Last night I dreamed that I had hair again (apologies to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca!): this was unusual, as I normally dream that I am exposed as having no hair at all at an important occasion.  However, after 60 years of living with alopecia areata, it is extremely unlikely that I will ever be the woman of my nice dream.

The trigger for my condition occurred around puberty: a bereavement at that time along with hormonal changes set things off.  From then until my mid-thirties, the hair loss and regrowth went in 7 year cycles, so my time at university was great – long, thick hair was the norm in the 1960s (think of the musical, Hair) and luckily mine was in peak condition. But not for long, as a few years later the regrowth phase stopped happening.

After uni and a few years in biochemical research, I became a college lecturer; a stressful job which involved being always on show to young adults - so my condition worsened.  I tried many treatments over the years, starting with special shampoos, then lotions, UV exposure and finally steroid injections in my scalp. (On one infamous occasion, I was asked to attend a lecture the doctor was giving to a huge roomful of students so he could demonstrate the technique of this procedure, and as he did so the needle broke in my head.  I was quickly hustled out of the room!) Gradually it dawned on me that nothing was going to work.

After wearing scarves to cover my thinning hair, one day I was in a changing room with mirrors all around and caught sight of the back of my head: I was horrified at what I saw.  Luckily I found a wig company from the Yellow Pages, and was fitted with my first, wonderful acrylic wig.  I have fond memories of that wig, so thick and luxuriant, my confidence shot up overnight.  After that I had many acrylic and then real hair wigs from this company, fortunately based in my home town.  Initially, due to the structure of the base, the real hair wigs had to be returned to the factory to be dry cleaned once a month, but nowadays modern technology has made life easier by improving the base, enabling ordinary washing and drying at home.

In my naivety, I had hoped that as alopecia had been switched on by hormonal changes at puberty, it might be reversed by further hormonal changes at the menopause – no such luck.  Fortunately the hairdresser from the wig company went freelance after the company closed down, so for the past 30 years I have been able to get bespoke real hair wigs from her, until recently, with a lot of financial help from the NHS. (I heard only this week that the NHS is tightening up so I will no longer get so much assistance.)

Belatedly, I am now resigned to my situation.  Has alopecia affected my life?  Yes, very much in many ways, some bad and some good.

Bad: I never put myself out of my comfort zone, so I don’t go swimming or do any water sports. I don’t do exercise classes which would make me overexert and overheat.  I don’t get too close to people, I tell very few people about my condition, I turn down invitations to stay with friends and spend a lot of time and money ensuring no-one can tell.  Consequently, I feel I have missed out on a lot of things in life due to my inhibitions.

Good:  Using acrylic or old real hair wigs, I used to play a lot of racket sports and later took up running, making many friends as I did so.  Using a range of wigs, including one made of a special fibre which keeps its shape as long as it does not dry out, I have done a lot of travelling. I have a full social life, and am known as the lady with the lovely hair- I have a young looking face and can still have wigs of a gorgeous auburn colour while my friends are struggling with their greys - especially as hairdressers are now closed during lockdown.

This blog has caused me to reflect on things.  Looking back at an article I wrote in my late thirties for a book called ‘Coping with Sudden Hair Loss’ by Elizabeth Steel of Hairline International, I come across as very bitter about how alopecia had affected my life at that stage in terms of committing to relationships. I realise now that I used my condition as an excuse.  I have come to terms with my situation and realise how lucky I have been to have had a career I loved, to have travelled the world, to have many very good friends – and of utmost importance, a hairdresser who understands my situation and who has been a good friend over the years.22 

Nowadays, it is my teeth that are a big problem: getting old definitely has disadvantages as well as advantages!

Thank you to Meryl for sharing her reflections on her many years of experience of having alopecia.