Sunday, February 19, 2017

My alopecia journey: a side effect to life.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my hair--or hair loss, as nature would have it--and what a peculiar few years it has been since this weird side effect of life started.

I call it a side effect of life, because my hair loss didn't come as a side effect to an illness, or to a medication I was on, or even to the weight loss I experienced after WLS a few years ago--though that was what we thought was the initial cause. After three years of losing hair, growing it back, and then losing it again...I finally looked back, and lo and behold, it appears to have been a side effect to life in general.

Want to know the real clincher here? The salt in the paper cut? The turd on the already annoying Sundae life decided to serve up cold? When I was younger, I actually joked about how much I wished my hair would fall out, so that I could fill my closet with wigs. I'd been born with thin, wispy "Muppet Hair" that grew in thin and transparent. I didn't have a full head of hair until I was three years old, and even then it was the hair of an eighteen month old. When I was a teenager, I couldn't grow it past my shoulders without it becoming a matted, damaged mess, and I abused it with color, perms (what? It was the 80's, don't judge me,) back combing, heat styling, and generally doing whatever I could to manipulate it into a style that looked decent. No small feat, considering the fact that it always resembled: Muppet Hair.

Mnah mnah.

Yeah. That's me.

When I would sit and talk with friends as a young adult, I would say that my dream scenario would be to have a closet lined with wigs of all styles and colors, that I could choose from, and become and new woman every single day. I remember saying--jokingly, of course--that I wouldn't be sad at all if my hair fell out, because then I would have the excuse I needed to become a legit wig wearer. (This was when I was young and stupid enough not to realize that the only reason a woman needs to wear a wig is that she wants to, and that there didn't need to be a "legit" reason--but again, I was young, and foolish....)


Yup. I actually self-fulfilled my own prophecy. I'm about 90% sure that God himself heard me running my mouth, and said, "Be careful what you wish for." (I think He says that a lot with me. I remember making jokes when the lovely Farrah Fawcett died of rectal cancer, only to have my recent "butt tumor" experience, <click here to read about that> which was a big, bold wake up call from The Big Guy that I couldn't ignore!)

ZAP. Much like he did when I was a tween and prayed for big boobs. ZAP. Backaches for life. Or when I was a teenager, and I prayed for a whirlwind romance filled with excitement and mystery. ZAP. First marriage from hell. Or when I openly wished we could move far, far away from Washington State, and all of the family drama we experienced there. ZAP. Now you live in South-freaking-Korea!

This is my youngest son outside a Korean temple. Isn't he cute?

In other words: be careful what you ask God for. Not that I was "asking" God to make me bald. I wasn't. I was doing what's known as: running ones mouth. But yeesh, telling people that you wish you could have a closet filled with wigs was a bold statement, and apparently The Big Guy overheard me making it more than a few times.

ZAP. Alopecia.

Self-fulfilled prophecy.

But, I my alopecia journey didn't come after an illness. Though a lot of people with hair loss are mistaken for cancer patients, most of us are perfectly healthy, happy individuals, who happen to lose our hair. Sometimes we lose ALL our hair, other times we lose some of our hair, sometimes we even lose our brows and eyelashes. Sometimes the lucky ones will lose leg and other body hair, as well. Though I shouldn't joke about them being "lucky," should I? With the aforementioned "zap" theory.....

I've just lose spots on my head, some of my eyebrows, and most of my upper lashes. I haven't lost any other body hair, and most of the time my hair grows back in the spots I lose. My upper lashes haven't grown back yet, but I've had regrowth on my eyebrows. I don't take medications or do any treatments for my hair loss. It's hereditary, so I know it's something I'll likely experience off and on forever, and so I've opted not to fight it, since 90% of the treatments offered are unsuccessful and the results are only temporary. I've become cool with the hair loss. I don't like it, but I don't fight it, either. It is what it is.

My loss started after we lost our daughter. We'd been foster parents for a year, had a little girl during that time, attempted to adopt her, only to have her taken away in the eleventh hour, and placed back into the home of some dangerous and irresponsible relatives. We never saw or heard from her again. It was a shattering loss, and we still speak about it in hushed voices, and with reverence. It absolutely wrecked us--all six of us in the family--and in the months after it happened, I noticed my first signs of hair loss. My widows peak was growing further and further back, and my part was widening. You could see my scalp through my hair in places.

Three and a half years since I've seen this face.

Then I had WLS, and lost 100 pounds. The process of getting approved for weight loss surgery is not easy, and if I'm being honest, it darn near drove me insane. I had to lose 10% of my body weight, which doesn't sound like much (to some,) but when my doctor looked at obese me and said, "You need to drop 25 pounds," it was like telling me to spin straw into gold. So what did I do? I said goodbye to cheeseburgers and got my big butt to work. It took me 6 months, but I did it, I got down 25 pounds. Then things got worse...I had to go on a liquid diet for 2 and a half weeks prior to surgery.  I can honestly say that the liquid diet almost killed me. My teeth were gross from a lack of chewing, my gag reflux kicked into high gear because I was so grossly sick of liquid nutrition. It was foul...and sure enough, my hair thinned even more during this time. Of course it did. Because when it rains it pours.

Once I had my surgery (and by the grace of God, survived another two weeks of post surgery liquid diet) I started to notice that my loss had morphed from a deepening widows peak to a full on bald spot on the left front side of my head. Shortly after that, I discovered another round bald patch on the back upper right side of my head. They started out small. Maybe the size of a dime. But they grew quicker than I was prepared for. I started dreading washing my hair, because I would up with handfuls of my precious Muppet Hair in my hands and in the drain. This went on for a couple months, until I couldn't hide the spots anymore, and I bought my first wig.

There's something about being forced to wear a wig, as opposed to wearing one because you want to. It takes all the fun out of it. You're suddenly self conscious in ways you never expected. Everywhere you go, you're convinced that everyone knows you're wearing a wig. You feel itchy and hot and aggravated. Trying to bio hide hair underneath a wig is tricky and stressful, so I opted to shave my head, which created an emotional response I wasn't prepared for. Suddenly I felt like less of a woman. Like the fact that I had breasts and a vagina and a uterus didn't count for anything, because my crown of glory was gone. I felt less feminine, and unattractive. I pushed away my husband and wouldn't--still don't--let him see my head without a hat or scarf.

Some women are bolder than I am. They flaunt their bare heads proudly. I don't do that. I'm not sure I ever will. And I've been told many times by many friends--including my own husband--that it's "okay" to do do. But I don't. I don't want to.  It's my hang up. I'll either get over it or I won't, but I am in awe of the women who strut their stuff with their bald heads exposed, loud and proud. Those women rock. I'm just not "there."

With time--about 8 months, to be exact--my bald patches eventually filled in, and I wore my natural hair again. I fashioned it into a very, very short pixie cut, and went back to coloring it, playing with it, wearing headbands and barrettes. My stylist had fun making it blonde for me, which, in retrospect, probably wasn't smart, as it fried what hair I had, but hey, hindsight is 20/20, eh? I felt like myself again, and assumed that the loss had been simply due to the stress of a failed adoption, and a massive weight loss, but that it was over now. My hair would continue to grow, and all would be well.

Well.....all was not well.

We moved. Not just across town, or across the state, or even across the country. We moved to a different country. My husband took a job with Samsung, and we moved to South Korea...a move that caused so much stress, I'm still catching my breath. In the space of two months, we broke the news to our family and friends, we cleaned out and sold our house--which we'd lived in for 13 years, we packed up all of our belongings, and we moved a family with four children to a country where we didn't speak the language and didn't know anyone.

So yeah....stress. It also seemed to contribute to my hair loss, because...unbeknownst to me, within the first few weeks of living abroad, my hair had started to thin again. In all of our pictures from our first months here in Korea, you can see that my widow's peak had started to recede. You can see my scalp through many of the pictures during those first few weeks here in Korea. I'm shocked and embarrassed that I missed the clues, and was walking around like that. But it wasn't until I came back to America for my first summer home that I discovered another round patch on the top of my head. And then another.

It was happening again. Friggin' great. Side effect to life.

I went back to wigs. I didn't mind, other than my children saying that they hate it when I switch between colors and styles all the time. They wanted me to pick a color and style and stick with it, which I tried to do, but after about 9 months, I had to go back to being creative and having fun with my hair. I'd always had fun with my hair when it was coming from my own follicles, why not have fun with faux hair, eh? Besides, when life gives you lemons (i.e. female hair loss before the age of forty) then make lemonade--have some fun. Find joy in the big fat bummer life decided to serve to me.

I researched treatments. Shampoos, oils, herbal regimens, hair replacement surgery, hair restoration processes, acupuncture, steroids, injections, etc etc etc....and chose not to do any of them. After much prayer and introspection, I decided that doing treatments that are only (at best) 30% effective, and usually not at all permanent, and hurt like a son of a gun, that I would just accept my lot in life. Honestly, when the rest of my health is A-OK, and my biggest complaint is having really crappy hair, then I am doing alright. Besides, I've come to enjoy the ability to be a brunette at breakfast, a redhead for lunch, and a blond by dinnertime. This cannot be achieved with my Muppet hair.

It wasn't easy. Losing my hair was a punch to the gut. In a world that accentuates a woman's beauty above her mind, her words, and her actions, it can strip a girl of her femininity when she finds herself without her "crowning glory." Despite having female parts, it felt like I was less of a woman not having hair. This was a struggle I had to grapple with for a while before I could come out the other side of it a better person. It wasn't easy. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. But I did come through it, stronger and more confident than ever. Sure, I still struggle with self esteem, but I'm a heck of a lot better off than I was two or three years ago, that's for sure...

That said, I'll be danged if I'm ever going to tempt God to give me a lesson like this again. Don't like my legs? Shhhhh, don't say a word. ZAP. I've now got elephantiasis of the calf to teach me a lesson. Don't like my nose? ZAP, the next morning I'll wake up with Carl Maudlin's nose...

i've learned my lesson. I swear I have. Besides, being a bald woman isn't the worst thing I could go through. Last month, I had a cancer scare and it put some things into perspective. I've got healthy, awesome kids. I've got a husband who still seems to love me and find me irresistible, despite my lack of hair and fondness for long, sexless flannel nightgowns. I've got a career I love, and readers who follow and support me, no matter what I write. Who the heck cares about freaking hair?

Well, I do. A little. But not as much as I used to. I'm learning to love me, AND this peculiar, inexplicable side effect of life God's blessed me with.