If you’d told me 10 years ago that losing most of my hair would’ve been the best thing to happen to me, I might’ve punched you in the face. (Or at least, I would’ve been tempted to.)
Because 10 years ago, I was 22. Still in college, still going through all those changes that happen in college and, rather than “finding myself” — as so many seem to do during this time — I seemed to be moving further and further away.
I was massively, helplessly depressed. I didn’t really know what depression was but I did know that I was on the edge of tears, all of the time. That I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning.
That it felt like I was wrapped in cotton wool — everything around me felt slightly fuzzy and far away, so it was better to just curl up and not bother.
Depression caught me by surprise.
Sure, I’d had some childhood trauma — my mother dying when I was 10 and that first bout of alopecia wasn’t exactly easy — but a lot of people had it far worse.
Still, it made me pretty vulnerable. Terrified that I’d lose those around me, I’d do anything to be liked. Which made me fairly easy prey in secondary school.
And it took years before I learned that being locked in a cubicle with two girls, begging them to be my friends while they snickered to each other in barely masked disgust, wasn’t the best path to friendship.
Plus, having alopecia in boarding school — a place with little to no privacy — wasn’t easy. I’d spend my weekdays agonising over how to hide the patches and my Saturday afternoons getting painful corticosteroid shots into my scalp. Somehow it didn’t feel like the best years of my life!
P.S. For those of you who don’t know, alopecia is an autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack healthy hair follicles. This results in excessive thinning, the spread of bald patches or in some cases, complete hair loss. I had alopecia areata — the patchy version — and it started just after mum’s death.
Even so, I wasn’t “fully depressed” back then. It was more like I was prone to anxiety, to low self-esteem — but then, what teenage girl isn’t?! Still, combined with the alopecia, the bullying and the absence of my mum, it meant that my time in secondary school — those essential, formative years — were pretty tough.
And even though I made good friends towards the end, I still left more bruised than I knew.
But I wasn’t the depressive type!
I was a person who loved to sing. To dance. To write. To come up with stupid puns. I was social and silly. And during the next few years at university, a time when I could be even more social and even more silly, I was pretty happy with life. For a while, at least.
Unfortunately, depression isn’t picky. It can choose anyone, any place, anytime.
Maybe it visited me thanks to external circumstances… or maybe my chemical makeup meant that I was always going to feel that way, at some point. I have a different outlook now but at the time, I resigned myself to thinking that that was how my brain was wired and there was nothing I could do about it.
So I let my depression take over. I let it bully me, victimise me, as if I had no choice in the matter.
The first wave hit when I was fresh out of college.
It was 2008 and the start of the recession. For a Communications graduate, that basically meant I hadn’t a hope of getting work! I spent the next 9 months applying for job after job — and later, for internship after internship — until my sleep was filled with thoughts of CVs. (When I did manage to sleep, that is).
Most young people in Ireland — and indeed, further afield — were going through the same thing. But what probably made me even less employable was my palpable uncertainty in my abilities.
If I couldn’t summon a single positive attribute about myself, why would anyone want to hire me?!
That’s what I told myself anyway, and I’m sure this self-loathing showed — even as I sent off cover letter after cover letter filled with all the positive adjectives I could think of.
Eventually, a lack of structure, purpose, and prospects caught up with me. I found getting out of bed harder and harder and as for being social? Forget it. I couldn’t respond to an innocent “What’ve you been up to?” without welling up.
Back then, my alopecia made me feel worse.
I worried constantly that someone would see my bald patches, which had begun to grow — I was certain of it — every day. (They weren’t actually that big but I couldn’t stop feeling the back of my head, just to check.)
I went to so many doctors, dermatologists and trichologists. None of them could give me good news. Most of them would say it was “stress-related” and some of them would ask, completely baffled: “What do you have to be stressed about? You’re young and healthy, with no responsibilities!”
I know it wasn’t a million years ago but in terms of mental health, it feels like it. People weren’t as open about depression back then. I certainly didn’t understand what was happening — I just thought I was overly sensitive… and maybe a bit crazy!
Anyway, as I grew more and more anxious, my alopecia got worse. Which made me more anxious. Which made it get worse… you get the idea.
So I started avoiding people.
I’d make up excuses. Like the time when I was waiting for a train to meet my sister for lunch… but suddenly had an overwhelming need to be back inside, by myself. The thought of sitting at a table across from someone, answering questions and smiling and not crying just sent me into a blind panic.
So, as the train pulled away — my train — I texted her to say it had been delayed. Leaves on the tracks, I said. Probably wouldn’t make it in before she had to get back to work. But another day, for sure.
Before long I’d fallen so deep, I couldn’t see a way out. I didn’t know how to be anything but depressed. And that bubbly, caring girl, who loved hugs and cared about her family more than anything, began to fade away.
I lost some good friends. I lost my self-esteem. And slowly, slowly, I lost my joy for life.
Luckily, eventually, I sought help. I went to a psychotherapist, got introduced to CBT and made a little progress.
I started keeping a diary, which definitely helped. I moved to Edinburgh with a friend and spent the next few months working as a temp waitress — still hopelessly searching for a full-time, or even part-time, job — but at least I was doing something.
My alopecia stuck around a little but really, there were only 2 patches by my hairline. Totally manageable, as headbands became a big part of my life!
That spring, I went on a volunteering trip to Kenya. It put a lot of things into perspective for me as I began to see and connect with the world again, rather than just looking inwards to my own problems.
Essentially, I quit wallowing, starting being grateful for everything I did have and began taking active responsibility for my life.
On that same trip, I fell in love. And later, I started living in Edinburgh again — this time with Andy, my fellow volunteer, who probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into!
Things were great for a while.
But a few months later, depression came knocking again.
I was more familiar with it this time, and didn’t invite it in so readily — but still, it could be quite persistent. And the months that I’d enjoy without an “episode” became weeks, then days… and I could feel myself slipping away all over again.
Luckily, Andy had the sense to suggest that we move back to Dublin, where I could be surrounded by family and friends. And this time, I used my new “take action before things get worse” attitude to… well, take action!
It was definitely easier having my personal cheerleader beside me. After all, someone found me tolerable… bald patches, mood swings and all!
This sudden boost of confidence led me to finding my first “real” job, in an advertising agency (finally, an outlet for my puns!). To joining a choir, where I befriended incredible people from all walks of life (and even became a soloist!). To being the happiest I had in a long time.
And that’s when alopecia took over my entire head.
For some reason, during what was probably the most settled, happy time of my adult life, those bald patches grew bigger and bigger until I had more skin showing than hair.
At first, I invested in some glue-on hair pieces and later, a full wig. The wig had little combs that dug painfully into my scalp and caused massive headaches but hey — at least I looked “normal”.
At the time, I couldn’t understand my alopecia. Now, I think it was there to teach me a lesson.
They say that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Well, over the next 5 years, I’d learn a valuable lesson in strength.
After a year of wearing that wig, I ditched it. Sick of living a lie, I asked Andy to shave my head completely. And so he did — in our tiny kitchen, using a pair of crappy clippers, while my remaining hair pooled around my feet.
Strangely enough, it felt like a release. Because I was in control; not letting my emotions simmer underneath before depression took charge or this autoimmune condition attack me from within. (Or at least, without me taking action!)
It was a pretty cathartic experience. And even as I looked at my new reflection in horror — since when had I had such a bumpy head?! — I felt strangely liberated.
And so I opened up about my alopecia for the first time.
I posted a “coming out” story and the response I received blew me away.
Messages of support and love, from friends, from people I hadn’t seen in years and even from total strangers. Telling me about my “beautiful smile” and my “shining presence” — is that how I came across to others?! Who knew?!
So as it turned out, alopecia made me feel good about myself again.
It’s funny that I’d always thought so little of myself and now, looking like an egg, my self-esteem grew at last!
Of course, not all of the responses were positive. A group of teenage boys screamed: “Fuck you, you dyke!” as I walked to meet friends for dinner one night. A former colleague told me, when drunk, that the sight of my bare head sickened and offended him.
And every day, I’d have to deal with my fair share of stares, points, and giggles.
I still do.
But since opening up about my condition, and finally feeling comfortable in my own skin, I’ve never felt better. I’ve learned to stop feeling like a victim — sure, alopecia is tough and depression ain’t no picnic, either (!) — but I am so so lucky to have my health, my friends and my life, just as it is.
I’ve actually become grateful for this thing I used to hate. It gave me a rude awakening when I needed it. It showed me how strong I could be, stronger than I’d imagined. And, most recently, it’s given me a purpose.
I recently set up this website to spread awareness about alopecia — and to share the positive things about having the condition.
There’s the little things, like being able to get ready quickly… and the bigger things, like realising that our appearance doesn’t define us. That happiness and acceptance are choices we make, something over which we have control.
And much as I respect the views of the therapists I’ve been to, I don’t feel like I can blame my childhood for my depression. Or my bullies. Or my alopecia. Or my genetics. Or any other circumstances that might cause me to feel like a victim.
My depression might return, but how I react to it is entirely my choice.
I can allow those negative thoughts to consume me, to take over my life — or I can acknowledge them, and let them go. It’s the same with alopecia. Of course, I can try to live a healthy and stress-free life to keep it at bay but even still, it might stick around. And there’s not much I can do about it.
But I can control my attitude towards it. And I choose to be positive. (Finally!)
That’s why I’m proud to be an alopecian.
It conquered my depression. It changed my negative thought patterns. And even if it chooses to stick around for the rest of my life, I’ll continue to be grateful for the lessons it teaches me.