Words by Beatrice Travers
I used to have very thick hair, which I’d unsuccessfully tried to manage since my teenage years. I tried every hairstyle under the sun: short (too strict), long (fell into my eyes), half up-do (made my long nose stick out), fringe (made my narrow forehead disappear).
Then in 2012, at the age of 56, I suddenly lost all my hair. I first noticed that something was wrong, when I made a regular trip to see my hairdresser, Sophie, that summer. She found a bald patch the size of a pound coin at the back of my head. ‘Don’t worry too much about it,’ she said, ‘but perhaps speak to a dermatologist.’
Only slightly rattled I rang the dermatologist and booked the earliest appointment available, which was late December. I didn’t give it another thought and in October I went on holiday with my husband. A couple of weeks later I was back at the salon, and to my dismay Sophie found two new bald patches.
I hadn’t noticed a thing. My husband and I had just retired and were just making the most of life. November came, and my patches seemed no bigger and hadn’t multiplied as far as I could tell. I was confident the dermatologist would help my hair grow back; I’ve known people suffer from alopecia at some stages in their lives, and it all went back to normal.
Then one morning I woke up and my pillow was covered in hair. I clutched my head and pulled out a handful of brown hair. Panic rose inside me and that’s when I started crying, when finally the realisation that I was losing all of my hair dawned on me.
My husband looked at me, stunned, not knowing what to do. When I finally shook myself out of that stupor, I felt I had to do something, although I knew deep down there was nothing I could do.
We went to the local chemist and I stupidly asked him whether he had a shampoo for hair loss, or lotion (or possibly some extra strong glue) that would keep what was left of my thinning hair in place. He looked at me with a thin smile and said he was sorry, he couldn’t do anything, I seemed to have alopecia and he even said he thought that I would eventually lose all of my hair.
I went home and washed away what was left of my hair. I watched it twirl down the drain. I felt neither loss nor regret; I just thought it was odd, puzzled at what life can throw at you sometimes. In a way I felt lucky, because I knew my condition wasn’t life threatening. I went out and bought myself a woolen hat from Marks & Spencer.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with Alopecia Universalis. I learned it was an auto-immune disease, which attacks your hair follicles and stops hair growth. There is no known cause – some say stress is a factor – nor a known cure. You can be given corticosteroid injections if you only suffer from small bald spots, but they wouldn’t do that with me. I was given some creams and lotions that I dutifully applied for a couple of months, whilst knowing there was only a 20% chance of regrowth.
It’s now 2019 and my hair has never grown back. I very quickly lost all the rest of the hair on my body; my skin is as smooth as a baby’s. I was worried I wouldn’t feel feminine anymore, but I never felt sorry for myself after the diagnosis. I’ve been wearing wigs for the past seven years, and much like with my haircuts before, I’ve been experimenting to find one that suits me and more importantly, is comfortable to wear.
But life’s never perfect, even wigs have a mind of their own. They can be difficult on a rainy or windy day. So, like with real hair, there are sometimes bad hair days.
At the time, I was self-conscious around other people, but I needn’t have worried. My husband treated me with the same patience and kindness as always. At first, I wouldn’t take off my wig around him, even in bed, but when I did (turns out sleeping with a wig on is not as comfortable as you’d think), he simply stroked my scalp and teased, ‘I always thought you had a tiny head!’
I told a few close friends, who were just as supportive – they praised me for being positive, which I didn’t deserve because it was not an effort. I have to add that I would hate to be seen without a wig in public. I know some people do it, it may even be fashionable but I could never pluck up the courage, mostly because I don’t like the way I look without my hair.
I think the reason that I found it fairly easy to deal with, is because of my age. I have a couple of my friends who have been through tougher times than me, and also I’m not looking for a new partner, which could cause a lot of heartache to younger women with my condition.
Anyway, I’m very close to my female friends and talking about sex, the menopause, etc. has never been an issue. We’ve even laughed about what happened, ‘think of all the money you’ll save by not going to the hairdresser!’