I Own It

I Own It

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

I Own It

A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.

~David Brinkley

My mother used to say “I would give you all of my hair if I could.” She used to try on my wigs, turning her face from left to right, and back again. Angling her chin, fluffing the synthetic bangs with three fingers. I would watch her from behind her vanity table, silently taking everything in. Alone there, in her room, I never felt ashamed, or different because of my alopecia. Would I ever be like her, so confident, brave and strong, brimming with sureness and beauty? But this was my alopecia, my hair loss, not hers. When she took my wig off, her golden curls bounced around her face, and perhaps she never gave it another thought. My cold hands absentmindedly rubbed my bald head.

I will never forget the day I lost my hair. Not because it affected me so, but because my mother acted as if the world had ended, collecting waist-length locks into plastic bags and storing them in the china cabinet in the dining room “just in case anything could ever be done.”

At four years old, I had no sense of worry about losing my hair. On the contrary it was painful for my mother and sister to vice grip me between their knees, hushing me as they brushed out my tomboy snarls. I would cry and wriggle and beg for them to just cut it off.

Then overnight, against my cool cotton pillowcase, out it came, lying all around me in clumps as if a ghostly hairdresser had come in the night and razored most of it off.

Even amidst all of the doctor’s appointments, the cortisone treatments and the pull tests, still I did not feel any differently. Pictures of me in horrid 80s clothing, dashing across the cameras frame, bald head wild and free, I never even stopped to consider that I was different.

Because alopecia had touched my life so early, none of the children in my elementary school minded. Girls with silky, thick pigtails used to line up in the bathroom for a peak under my hats. They would ask month after month if there’d been any change, any growth. I was everyone’s personal peep show, but it was also harmless, and I was accepted. Things were okay.

There was nothing more beautiful, and I never had a closer sense of self, than when I was young, before I was made aware of my physical differences. Alopecia felt good. It was light, and airy and it was just me.

Junior high was the year when everything changed. School went from being a place where I was loved and accepted, to a place where I was bullied and tormented. I went to a junior high that had an open enrollment program. That meant kids would be bussed from Detroit to the suburbs surrounding Detroit. That meant there were new children who didn’t know about my alopecia. It was an abrupt change, one that no one had prepared me for. When I accidentally singed the bangs of my new wig in seventh grade, there was nothing my father could do; he could not afford to buy me a new one.

It became apparent that I wore a wig, and now, instead of my differences making me popular and loved, they made me a target to children who were unaware and angry. One girl in particular bullied me for what felt like the longest year of my life. She and her friends would play football with my wigs. They would walk up behind me and with the slightest of hand movements pull my hair from my head, earning me the nickname of “snatches.” Teachers and lunch ladies, friends and janitors would watch in horror, but no one said a thing. It made me feel as though I was not worth anything, since no one, not even the adults, would stand up for me. And I was too ashamed to stand up for myself.

Somehow I made it through to high school but then we moved. I would have start a new school and face telling everyone about my alopecia, a condition that was now something I tried my best to hide.

I reinvented myself. I told people I was sick and was dying. Cancer was much more glamorous than simply having no hair. When other students would question me, I would panic and spend that class period in the bathroom, hiding, from them, from myself, breathing hard, internalizing my anxiety, and hoping to just disappear. The next day, and the day after that, I would stay home sick. I just couldn’t bear the possibility of going through what I went through before. Yet still, I made it through, just as I had before.

Something happens the older and older you get. Women with alopecia bloom. Maybe it’s the experiences we endure, tucked under our belts like weapons, like armor. I can’t tell you the specific day or time my alopecia no longer shamed me, but empowered me. With each person I told about my hair (or lack thereof), it became easier and easier to do so. Slowly, I started to have fun buying wigs, enjoyed being different from all of the other girls. I had knowledge, and I had gone through things no one else I knew had ever experienced. The stronger I became about my alopecia, the less people cared, and the more they supported me.

Even if adults behaved the way those junior high kids did, I would still be proud to be who I am — a strikingly beautiful twenty-eight-year-old writer with alopecia totalis.

Now I spend a lot of time in front of the bathroom mirror, wig off, lights burning bright, admiring the things about myself that are enhanced by my alopecia. I have amazingly high cheekbones. Because my hair does not grow, I have the softest skin of anyone I have ever met. I can change my hairstyle, color, and length in an instant, and then change it back if it suits me. I will never have a bad hair day. I have experienced swimming bald, and nothing will ever compare to that. When I go to sleep at night, my pillow comes up soft and cool to meet my warm head. I am beautiful and desirable, and I stand out, with or without my wig on.

I gained that confidence I watched my mother have for me. Except it is mine. It is stronger than hers, more wild and sincere than hers. It is mine. Because I earned it. I understood that being proud of having alopecia was a dream my mother had for me, but I ran with it and made it my own.

~Kate White

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