Then and Now

Then and Now

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

Then and Now

You cannot dream up confidence. You cannot fabricate it. You cannot wish it. You have to accomplish it.

~Bill Parcells

At the age of ten, I began to suffer from an autoimmune skin condition called alopecia areata. I had no idea what it was. It started out with a small patch of hair loss on the back of my head. I literally woke up one morning and a patch of my hair was gone. The patch was about the size of a quarter. I told my mom right away. She was clueless as to the reason for the hair loss, but more worried about the harm it might cause.

When we went to visit my local doctor, I felt like I was improperly diagnosed. I was told the condition was related to stress and in a short period of time the hair would grow back after I took some prescribed antibiotics. I continued to see many different doctors, tried all sorts of different remedies, but still had no answers or clue as to the cause.

At the age of twelve, during the summer, absolutely everything fell off. The skin disease spread throughout my body and I was officially diagnosed with alopecia universalis, which results in rapid loss of all hair, including eyebrows, eyelashes, and everywhere else on my body. The only good information I was told about the condition was that it is not life threatening, harmful or contagious.

I found out that this skin disease also affects over five million Americans. It is currently believed to be an autoimmune disorder, and there is no standard treatment for alopecia universalis. It was heartbreaking for me, at that age, to receive such news. At the time, I didn’t even know how to begin to face the facts. I was scared, embarrassed, confused, upset, and disappointed.

At that point in my life, it was bad enough dealing with the poor living conditions of the ghetto, but now I had a skin condition to add to everything else. There were some tough times. The biggest thing I feared was not what the world would think of me, but what my fellow students would say. The New York City public school system can be pretty hostile and I was afraid to face my peers.

I remember that first day of school back in September so clearly. I tried to do everything I could to hide my new look, but it turned out to be in vain. The other kids noticed my alopecia right away. For the majority of the school year, I constantly wore hooded sweaters, fitted sport caps, just about anything I could find to cover my head and eyebrows, which stood out the most when you would look at me. It was difficult to gain peer acceptance.

I got in trouble many times because in public school they would make you take your hat off in class — no exceptions. I would always put up a fight about taking my hat off and would be sent to the principal’s office on a weekly basis. It was awful. The faculty in my school wouldn’t give me a break. My mom would have to come to school about every other month just to talk to my teachers about being a bit more compassionate with me.

The worst part about the whole ordeal was the reaction of other kids. Teens can be so hurtful to one another. Even my own friends would tease me. I heard it all from “egg head” to “bald eagle” to “cone head.” I also used to get compared to that albino boy from the hit 1995 movie Powder. The whole ordeal was rather shameful. Just imagine a daily occurrence of jokes and teasing all throughout my school years and in my own neighborhood, just because I lost my hair.

I was the same Charlie, yet I was treated differently because of hair loss. It actually came to the point where I didn’t even want to step out of my house. I would pretend to be sick to avoid going to school. It not only affected my education, but my self-esteem was destroyed.

As hard of a challenge as it was for me as an adolescent, my solution came to me via a recreational outlet — the game of basketball.

All of the hardness that I’d developed over time was still bundled up inside me. As a kid, basketball allowed me to express myself in a way that created value and purpose for me. It became my exercise of the body and mind, the development of my character and leadership on and off the court.

What I appreciated most was that we were equals on the basketball court and the only way to distinguish one from another was through our performance, not our looks. The game helped me understand what fairness and equality were all about. I was treated just like one of the guys on the court. I was accepted for who I was, not what I looked like. The fact that I was a gifted basketball player gave me the opportunity to build my confidence more than anything else.

Self-confidence is at the root of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you want to become a great basketball player or just be great at anything, believing in your abilities is a must. You need to believe and be determined to achieve your goals. The things that separate you from the rest of the pack are your mental approach, fearlessness, and self-belief. It doesn’t really matter who you are or what you’ve gone through in life. For me, when it comes to basketball, an aggressive, attacking attitude puts fear in the opposition and creates openings to score. I have this saying I stick by: “I have alopecia; alopecia doesn’t have me.” I’m the one in control of myself.

I never lost hope for a better living, a better way. My childhood experiences have now led me to provide other youths with motivation and to assist them in making positive changes in their lives, communities, and emphasizing belief in their goals. I have grown to have a great compassion for children all across America who lose hope due to the destruction caused by bullying.

Through my foundation, programs are implemented to address the ongoing problem of bullying in our society in hope that unhealthy, social interactions move towards more positive interactions that will build better relationships. I created the Charlie Villanueva Foundation with a mission to support, through education, motivation, and recreational guidance, projects that enhance awareness about bullying, and to provide assessment and intervention tools. I firmly believe that a childhood should have a foundation of hope and belief. Being able to bring a smile to a child’s face and show them that those who are different, for whatever reason, can succeed and overcome brings joy to my life. I’m living proof of it.

When life gets to the point where you no longer look forward to tomorrow, there is a lack of belief. Basketball was my escape and it has given me a sense of belonging. Now the taunts of my early childhood drama have turned into admiring cheers as I have found success in becoming an NBA player.

~Charlie Villanueva, Milwaukee Bucks Power Forward

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