Afraid of going bald, I shaved my head

WASHINGTON • In 2012, two years after my husband and I, along with our two dogs, had relocated from New York to Beijing, the extremely authoritarian political environment and world-famous pollution had driven this self-proclaimed New Yorker into an emotional exile.

I started an angry food blog out of sheer desperation and misery. Just when I thought I was balancing my unhappiness brilliantly with anger, in 2013, our French bulldog, Bado, died, only three months after her turbulent struggle against brain tumour.

Then, for the next two years, our Maltese, Dumpling, battled with acute congestive heart failure before he left us last year. Even now, in the security of hindsight, the extreme stress of living under constant anticipation of deaths and heartbreaks for more than two years is scary to recall.

But instead of alcoholism and welcomed weight loss, which I thought would be appropriately sufficient, my body had its own idea of dealing with grief.

Two months after Dumpling died, my hair started to fall in abnormal amounts. This, for someone who has had waist-long hair for a decade, was especially noticeable and alarming.

For the next nine months, I began a witch hunt for causes and burnt through countless dermatologists in Beijing and Hong Kong, all of whom assured me that it was just an episode of telogen effluvium hair loss, or temporary hair-shedding, after a traumatic event, then sent me home to cuddle intimately with my own anxious thoughts.

Frankly, if it was just the hair loss, which wasn't actually that severe, I would have gladly accepted their suggestions despite my reluctant, hypochondriac self. But it wasn't just the hair loss. It also came with pain. In the areas where the hair loss was the most apparent, I also felt a haunting, ghost-like ache.

This burning, prickling sensation was at times subtle, at times maddening. The pain in itself was not excruciating, but it inflamed the fear that I was already spending every ounce of energy to extinguish, and together, the fear and pain danced around a bonfire of incapacitating anxiety.

I was never obsessed about my hair until it started to resent me and retaliate. And the newfound obsession crippled me. It disallowed me to put it down. It forbade me to look away. It lurked in and around my every thought, when I put on a sweater, when I took off a hat, my every little gesture, every single waking hour.

Even when I was standing in the bliss of the French wine country amid all its summer glory, my hair was at the back of my mind (no pun intended). Everything I felt, touched and tasted was through a wall of blackened glass. I became a shadowed version of my old self.

I felt ashamed of my depression.

I muddled my way through this emotional swamp until the end of last September, when a specialist in New York had a different opinion and recommended a biopsy. I had a 4mm hole punched out of the top of my scalp and two stitches that I babysat for 10 days. A few days later, the results came back.

A couple of apathetic words on a white printout named my fears: scarring alopecia.

I knew exactly what it was, thanks to nervous midnight Googling: an inflammatory autoimmune condition that triggers the body to attack its own hair follicles, replacing them with scar tissue, causing permanent hair loss. It's rare, without cure and can be managed only with potent steroids. Even then, patients almost always relapse.

Technically, that was that. But, emotionally, what did it all mean? How much hair would I lose? A little of it? All of it? How fast would it progress? Tomorrow? Ten years later? Strangely, the more unknowns the diagnosis spread out in front of me, the faster the fog that had fallen over me dissipated. It became acutely clear to me that my enemy wasn't hair loss after all: I was at war with myself.

What was I really afraid of? Being less pretty?

Don't get me wrong: Appearances are socially relevant and I'm not above recognising that. The idea stung. But being attractive, I reasoned, isn't the only thing in life - not by a long shot.

What about world-wandering? What about niboshi ramen? What about the seductive funk of aged unpasteurised cheese on warm porous breads? What about the incandescence of joy?

Enough was enough. Just a couple of weeks after the biopsy, I decided that I had given too much of my life to uncertainty, fear and anxiety. I took matters into my own hands.

A few days later, standing in the shower with my husband, cracking bad wig jokes, we buzzed my hair off. I stepped out of the shower, walked to the mirror and took a firm, almost impolite stare.

It was just me looking back.

When I was still holding on to my hair, I couldn't even buy a cup of coffee without feeling self-conscious, obtrusive, wondering whether people could notice my naked imperfection. But now that I'm walking around with a buzzed head that isn't even very nicely done, I couldn't give less thought about it.

Has my reality changed? No. It mattered only because I let it matter.

I don't want to underplay the emotional effect of this condition on those who are suffering from it, especially when I know that in comparison, my case isn't the worst possible one. Or maybe just not yet. And it might, or probably will.

Either way, it doesn't matter anymore: And that's the point. Bad things will happen in life and they couldn't care less how we feel about them.

That choice, at least, is ours.

Two weeks after I buzzed my hair, my husband and I went on a vacation to Japan. For the very first time in more than a year (or perhaps much longer, if I were to be absolutely honest), I felt as if I was living again. We sat inside a packed sushi restaurant no bigger than 2.4m wide and ate an artfully made piece of kinmedai-no aburi nigiri (torched golden eye sea bream sushi.) I smiled, a real smile, like it radiated from within the core, which almost felt foreign after our long separation.

A few days later, my husband, who has androgenic alopecia, or male-pattern baldness, also shaved his head. We haven't looked back.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Afraid of going bald, I shaved my head'. Print Edition | Subscribe