What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I had a lot going on in December. I worked over 40 hours a week as a direct care counselor at a therapeutic group home. Since I was also a full time graduate student, my hands were full with essays, completing PhD applications, and attending various conferences.
I also discovered my first bald spot.
Technically, I didn't find it. My boyfriend, Kris, did. Kris and I are in a long distance relationship. I arrived in the United Kingdom to visit him in late December. I worked a double the day before I flew out (which was the culmination of over a week without a day off). After I got through security at Gatwick Airport, navigated the London Underground, and boarded a train to Cambridge, all I wanted was to see Kris, give him a kiss, shower, and pass out.
Kris picked me up at the train station, comforted me as I burst into tears (I missed him a lot and was exhausted), kissed me, got me changed out of my traveling clothes, and put me into bed. DREAMS DO COME TRUE.
When I woke up, (wearing my awesome Scottish terrier PJ's, natch), Kris was right there. He ran his fingers through my hair, and suddenly stopped. He paused, and touched a part of my scalp again. Kris, his face a mask of confusion, then parted my hair and regarded where he had touched my head. He looked up, and uttered:
"Amanda, you have a bald spot."
I HAVE A WHAT?!?
I thought Kris was kidding at first, but sadly, he was serious. Kris also found a couple more bald patches, located at the back of my head, by the nape of my neck.
Now, I know you must be thinking, "How could Amanda not know she had bald spots? It's her head!" Dear reader, I don't know either. My hair, when it is on my head, is very thick, so maybe that has something to do with it? I brush my hair and shower daily, so I'm not sure how this slipped past me. I am still baffled. I am still slightly embarrassed that I didn't catch this.
I began to freak out. I had a huge interview with my preliminary PhD adviser in London later that week. I wanted this interview to go well, as I was dying to work with this particular adviser. What if my preliminary adviser saw my bald spot? What would he think? Bald spots aren't metal!
Additionally, Kris and I planned to leave for Scotland to go on a romantic holiday (I know this may be gag-inducing to read) the day after my meeting. What if my hair kept on falling out in Scotland? On top of everything, the day after I landed in the United Kingdom, I began to have neck spasms and horrible menstrual cramps. It felt as if my body was conspiring against me.
Although my body was rebelling, I met with my preliminary adviser (he was awesome), went to Scotland (my favorite place in the world), battled through my horrific cramps, and spent quality time with people that I love. Meanwhile, my bald spots slowly, but steadily, grew. By the time I boarded my flight home, they were bigger, and balder.
When I got back to the United States, I made an appointment with my general practitioner. When she saw my bald spots (and discovered another one, much to my chagrin), she referred me to a dermatologist, but not before telling me that she thought I had alopecia areata. "Alopecia areata?" I thought. "What is that?"
It turns out that alopecia areata is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attack hair follicles. As a result of this, sometimes hair on the scalp falls out, resulting in bald patches. Alopecia areata isn't limited to just the scalp: the condition can impact any hair follicle on the body. While the hair usually grows back in a few months, 10% of those with alopecia areata never regrow their hair.
What causes alopecia areata? There are many factors: genetics, whether or not you have an existing autoimmune disorder, and potentially, stress. I have two of the three, making me a prime alopecia areata candidate.
When I finally made it to the dermatologist's office, my diagnosis of alopecia areata was confirmed. Follow up appointments were made. Eventually, my dermatologist suggested Intralesional corticosteroid injections as treatment, which, in lay(wo)man's terms, means that my dermatologist stuck needles in my bald spots and injected a type of steroid into my head. The injections are supposed to suppress my body's immune response, effectively stopping my immune system from behaving like Carrie on Prom Night.
As the dermatologist stabbed me, I distracted myself by thinking that this must be the first step to becoming a cenobite. "Pinhead did really well for himself..." my internal monologue said. "... Maybe you too can be an explorer in the further regions of experience, a master of both pleasure and pain!"
Although I have yet to be summoned via a puzzle box, this experience has taught me a lot about myself. Through some introspection, I have realized that if alopecia areata is the worst thing to happen to me, I am, in fact, pretty fortunate. Even though my hair may be falling out, I am privileged enough to have clean water to wash what remains of my hair in, and a mental healthcare provider to support me through the feelings of shock or fear that are related to my hair loss. Aloepcia areata is also a reminder to myself to practice more self-care when stressed, and to listen to my body. My hair is now gradually growing back in several of my bald patches.
Alopecia areata is a part of me. I have learned to love my bald spots.