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True Confessions of a Bald Woman

Thirteen is a horrible year. Anyone who says differently is either lying or an amnesiac. For me, the year going into my thirteenth birthday contained a trifecta of disaster: I got braces, glasses and my period all within months of each other. As though the hormonal nightmare that is puberty isn’t bad enough on its own, we decided it would be good to throw a little hardware into the situation, apparently. To demonstrate just how awful this turned out, I have photographic evidence in the form of my 7th grade school picture:

7th grade

As you can see, the hormonal shift of puberty was not kind to me. So the situation was bad enough before the metallic accessories were introduced, as seen here:

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Egad! I’m an absolute mess. I feel so sorry for that poor girl.

You can also see in this picture my horribly failed attempt at the late 80’s “winged” hairstyle in which the sides of the hair were supposed to stick out like they were blowing in the wind. I obviously wasn’t very good at that.

To assuage my vanity and prove that this really was a temporary condition, I submit here as evidence both my 5th grade photo,
5th grade

and my 9th grade photo. (Big gold earrings were apparently all the rage.)
9th grade

So, as you can see, I really did come through it okay in the end. But, it was a rough couple of years there in the middle.

All that, I think anyone can agree, is bad enough. But something else started that year before I turned thirteen. That’s the year my hair started to fall out.

It wasn’t dramatic. It didn’t come out in clumps, or in handfuls in the shower. It didn’t leave behind huge bald patches. It just started to fall out slowly and steadily, very gradually so that I really didn’t start to notice until I was 14.

Well, actually, it was a girl in my homeroom who noticed it. This girl was fond of asking me, in a rather impudent way, why she could “see my head.” By that age I was pretty savvy about the ways kids goad each other, and I ignored it as just an attempt to push my buttons. But eventually, I started to notice what she was talking about. I could see my head. Much more than I was really supposed to. It was right there in the front, a patch of white that was steadily growing more noticeable.

It’s not something that showed up in an overly noticeable way. Looking at that 9th grade photo, I look completely normal. If you look closely, you can maybe see that some of my scalp can be seen through my hair, but it’s really nothing that big, and the fact that I always pulled my hair back like that hid the progress very well.

I don’t have any pictures to show of when it did start to get worse, because by the time I was 15 I was hiding it. My mother had taken me to a hairdresser who had given (well, sold) us a product to disguise the fact that more of my scalp could be seen. It was a brown cream that I put on my scalp, like smearing soft chocolate on my head. Only less delicious. I had enough hair that no one ever suspected anything, I don’t think. If you look at this picture (probably taken in 11th grade) knowing that I was using that product, though, you can tell that the base of my hair in front is suspiciously uniform in color.

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And that’s basically how I looked all through high school. No one knew about it outside of my immediate family - and, of course, the hairdresser. Because, for some reason, hairdressers all around the world seem know everyone’s embarrassing secrets.

But looking at these pictures now, I’m completely envious of that head of hair. What I wouldn’t give to have that much hair again. I mean, look at it! It’s like a miracle!

It’s amazing the things about our bodies we take for granted. Like breathing, or blinking. We don’t think about it, we just do it. Hair now seems to me to be a mysterious miracle, all that flowing stuff freely growing out of people’s heads. I look at people’s heads in envy, now, and wonder if they realize how amazing it is to simply have that sprouting from their pates. I look at these pictures and remember how I used to think I had “bad hair days,” and I want to shake myself and say,“You don’t realize what you have! It’s amazing! You’re not going to have it for much longer!”

I had grown pretty used to hiding my thinning hair by the time I graduated from high school. But something changed about me just before graduation. That’s when I became a Christian. For the first time, I had an awareness of an intimate God who wanted to know me, and for me to know Him, and it dramatically changed my world view. Aspects of my life started to slowly change, and by the middle of my freshman year of college, I started to feel a little nudge every time I used that cream.

Every morning, I’d feel a twinge, a pang of conscience accompanied with the thought that maybe I shouldn’t do it anymore. I could feel God tugging at me to stop. And it terrified me. I couldn’t understand why I should do something as insane as that. It seemed completely ludicrous. So I came to the conclusion - in my 18 year old, newbie Christian, wisdom - that God must be testing me. He must be testing me to see how much I trusted Him, and if I passed the test He would reward me. He would grow my hair back!

It seemed the only logical reason for me to be having that persisting nudge about quitting, so I eventually gave in and, with much trepidation, started to go out into the world just as I was. It seemed so very horribly obvious to me at the time, but again, looking back now, I wish I had it that good now. It was mostly confined to the front. This picture is a pretty good example of how it was in college:

college_2

You can see that the front hair was significantly thinned, but the rest was okay.

So, that’s what I looked like as I started to go out without the cream, and it turned out to not be as bad as I thought it would be. After a few days and several awkward conversations, people pretty much just went on like nothing was different. And I realized just how much I had been living as a slave to my secret. It had had me in bondage. And it had taught me to be ashamed of myself. That’s when I knew what secrets do to people: they breed shame. There is no such thing as a good secret. All they do is teach you to hate yourself, and think of yourself as something to be hidden.

Letting go of this secret was amazing! You have no idea the freedom it gave me! So I reveled in that freedom and waited for my prize. I had trusted God, and now he was going to reward me, and I waited for my hair to grow back. And waited. And waited some more. But it never came.

As I was sitting in church a week or so after this, I heard this scripture, which I had heard before but that morning was screaming out at me. I could feel God pricking at me to pay attention to it. This is what it was:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” (Ps. 139:13-15)

In my spirit I felt God whisper to me, “That doesn’t say ‘except Rachel’ in there anywhere, does it?” And I realized what my “prize” was....

God hadn’t been dangling some carrot in front of me, waiting for me to prove my worth to get it. God doesn’t work that way. He NEVER works that way. God had simply wanted to free me from my shame. God wanted me to see that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made,” even with my hair. He wanted me to know that I was made by a loving Creator who cared for me, and didn’t want to see me living in shame and bondage to secrets anymore.

How amazing! Here I was waiting for some superficial prize, when what God was really doing for me was strengthening my spirit. This dramatically changed how I saw myself, and how I thought of myself in relation to God. I swore I would never again go back to living in that kind of slavery to secrets again, never return to that shame.

That’s a good story, isn’t it? That’s a good ending.

It doesn’t end there.

If my hair had stayed that way, it might end there. If it had never gotten worse than that, I’d probably still have that attitude about things. But it didn’t stay there. It got worse...much worse.

It was fine until I had my daughter. During my pregnancy my hair was amazing.

Rachel & Grandmother 253_2
Wasn’t it?

Then, by a year after Emily was born, my hair fell out to much worse than it had ever been before.
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It was no longer confined to a patch in the front. It was my whole head. Then a year after that I got pregnant again, and again had fabulous pregnant hair. But by the time my son turned two, this is what it had gotten to be:

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The perimeter was pretty good, but the rest was covered with sparse, wispy strands.

You can see why I came to long for the days of my high school hair.

I still felt the same way about me, and about God. But other things had changed that altered the way I felt about my hair.

People changed.

Before it had gotten that bad, I was able to redirect people away from my hair mostly by the force of my personality. I was genuinely unconcerned about it, and the fact that I was unconcerned seemed to make people overlook it. They saw me, and still basically treated me normally. Sometimes people would ask about my hair, and I was always glad to answer any questions anyone had.

But now people were different. Not the people who’d known me for a long time, but people who I’d recently met, or saw in the store, or wherever. I started to notice that people had stopped seeing ME. Instead they saw “a woman with thin hair” and stared three inches above my eyes while talking to me. No amount of my personality seemed able to call them back. They didn’t seem to care to get to know anything past the hair anymore. I could see the constant question in their eyes of wanting to know the story, but not wanting to ask. I wished they would ask. But very few people ever did. They just stared. And then left me alone.

I wondered if this is what people with obvious disabilities, like people in wheelchairs, felt. Did everyone in the world only see the wheelchair and not bother to get beyond that to the person? If so, I could relate now. I was an interesting, funny, articulate person, but it felt very difficult to get that across to people. It was incredibly frustrating.

And so finally, a year and a half ago, I decided to make a change. I wanted to stop being “The Woman With The Thin Hair” and go back to being just “Rachel.” I wanted to be able to go into a store and be treated just like any old customer, without the surprised and questioning stares. I wanted to just be normal.

I found a place in Jenkintown that specifically helps women like me. I’m very lucky to have a place like that so close, about 45 minutes away, because such places aren’t common. Women drive hours to get to them. The owner, Gloria, showed me the various things that I could do, and I chose a sort of half-wig. I didn’t want to wear a whole wig, but I also didn’t want extension-like options that semi-permanently attached to my head, because I thought it would be uncomfortable. My wig clips to my existing hair and allows me to use my own hairline, so that it looks incredibly natural. Anytime anyone has found out that it’s a wig, they’re always stunned because it’s that good. I can dye it, curl it, even swim in it - anything I could do to my natural hair. This has been very freeing for me, allowing me to blend in just like anyone else, and, most importantly, to have people see ME again.

I have never talked about any of this online before. I have a pretty firm boundary between my online and offline lives, because certain things - like family drama, or money, or ingrown toenails - are just best left to one’s personal (i.e. offline) life. For whatever reason, my hair has always fallen into this category for me. I’m not at all reluctant to talk about it, and have been very open about my experience, but it’s just been something that I’ve talked about in person, rather than online.

So why am I writing about it now?

I’m writing about it now because, ironically, the freedom that I get from having such a realistic wig also makes me start to live a secret again. I’m not intending to keep it a secret, but now there are people in my life who have no idea about this huge area of my life because they’ve never known me without my wig. And it’s not something that comes up easily in conversation. I’m a big fan of transparency, but how do you mention something like this in a casual way? “Yes, my weekend was fine, how was yours? By the way, I’m wearing a wig.”

See, it’s just awkward. It’s something that shocks people. It stops all conversation and demands an explanation, a story. So, it just never gets mentioned.

The problem is, if you let something go unmentioned long enough, sooner or later it starts to feel like a secret. An unintentional secret, but a secret nonetheless. And I don’t like that. Not one bit. I learned when I was 18 the power secrets like this hold over people, the toxic way it turns into shame. The prison it creates. I haven’t lived in that prison of secrets since I was 18, and I won’t start now.

So, now, this is my ticket out of that prison. This is my way of saying, “Here I am, just the way I was created. I have the blessing of being able to blend in with everyone else, but I’m not ashamed of who I am. I don’t want to keep any secrets. ”

No one really knows why I have this problem. The myriad doctors I’ve been to over my life have all concluded that I’m perfectly healthy. No hormonal problems. No mineral deficiencies. No alopecia, which is when someone’s immune system attacks the hair follicles. Miss Delaware has been wonderful in shedding light on this condition, but it has nothing to do with me. To be honest, there have been many times in which I wished I did have alopecia. If I did, I’d have a reason to give people for why I am this way (People like reasons, I’ve found. It makes them more comfortable than “it’s just how I am.”) I’d also have a global network of people just like me. I’d have a Miss America runner-up as an example, for goodness’ sake!

As it is, the only answer I can give anyone is...this is how God made me. For whatever reason, this is the way I am. And, as things go, there could be far worse things to deal with in life. I am healthy, and fertile, and have no other physical disfigurements. I have a husband who loves me and thinks I’m beautiful just the way I am. I have a happy home. I have a lot. And even though I don’t share Miss Delaware’s condition, it is encouraging to have someone like her out there. It’s also encouraging to have this wig that allows me to go out in public like a “normal” person. But most of all, it’s encouraging, and a blessing, that I had all those years of just being me before I got my wig. That God gave me the chance to be comfortable with who I am and how I’m made, and to be able to say that I am this way...because it’s how God made me. To know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Just as I am.


A couple pictures of me in my wig (just to show you how amazing it is.) If you know of anyone in this area who could benefit from a place like the one I go to, it’s called Images Hair Studio, and is in Jenkintown, PA.
Mccleary14_3 Mccleary26 (IMG_3685 IMG_0251

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