I’ve had alopecia areata on and off since I was 10. Now I’m 32 – so that’s two-thirds of a patch-filled life.

During this time I’ve tried cover-ups and “miracle treatments”, all over the world. Here’s some of my most memorable…

Treatments from home

1. The medical route 

When I was diagnosed with alopecia, I didn’t have much support. The doctors I saw told me to get over it, because it wasn’t life-threatening. (Clearly, they hadn’t thought of the link between hair loss and depression.)

Later, trichologists recommended minoxidil, and cortisone injections, and oral steroids. All pretty intensive stuff for a 16-year-old. The injections worked for a while but eventually my system grew immune to them, too. I was left with paper-thin skin on my scalp (no one had told me that several rounds can be quite harmful), an even weaker immune system (thanks to all the drugs) and still no idea how I could magic hair back on my head.

I even tried rubbing iodine directly on my scalp. It stained. And it burned. And it did not make my hair come back. Sigh.

2. The cover-ups

My bald spots were manageable until my early 20s, when stretchy headbands couldn’t stretch far enough. So I invested in stick-on extensions – which more often than not stuck to my coat sleeve instead of my head. #awkward

Then I invested in a full wig. And what a huge investment that was – in Ireland, there’s no financial support for wigs, not for alopecians anyway.

I had a love/hate relationship with that wig. I loved it because it gave me the anonymity I sought, not to mention long hair to toss over my shoulder whenever I pleased! It made me feel feminine. It made me feel “normal”.

I hated it because it took hours to style (and multiple curler burns!). It also dug painfully into my scalp, causing jagged scratches and even sharper headaches. It could be hot, itchy and uncomfortable. And I’d constantly worry that a gust of wind would blow it apart (a fairly common occurrence, in Ireland), to reveal those pesky patches.

So, 5 years ago, I decided to go wig-free and to embrace the bald. My boyfriend shaved my head – now that was a bonding experience – and I boarded a plane for Indonesia the next day.

Further afield

1. The healer (Bali)

It was my first solo backpacking trip. The longest I’d ever been alone. And I was doing it with a shiny, bald noggin… needless to say, I was pretty nervous.

But I was excited to be on this journey of deep healing – and, sure enough, I wound up at a traditional Balinese healer a few days into my trip. (All very 'Eat, Pray, Love' of me, I know. At least, that’s what my friends said afterwards. I still haven’t read/seen it!) 

It began with a vigorous herbal scrub, as I lay in my underwear on a creaky old table, while the healer’s daughter and her teenage son looked on. At one point I had to rub the potent mixture into my own chest – which seemed like a strange way to promote hair growth. (I couldn’t imagine Julia Roberts being quite so naive!)

But I was in the hands of Eastern medicine, of ancient healers… so I decided to lean into it.

Next, an old man came along to banish the “evil spirit” from my body. Tapping various parts, he removed little shards of glass and metal, supposedly from my abdomen, my knees and my head. (I have no idea where they came from, but I don’t think they were up his sleeve!) He wound up with a small bowl of these shards, which he then set alight.

Over the next 2 days, I was brought to a high priest’s cleansing ceremony, plus on another excursion to remove leftover bad spirits – this time it involved an even older man and the blunt end of a knife. Finally, I was sent packing with several bags of small brown pellets, dried leaves and powders to ingest over the next few weeks. Which I dutifully did.

2. The snail eggs (Bali)

One week later, I visited an ashram in the east of the country. The local acupuncturist, Sadra – chief of his village, and a very wise man – told me that he could cure my alopecia with a simple concoction made from snail eggs and a rare kind of coconut. I was to give him a few weeks to make the arrangements, and he wouldn’t charge me for the service.

Well, that was nice of him, I thought. So 2 months later, a few days before I flew home, I returned to the ashram. Sadra gave me an ice-cream container, filled with a yellowish, bitty liquid and told me to rub it on my head, several times a day. Again, I dutifully did what I was told.

Now, I’d noticed some fuzz creeping back in the previous weeks – those tiny vellus hairs that can shrivel upon sight. But after a few days of faithfully applying this concoction, I noticed much more of this fuzz sprouting, faster and faster – in the patches I’d assumed were barren!

It was amazing, and even though the concoction stank when I brought it home (FYI: snail eggs don’t travel well), I kept applying it daily.

After a few weeks, all of my patches had filled in with darker, stronger hair. Until I had a full head of hair again! Very short hair, but still.

Unfortunately, that lasted a grand total of 2 months before a tiny patch appeared on the back of my scalp. Then alopecia came to reclaim most of my hair again.

NOTE: I returned to that ashram 2 years later. Got the same concoction, endured the same smelly head for a couple of weeks and – nothing. Oh well.

3. The electroshock acupuncture (Vietnam)

Then there was the time I was jabbed with needles and hooked up to a machine straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. My very own Nurse Ratched – a gentle older Vietnamese man, with kind eyes and a vice-like grip – started by pinning acupuncture needles around my body.

That was fine. Quite uncomfortable in some parts but nothing I couldn’t handle. And then I started to smell something burning. And then I felt a soaring heat. What was… was he burning me?!

Not flame to skin contact, but close enough. He moved some kind of smoking incense all over my stomach and then my feet, getting so close sometimes I couldn’t help but reflexively kick out. (Luckily, he didn’t break his concentration. Phew.)

On my next visit (yep, I went back for more), there was no burning involved. But there was what I like to call “electroshock acupuncture”. Clamps were attached to the needles, and wires connecting to some high-voltage contraption sent currents of energy throughout my body. 

It was actually quite a pleasant sensation, once I got used to it. Although the needles around my nose and eyes, which sent my entire face into spasms, were slightly less so.

Another dingy room, another strange treatment. And still no hair to show for it.

4. Nasya oil rinse (Sri Lanka)

This one finally alerted me to the dangers of seeking alternative cures. I was in Sri Lanka and, buoyed by the prospect of ayurvedic healing, went to see a local dude in the know. As I lay on the worn-out table, he tilted my head back and dripped warm oil into each of my nostrils.

The idea was that I’d be able to use the oil (now gathered in my throat) to cough back up any mucus or other bad stuff that was affecting my body’s ability to function naturally. But unfortunately I’d nothing left to cough up. Meaning that oil was left somewhere.

Soon after that treatment I began experiencing daily headaches, which have lasted for over a year now. Of course, they could be entirely unrelated. But that particular experience did make me wise up to the potential dangers of being so open-minded about alopecia treatments!

And now?

Well, I still dip into healing treatments from time to time. I live in Vietnam and am surrounded by alternative therapy options: tapping techniques, reiki, hypnotherapy and so on. Which I enjoy trying out, mainly out of curiosity more than anything else.

Occasionally, I’ll turn to natural remedies and spend a week smearing fresh aloe vera on my head. Or rubbing rawonion and ginger on my scalp until I smell like a stirfry. Charming. 

But in general, I’ve stopped seeking a cure. Why? Well, I’m happier and the most comfortable in my skin that I’ve ever been – even without hair. These holistic treatments are fun to try out and I am interested in addressing the root cause rather than the symptom of my alopecia – but I’m not going to waste any more time, energy and money chasing a “miracle cure” that doesn’t exist.

In any case, my daily meditation practice has taught me to be less attached to things (which is lucky because clearly, my hair isn’t attached to me!)

I’m also quite used to my mohawk style. I even like it, most of the time. Of course, I miss long hair sometimes and it’s frustrating to see my hair shedding during a time I feel in peak health… but I’m not letting alopecia control my life anymore.

I don’t let it upset me – in fact, I’ve learned to be grateful for it! Because alopecia has taught me how strong I can be. It’s introduced me to some truly inspirational people. And it’s led me to all those weird and wonderful experiences, around the world.

I tried going to all kinds of lengths for long hair. But now I’m happy to be just as I am. 

Check out Lady Alopecia to read more of Emma's experiences, or follow her on Instagram: lady_alopecia.