BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - During my interviews for the segment "Lost Strands" I interviewed seven-year-old Elena Mitchell about her chance to attend a summer camp for children dealing with hair loss. She told me the reason she was so excited about going is because at times she feels like "the only one." I know exactly how Elena feels. When my hair started falling out, I also felt that way. I hope by sharing my story someone else won't feel like they're the only one.
It was either late May or early June of 2008, I had just come out of the shower after bathing and washing my hair. I went to start the process of blow drying it when I got a major shock: There was a bald spot the size on a quarter on the front side of my head.
I did what most of us do in a panic. I called my mom. She said it could be a result of my recent relaxer. I have had many relaxer scalp burns over the years, so that made sense. My plan was to cover it up until the spot grew back in. Plans change. My hair continued to fall out. I don't mean break off. But fall out in clumps with smooth bald spots. Now I was really freaked out.
I called around to try to get a dermatology appointment, but most weren't accepting clients or were booked for months. I lucked out and found a doctor because of a cancellation, but the appointment would take a few days. In the meantime, I went online and started Googling my symptoms. As soon as I saw the picture of Alopecia Areata, I knew in my heart that's what I had. The doctor confirmed my suspicions.
Alopecia Areata is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the follicles causing the hair to fall out. No one knows why. While some autoimmune disorders, like Lupus, will cause hair loss as a result of the condition, that's not the case with Alopecia Areata - the person isn't sick. They're just losing their hair.
I felt both relieved and frightened by the diagnosis. I was happy to know I didn't have some terrible illness, but I also had no idea what the future had in store. The doctor explained my hair could grow back immediately, or never grow back. I could stop losing hair, or it could continue to fall out. My hair could all grow back just to fall out again.
It was a very stressful, too, because I have a job in front of a television camera. How would I deal with being on-air? For awhile, I was able to style my hair to hide the bald patches. But over the next few months as I continued to lose hair, it became clear that wasn't going to work anymore. I was going to have to buy a wig. I went in and explained the situation to my news director, and he was very understanding. Pink Hearts Funds provided me with one of my wigs, which I appreciated. I had never worn a wig before, so it was a big adjustment.
I estimate 30 percent of my hair fell out over a six month period. I had patches on the crown, both sides and all of nape area was gone. Some medical experts say there's no pain with Alopecia Areata, but I did experience some as a burning sensation on my scalp days before my hair would fall out. There is no cure for Alopecia Areata, but there are medical treatments to encourage regrowth. They work for some people. Not one of them worked for me. Not steroids. Not pills.
As I began opening up more about my situation, I learned some of my female relatives on my dad's side had also dealt with very sudden hair loss. It made me wonder if there is a genetic link, but I don't know. All of them were dealing with a lot of stress at the time their hair fell out. When my fell out I was working a full time job, a part time job teaching English As Second Language and trying to play gigs, as I'm a singer-songwriter.
My cousins told me what worked for them. The exact products didn't work for me and neither did a lot of other products. I finally did find something that pulled my follicles out of their dormant state. In mid-2009, after a year of virtually no re-growth, I started using a product and was able to get all of my hair to grow back in about six months with the exception of my nape. The photo on this page was taken in January 2010 and shows my nape. That was when I started wearing my hair out again, but with headbands to cover my nape.
The latest update is I have found something else that seems to be working and I have only a small bald patch left. My recovery has been a very long process and I think what helped me most was talking to another woman who'd gone through Alopecia Areata and being able to openly share my thoughts and frustrations with her without feeling judged.
The other side of this story is that when I lost my hair, I discovered my hair. During that visit to the dermatologist he uttered the words "No More Chemicals." For me this was almost as big a shake up as losing my hair. I had chemically treated hair since the first grade. Before that, my mom kept my hair pressed or in braids. As strange as it sounds, I wasn't sure what my natural hair looked like.
Anyone who has ever grown out a chemical treatment will tell you IT SUCKS!! After four months of "transitioning" I'd had it. I asked my mom, who'd gone to cosmetology school, to cut off the relaxed hair, AKA big chop. The length didn't bother me too much. I'd had to do major cuts before - one from heat damage from using curling irons too much and one after major breakage from dying my hair blonde. (Don't ask. And no I didn't have more fun.)
I had no idea how to care for my hair. To be honest I was so depressed by the whole situation, I wasn't all that interested in caring for my hair at first. However, as time went by, I came to see my hair as an exciting discovery. I started researching and trying different products and styles. I also discovered my hair was super curly and I loved it!! Before my hair fell out, it had never crossed my mind to go natural. Now, even if I could relax again, I wouldn't.
People ask me if having natural hair is hard. I think natural hair is not difficult, it's different. The way I care for my hair is nothing like when it was chemically treated. My hair and I have an understanding. It doesn't give me too many problems and I don't force it to be something it doesn't like to be - straight. Since I don't own a flat iron, we pretty much get along. Plus, flat ironing is too much work for all this hair, especially when I wash my hair every two or three days anyway.
Once I can get the follicles to become active again my hair grows quickly. My hair is tightly curly, kinky, coily, which is known to shrink up to 75 percent its length. I hated shrinkage at first, but now I don't mind as much. I can have long hair one day and short hair the next without getting a hair cut, then do it all over again.
With hair like mine, you can't look at it and tell how long it is in its curly state. I'm not exactly sure how long it is, but I think it's around mid-back length. Typically, that is longer than I like my hair to be and I'd cut it off. But since it looks shoulder length with shrinkage, I like it and I trim my hair often to keep my current length.
I'm not a hair guru and I can't do endorsements, so I'll just say most of the products I use on my hair are from either Africa or India.
I have had a lot of other black women tell me they'd like to go natural, but are afraid of the negative reactions. I don't understand why someone wearing their hair the way it grows out of their head is considered a big deal. Why can't we respect that people have their own preferences?
Have I ever had someone insult my curly hair? Yes. Do I care? No. Not enough that I would straighten it anyway.
My mom has since "big chopped" and a lot of my family members are natural. My mom's sister, three of my mom's sisters-in-law, my dad's three sisters, and some of my cousins are all naturals.
One of my best friends paid me the nicest compliment. She said, "I love your hair. It's so you." And she is so right.