Thanks to the alopecia totalis I suddenly developed a few months ago, I have the rare honor of being able to say that I'm 21 and bald.
I want to feel beautiful, but it's hard to feel that way when you can hardly recognize yourself in the mirror. You don't realize how much your hair makes you you until it all falls out.
Any kind of hair loss is traumatic, but there's a special place in the "Emotions Nobody Should Ever Experience" guidebook reserved for the horror of seeing your hair fall out of your head. The clumps of eyebrow hairs and eyelashes that get stuck to your cheeks when you wash your face is just a bonus.
Broadly, alopecia totalis is the complete loss of head hair. The cause is unknown, but it's thought to be an autoimmune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Anyone can get it and at any age, though in many cases, stress is the trigger. That's why some people suddenly lose their hair a few weeks after a traumatic experience. In my case, I have a pretty hostile immune system that's just ready to attack my body at the slightest hint of stress. Rashes, fevers, hair loss, you name it.
I've had alopecia areata, which is like the little sister of alopecia totalis, since I was 7. Alopecia areata is just patchy hair loss on the head or body that generally grows back within a few months. I'd get two or three patches a year in the past, but they weren't noticeable at all. My grandmother would color them in with brown eyeliner so they'd blend in with my hair. If I had a particularly gnarly bald spot, my dermatologist would inject it with cortisone and it'd grow back in couple weeks.
Early last fall, I noticed that I was shedding like crazy. There was hair everywhere—the floor, my pillows, my clothes, entwined in the spirals of my notebooks. I wasn't too bothered by it at first. But after two or so weeks, my hair was really starting to thin out, and I had pretty sizable chunks of hair missing from my head.
I lost more than half of my hair in about four weeks. It looked really, really bad. Miraculously, it started growing back after two months, so I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires with my school.
Four days after I arrived in Buenos Aires, I saw a huge bald spot in the back of my head, where the hair had just started growing back in. Cue panic attack. My hair was shedding nonstop, and after three weeks of nonstop crying, my school sent me home. The hair loss didn't stop this time, and about a month later, I had a chrome dome. Shiny, shiny, bald.
There's unfortunately no cure for alopecia [yet]. Steroid injections and creams work on some people. Not on me though. I stopped trying to treat this cosmetic disaster of a disease altogether, because you could throw prescription drugs at my bald head all day and I'd still be bald.
So, I make do with wigs. Both a blessing and a curse, wigs have helped me hide the fact that my head now looks like an Easter egg. Not without a price, though.
Good wigs are expensive. And I mean expensive. Especially the ones made specifically for medical hair loss, which is really, really unfortunate. I haven't even tried on one of the really nice wigs, because there's no way in high heaven I'm paying $5,000+ for one. I have two wigs right now, both made from human hair. They're not custom-made, so they're really uncomfortable and look really wiggy if I don't wear a hat over them. I spent a total of $500 on them.
Wigs are really uncomfortable and itchy, and tend to slide around if you sacrifice security for comfort by loosening the straps inside. In fact, make it a little too loose and comfortable, and a gust of wind can whip your wig right off your head when you're walking home from class. Some will stare in shock, others in pity and, sadly, a few in disgust. The woman behind you may audibly gasp, too. True story.
Hair loss has affected my life in other unfortunate ways. Two months before my hair started falling out, I became romantically involved with a guy who was interning in New York, where I live, for the summer. When September rolled around, he went back to his university in Boston, but we agreed to visit each other. One month later, he came back to see me, but by then I'd lost about half of my hair. I hadn't told him about it, and he was obviously disappointed by my seriously thin, wimpy hair when he saw me. The first thing he said to me was, "What did you do to your hair? You were way hotter before."
I was embarrassed, hurt, and angry. Things only went downhill between us after that. I should have realized earlier that he was too self-absorbed to be sensitive to my condition.
I realized this was definitely not the last time I'd get insulted because of my hair loss, and I was right. The first time I took my wig off in front of a really close friend, he burst out laughing at how strange I looked. It was so hot and humid that day, and my wig was really uncomfortable. My head was sweaty and itchy and irritated, and I just needed it off my head. We were at his apartment with our tight-knit group of friends, and everyone knew how upset and self-conscious I was about losing my hair. I wasn't expecting anybody to laugh at my appearance. I tried to play it off, but ended up rushing home and crying for hours.
I still feel ashamed of my appearance even though it's out of my control. I can't snap my fingers and click my heels three times to magically make my curly brown hair grow back into the shoulder-length style I had had since eighth grade. Sometimes I just want to stay home all day and hide, but the reality of the situation is that life goes on whether I have hair or not.
Having alopecia is like having a bad hair day over and over again, without even having any hair. Going bald at 21 stripped me of my self-esteem, but as with any embarrassing condition, learning to embrace and accept it is the key.
I've realized that moping around and crying isn't going to do anything but make things worse. There's no use worrying and getting upset about something I can't control. I'm currently losing my eyebrows and eyelashes too, but I'm trying to stay calm about it.
The more upset I get, the more damage I do to my body. I spent the first three months of my baldness heavily medicated with Xanax and Ativan, but that's no way to live life.
Now, I see a therapist to work on relaxation techniques instead of stuffing myself full of sedatives. I'm realizing that I'm still the same beautiful woman I was before I lost my hair, and that there's nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. As I continue to accept and embrace my condition, I'm only getting stronger.
I hope that one day I'll be able to fully love myself, no matter how much or how little hair I have.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.