Thursday, September 1, 2016

September is Alopecia Awareness Month!

September brings welcome changes to our family.

We are starting our second school year here in South Korea, and the kids are really starting to seem settled into their school, and our new home. The weather is finally evolving from staggeringly hot and humid, to warm and tolerable. The air is finally breathable, thank heaven. And I'm starting to enjoy walking around outside again. 

Seeing spots and sprouting a headache every time I set food outdoors was starting to get a bit trying.

I recently discovered that September (it is September 2nd in South Korea, and September 1st in America) is Alopecia Awareness month, and it sprouted an idea for a blog post. Since the 8 Minute Memoirs didn't work out, I've been avoiding blogging lately. Too much melodrama. Not worth it. But since the topic of Alopecia is always prevalent in my mind, and doesn't concern anyone else in my family, it seems like a relatively benign subject to blog about.

Here goes nothing.

So my Alopecia journey started very positively. I actually wanted to lose my hair. Okay, okay, that sounds asinine, and frankly, it is. But I did. Well, I thought I did. You see, I'd joked for years before losing my hair that I would have a closet full of wigs if I could afford to. As a child, I marveled in wonder at stars like Dolly Parton and Cher, who sported wigs with no shame or embarrassment, and told people that if I could have my way, I would do the same.

Fast forward thirty years, and I'd found myself very overweight, and with extremely poor health because of it. I made the difficult and expensive choice to get WLS, which came with a myriad of side effects. Most of which were dangerous and scary, but one of which I'd welcomed with a snicker. Hair loss. Well, I'd thought. Wouldn't that be a bummer? Then I would not only have a thinner body, but I would also have the perfect excuse to wear a lovely wig of gorgeous hair I could never attain naturally.

And then six months passed. I found myself with yes, a shrinking body, but clumps of hair falling out of my head. Suddenly it wasn't fun anymore. Suddenly showering became a miserable task, because more hair would inevitably fall out. My husband said to go ahead and get a wig, but the magic was gone from wig shopping. It wasn't as fun when I was doing it because my hair was legitimately falling out of my head! I took vitamins. Tons of them, in an effort to restore my follicle health. I also used hair restoration shampoos that my hair dresser gave me. My bald spots were about the size of half dollars, and I had two of them that simply couldn't be covered without a hat or a wig. My first journey into wig wearing was done out of necessity, but I did it thinking: this is only temporary. Once my body regulates itself after the hair loss, and once I'm getting enough nutrients again, I will be okay. Hair will grow back, and all will be well.

No longer did I long for a closet of wigs. Sure, I had wigs, and wanted more every day, but not because they were a fashion accessory, but because I no longer felt like a woman without my hair. I felt ugly and ambiguous. I didn't want to look different, I wanted to look normal. Wigs didn't help with that. In fact, they made me feel worse.

My hair eventually grew back. My husband and I celebrated by getting my hair cut into a very, very short pixie cut, and buying me tons of headbands and barrettes. I knew I looked kind of stupid, but I was wearing MY OWN hair again, and that was all that mattered. I wore that pixie cut for about a year before I noticed loss again, and when I noticed it, I worked my butt off to cover it up as best I could. Scarves, bandanas, headbands, whatever took the focus off of my growing spots, I tried.

A lot had happened over the last couple years. I'd lost a hundred pounds. We'd lost a daughter and quit foster parenting altogether. I'd started working in special needs classrooms--a task that was equal parts rewarding and stressful. I had massive drama with a toxic relative. And my husband interviewed for--and eventually was hired--by a company abroad. We sold our home of 12 years and moved our four children to South Korea.

To say I had some stress would be an understatement. 

By the time I'd been in the ROK for three months, my hair was coming out in clumps again. I'd taken to wearing a bandana every day, and asked my husband if I could buy wigs again. (Because like the genius I am, I'd packed all my wigs in a storage unit back in the town in America we'd moved from.) He said yes, of course, knowing that the shedding was stressing me out even more, and I moved back into wearing wigs full time. It was a relief...and a blow all in one.

I was beyond relieved to no longer constantly have to worry about whether or not someone could see my scalp through my hair. I was perpetually spraying and restyling my hair, putting headbands and scarves on, and then running and screaming when there was wind or rain--both of which are in abundance during a South Korean spring. 

But I was also crushed to be wearing wigs again. It'd been two years since I'd lost all of my weight! According to my bariatric surgeon, my hair loss should've been long gone by then, and yet, my hair was shedding in clumps all over my head, leaving deep widows peaks and round bald spots. I'd once again taken to shaving my head to provide relief and comfort underneath my wigs, but constantly wondered if I would ever be able to wear my bio hair again. 

Hair loss is a blow. A massive blow to a woman's self esteem. It strips away her self confidence and forces her to find confidence in non-beauty-related places, which is easy for women with hair to say they could do. But when you're's not as easy. Adding to my stress, my eyebrows and eyelashes had started to shed, too, and I was a complete mess. What was happening to me? Why was this happening!?

Stress doesn't cause hair loss. I had to stop telling people that my stress was making my hair fall out. Granted, stress was the symptom that exasperated my hair loss. But my hair loss is something that I likely had coming my way since day one. As a child, I had thin, wispy Muppet hair that simply wouldn't grow. I had the translucent hair of a toddler when I started kindergarten. When I was a teenager, it wouldn't grow past neck length. I tried and tried, but no matter what I did, it was fried and unhealthy and short and brittle. When I was an adult, I was forced to keep it short, because of breakage and damage. I was never one of those gorgeous, glamorous moms who would sport long, luxurious hair. I was the one who had to style it BIG, despite it's short length, because my scalp could be seen. It didn't help that I loved hair. I loved anything that had to do with hair, hair styles, hair colors, hair tricks...I loved it. 

The joke was on me.

Because when my life went over a cliff (grief, weight loss, family drama, job stress, moving my family abroad then trying to fit into a community that I simply don't belong in...) the stress awakened a beast inside of me. Alopecia came roaring out of my body with a vengeance, and I've been fighting it ever since. It's often hereditary. I had a grandmother who suffered from hair loss, an aunt with thinning hair, two brothers and a father with male pattern baldness... so I suppose it only makes sense that I would lose my hair, too. I just hadn't planned on it happening before I even turned 40.

My dreams of having a closet full of lovely wigs became a reality--but I was abruptly reminded that I am not in control, that God is. It isn't fun to lose your hair. Wearing wigs of your own volition is nice, but when you're doing it because you're bald underneath, it takes any and all enjoyment out of the process. Losing ones hair because you're making a political statement, or wanting to be blond for a change is vastly different from losing your hair because your own body rejects it. It's demoralizing and devastating. There is no fun in being forced to wear wigs.

It reminds me of when I was a little girl, and I prayed and prayed for boobs. I was so flat chested, I practically looked con-caved. I thought that life would be so much better if I had a great rack. (Seriously, this is how I felt, isn't it messed up?) And then a few years later God said, careful what you wished for. And then POOF. I had a summer of major growth. Up and out. I got boobs in abundance, and they wound up making my back hurt, aching like they were filled with toxic waste during my cycles, and growing to epic, painful proportions after each baby I gave birth to. It was God's way of reminding me who was in control. Sure, I wanted boobs when I was 12, but did I really understand what I was asking for? Clearly not.

It was the same when I joked that I would love to have a closet full of wigs. Did I really understand what I was asking for?

Clearly not.

I chose not to treat the Alopecia. Some do steroid injections, topical creams, pills, etc. But unless it is a natural supplement, I don't take it. As angry and frustrated as I am that my hair sucks, and believe me, it does, I refuse to put toxins and hormones into my body for the sake of hair. I have fought too hard to regain my health, just to subject myself to painful treatments that warrant little to no results, and are often damaging for other parts of my body if ingested. My body is strong and healthy for the first time in my adult life. I don't drink or smoke, and the strongest medication I take is Tylenol. I am healthy as a horse, I just lose hair. And I'm okay with that. Sure, some days are hard, and the lure of miracle treatments is tempting...but overall, I am okay with what I've got. I have to be. My health is not something to play with. I have four kids and a husband to be there for.

I might go into remission. Many Alopecians do, off and on, throughout their whole lives. I did before! Sometimes I hope I will again, but other times I think that wig wearing is okay, too. I like the variety it provides, and I like being able to reinvent myself all the time. There is a comfort in knowing I may be able to rock my bio hair in a pixie cut again, but even if I don't, I won't die. This will not be what kills me. It's just hair. 

(I can say that, because I'm the one with loss. People with full heads of hair should never say that. It's a major faux pas. Just a heads up.)

My Alopecia journey isn't over. I'm not sure it ever will be over. When I get back to the USA, I plan to see an American doctor who might be able to do more research about my loss, what exactly caused it, whether or not I have other auto-immune issues, etc. But for now, I am okay with what life has thrown me. If Alopecia is the worst of my problems, I think I'm doing okay. 

But I'll never brag about wanting a closet full of wigs again.