’ve been much more comfortable with my alopecia and have had non-confronting conversations about it with friends and colleagues when talk has turned to hair or lashes, where previously I would have clammed up and quickly diverted the conversation. I think it’s important to appreciate that everyone’s alopecia story will be different and everyone will have different ways of tackling the challenges that come along with it – especially with how it affects their identity and sense of self. While it’s incredibly inspiring to observe those who have totally embraced their alopecia and are happy to tell the world about it, there are many others who will be very content to keeping their alopecia to themselves – and that is also totally fine.
Alyssa is one of the AAAF Sponsorship Program Recipients. To read out more about the program, visit our website at https://aaaf.org.au/sponsorship-program/