Originally published in Frontier Psychiatrist
copyright (c) 2013 by Anjoli Roy
I might be bald. I might be a bald woman. And not a cute, pixie-haired, feminine woman with high cheekbones and a long neck with a dusting of hair that covers her scalp and shows off big pretty eyes. I might be a bald woman, head bicked and shiny, denuded. And I’m not yet 30.
The first spot appears on the crown of my head as a sudden crop circle, perfectly round and unnervingly smooth, mystical in origin, revealing gleaming white skin. Dwindling brown trees. The shock of that first stress brings more circles—at the edge of the ear, above the left temple, at the back of the head with two small satellites orbiting them, ever widening, threatening to eat each other, like hungry Venn diagrams.
I’m going to inject you today, the paunchy, fifty-ish Upper East Side dermatologist says to his clipboard as I sit down. I’ve barely crinkled the paper on the soot-colored exam table when he says this. Nothing can be done, short of steroid shots to the scalp, he clarifies, glancing up at me.
It’s a spring day, and I was caught in a sudden downpour, am conscious of the dilating pool around my umbrella on the dermatologist’s floor. I stop swinging my feet, cross my ankles.
Steroid shots in my head? I ask. Which holds my brain? I want to add, but don’t.
When he nods at me, slowly, like I might be a bit stupid, then adds that 50 percent of cases result in hair regrowth after the shots, and 50 percent result in hair regrowth without the shots—as if this should reassure me—I make some ungainly apologies, scuttle out of the exam room, wave goodbye to the receptionist in the sunny, floral print dress who stands as if to stop me.
On the subway to work, I think about the nervous system. The unseen tree inside the body. Delicate branches, tender vines. It’s better to take on life as a bald woman than side effects that can damage more than vanity. My fingers drift to my head as I think this. I worry that my spots are showing.
I decide not to go to a doctor again, decide on weekly sessions with acupuncture students. I go to students because even though I’m kicking ass at my job now, I’m being paid like I’m still bad at it.
At the start of my first session, I hand over my credit card to a smiley redhead with that elongated posture that makes me think of yoga. I remember how every day during my early months on the job, I would brace myself with the truth that that day could be the day I’d be fired. I try to breathe this out of my body.
I am led into a big room with sky-blue fabric dividers. Padded massage tables lay before posters of the body’s meridians, acupuncture and acupressure points. When the two thirty-something-year-old students, with their Om necklaces and character tattoos, admit that they have never heard of alopecia areata, I explain and tell them how two percent of the U.S. population—more than 4.5 million people, regardless of sex, age, or ethnicity—experiences the condition at some point in their lives.
I forgive the students when they do not believe that I have alopecia areata. I remind myself that I do have so much hair, that I’ve learned to cover the spots. I forgive them when they are silent at the back of my head, where I can’t see them, shocked when I let down my (remaining) hair. I feel their careful fingers part it like a lush forest that reveals achingly dry earth. I try not to strain to hear them as they discuss a treatment plan outside the exam room, as I lie, belly down, with my face resting on a foam donut wrapped in tissue paper.
Once 27 needles are in my head, which feels not unlike a pincushion, the aged Chinese acupuncturist comes in, holds my wrist, and says of my pulse to the growing number of students crowding around me, The emotions. They are very unstable.
I watch tears drop through the donut that is holding my face. A pool gathers on the floor beneath me, and I try to wipe my nose, discretely, on that rim of tissue that my face is resting on. I try to be silent, to go somewhere other than my body.
I try to tell myself this isn’t my fault. That no one is judging me. That even though this is my body attacking itself, I am not doing this. I tell myself that my body and I just have to reconcile, be friends again.
I start to monitor the spots in the morning, to take pictures of them, to see phantom hair.
My lunar hair is white. It grows only in my sleep. These are the words that come to me in the evening.
Meanwhile, I sweep heaps of dark hair from the floor each day, wondering how there is anything left on my head. I am grateful I live alone.
I apply increasingly expensive tonics to the sites, take horrifically expensive supplements, go to nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki practitioners, kinesiologists, bioreprogrammers. I spend a fortune, tossing precious coins on dead soil. I try to meditate, to take care of myself and exercise and remind myself that this is just hair, that I don’t have cancer, that this is not terminal. I beat myself up for being so vain.
What are wigs for? I ask my reflection cheerily in my medicine-cabinet mirror, trying to believe the papery front that I’m putting up for myself. Still, I feel the edges tear, then shred, feeling sad and weak and sorry for myself. Finally, I reach out to friends, listen hard to the one who holds onto me in an open field under a dark sky and says that the moon is bald and beautiful and I’ll be beautiful bald too. I try not to cry at this, but do anyway.
All this begins around my 29th birthday, almost a year after ending a nearly decade-long relationship, a few months into finally doing really well at my job, and just as I decide to move 5,000 miles back to Hawai‘i to start again. That’s when the hair starts to fall out, just like that. When the stress of those months prior—of the broken heart and the fretting that lodges deep in my belly—is behind me, that’s when the stress catches up. When I think I’m fine, better than fine, when the future is brimming with promises. That’s when the body calls bullshit.
And so as I gather myself up, muster my energy for another tectonic shift, I pray for strength, for better stress management, for wholeness, for acceptance, but most of all, quietly, I pray for little hair saplings, which may never come.
* * *
Anjoli Roy is a PhD student in English and creative writing at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is stoked to be published again in Frontier Psychiatrist, and is once again indebted to FP editor Keith Meatto, who picked up this piece in a much shakier form, to Donovan Kūhiō Colleps for helping to hear the story in a new way and for pretty much all the beautiful lines, and to them both for helping to push her out of her comfort zone in the writing process.
Shout out to Niu Health Chiropractic, Acupuncture for Fertility and Pain Management, Kama’aina Acupuncture, Dr Eileen Kenney, Isabelle Benarous, and the Pacific College Of Oriental Medicine – NY, who saw Anjoli through her toughest bits in crossing these waters, and helped turn the ship even when she was heading at such fast speeds toward what felt like the inevitable. She’s learned that healing is possible, and that self-acceptance is required.