Mwd Smiling

Being Diagnosed with Alopecia is Funnier than I Thought

Over my recess week, I was diagnosed with alopecia areata. It’s an autoimmune condition wherein my body rejects my follicle cells — in other words, I am starting to lose my ability to naturally grow and retain my hair. Anyone of any age can get it and, while there is no known cause or cure, there are treatments. 

I noticed something was off when, over the week, I was losing much more hair than usual from my scalp and even on other parts of my body. I would run my hand lightly through my hair, and out came around twenty strands of hair. I initially wrote it off to stress because I have had the tendency to lose hair during strenuous periods in my life. 

So imagine my absolute mortification when, in the middle of writing an essay, I reached to the back of my head and, instead of feeling a curtain of hair, I feel a soft and smooth surface. And another. And another. Having watched videos of alopecia patients before and thinking “I’m lucky I have my hair”, I knew immediately what it was.

Following my diagnosis was a spectrum of interesting reactions. For one, I am a massive crybaby, and I’m not even remotely embarrassed by that fact. I know that it’s a natural reaction for me whenever I’m feeling emotional, whether it be born from sadness or joy or frustration. Crying has been a hugely cathartic process for me, and I’m owning it.

… Well, sometimes, I end up spiralling. But in all of those times, I managed to bounce back, so I am owning it.

Which is why it was strange to me that I was tear-free and jolly after receiving my diagnosis. In fact, in the next few hours, I would be going on a long bus ride, jamming to my favourite songs, drinking bubble tea, and painting an image that plastered itself on my mind, a painting of myself with my bald patches, with vivid swirls and patterns superimposed on it.

I was empowered. I was euphoric. I was unstoppable. 

Melancholy only hit that night, which marked the first time I cried after my diagnosis. As I was applying my treatment onto my bald spots, the feeling of my smooth scalp against my fingertips pulled me into an anxiety attack. It felt so unnatural, so wrong. Within a matter of seconds, I was trapped underneath my own emotional rubble, and the tears would not stop for a few days. I cried in my room, in the shower, on the floor of a random tutorial room, in the train — wherever you found me, I was in tears. 

It was easy for me to chalk up that delay of reaction to the disconnect between what I was thinking — “I will survive” — with what I physically felt — the smoothness of my scalp. Feeling my scalp was the stimulus I needed to face my reality. I now have an autoimmune condition. It involves me losing my hair patch by patch. I will likely never be able to regain control over it. I can feel the spots where my hair has left the damn group chat. Needless to say, there was plenty of crying in the days that proceeded, oftentimes out of frustration and anger, other times out of gratitude for the people around me.

One reaction I was particularly surprised by was how much I indulged in humour in my days after the diagnosis too.

Let me explain why this was strange to me. One of the most pervasive thoughts that occupied my mind was the overwhelming sense that I was no longer the same person that I was before. Day and night, I could only think about the fact that I was losing my hair, and that an essential part of me was slipping away, out of my control for as long as I live. Even as I was surrounded by friends or trying to focus on work, my internal monologue only ever revolved around what was going on in (and on) my head. I’m sure you can tell how profoundly painful and distracting it is to be in a state of mind like that. Laughter — any semblance of joy, really — was the last thing on my mind.

Besides, it never felt appropriate to laugh whenever someone was sharing something serious. It never occurred to me as a usual reaction at all, and it seemed insensitive and rude.

And yet, something in the midst of all the gloom in me had it to laugh. A day after the diagnosis, I was having dinner at home when my brother decided to play the piano. Despite the deep camaraderie and protectiveness we feel for each other, he and I don’t typically reveal our emotions to each other. 

That night, it took him playing one wrong note, just a semitone off, for both of us to end up in a massive fit of laughter. In an effort to cheer me up some more, he started doing accents and reenacting bits from comedians that he knew would get me in stitches. 

And it all began with a single wrong note that had absolutely no reason being that funny. The laughter was so relieving for me, after straight hours of tension and heartache. It was a much more welcome alternative to all of the pain that I was feeling.

In those days, too, I was unusually generous with my jokes, more so if they pertained to my condition. In the wee hours of the night that I received my diagnosis, I had spontaneously written an informally-worded email to my professor where I ranted about everything I was feeling. Getting up in the morning and realising I had sent that email led to a massive moment of embarrassment, not without some laughter about some of the most ridiculous phrases I managed to come up with at 3am. Since then, I’ve begun to embrace the fact that I was, as my muddled brain managed to elegantly phrase it, “follicle-ly challenged”.

Another one of my favourite jokes since then, and I love whipping this one out whenever I get the chance to talk about my condition with others, is how venting helps to lighten the load on my shoulders… on top of all that hair fall, of course. 

It has been fascinating to witness how often I revert to humour to talk about my condition when previously I would have been averse to the mere allusion to it. Someone who has helped me understand this response a little more is Scottish comedian Daniel Sloss who, in his standup routine, talks about grief and humour in his fantastic Netflix special, Dark. A line of his that resonated with me is:

“I hated how much everyone else treated me differently, right? Something had changed and I needed everything else to stay the same so I could process the difference, but that doesn’t happen (…) people start wrapping you in bubble wrap. They start being very sensitive or changing how they treat you.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciated that people around me were so welcoming and willing to share with me their spaces in which I could grieve. However, the loneliness and distance I felt were especially enhanced when people were offering me these spaces all the time, even when I didn’t need them or ask for them in those times. It reinforced, for me, the idea that I am not the same person that I was before. 

Whenever I could laugh, whether it be about my condition or about anything else, it was a way for me to remember what life was like, what I was like. It reminded me that I was not my entire condition, and the condition was not my entire life. It was a way for me to regain some of the control that I had lost when my hair decided to jump ship on me, thank you very much. 

I mean, to be fair, this predicament that I’m in is hilariously unfortunate. Out of the 7 billion people it could’ve targeted, my genes decided to prank me and then realised they couldn’t undo the prank. It’s awful, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find that absolutely hysterical. 10/10 execution. Of my follicles.

With all of that said, I do still think that it is crucial that we recognise the ways in which we best process our feelings and thoughts in life-changing situations. Crying works for me, as does humour, though I find that there is a time for both. You may find yourself best dealing with situations by sobbing in your bedroom like me. Or maybe you find yourself diving neck-deep into work, or talking it out with your therapist (also strongly recommend!), pouring yourself into your art, or cracking jokes all the time. 

Do you. Contrary to what the standard dramas on TV (does anyone watch TV anymore?) may suggest, there is no one way to react to big news. Abnormal situations create abnormal responses, and your emotional needs are no one else’s but your own. So go cry in the corner if you need to, and I’ll be here with a joke whenever you’re ready.