At 23, My Hair Started Falling Out In Clumps. So I Changed Everything.

If anything was a bright red stop sign telling me to cut out spiraling thoughts, this was it.
Kathleen Wong.
Kathleen Wong.

To be honest, I was never proud of my hair. It wasn’t thick, shiny and luscious like my sister’s. Since middle school, I’ve dyed my hair hues of blue, pink, silver and green, once even bleaching it entirely. It has always been a damaged poofy mess, but it was my damaged poofy mess.

I didn’t realize what it meant to me and my identity until I started losing it in handfuls, which forced me to rethink the way I moved in the world.

Last February, my sister and I had just landed in Austin, Texas, from New York for what was supposed to be a relaxing long weekend full of barbecue and laughs. When we arrived at our hotel room, my sister called dibs on the shower. To kill time, I idly ran my fingers through my hair. That’s when I felt it — something smooth and fleshy. That doesn’t feel right. Taken aback, I asked my sister to check it out. She gasped.

It was a dollar-coin-size bald spot on the back of my head. I, of course, freaked out, cried and called my dad in California, who had a suspicion it was alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease in which your body attacks your hair follicles. It’s believed to be triggered by stress, which is nothing new to someone who lives with anxiety.

At the time, I was living in New York and working in media, although I had lost interest in both the industry and the city. (I grew up in Hawaii, and each winter became tougher to push through.) I felt uneasy and anxious regarding my friendships, living situation and love life. I put myself under extreme pressure to land a dream job — which I ultimately didn’t get — on the West Coast, having gotten far enough in the interview process to fly out to California to meet in person.

I remember mulling over the interviews for days, as if the job would be my golden ticket out of whatever I was feeling. (I also remember combing my wet hair before the interview and noticing how a bunch strands were caught in the teeth of the comb. I shrugged it off because balding wasn’t on my radar.)

I suppose we could say I was pretty stressed, because that one spot quickly multiplied into 13 scattered around my head. The days that followed can only be described as an emotional roller coaster. I spent most of my 24th birthday crying. 

Wong's first bald spot, found in February 2018, was a shock to her.
Wong's first bald spot, found in February 2018, was a shock to her.

My daily routine became doctor visits, tediously applying creams and foams to each spot nightly and every morning, constantly checking my scalp for baby bald spots and making sure my hair never shifted enough to reveal a spot to someone else. I tried acupuncture, different kinds of oils, supplements and spices. I feared the wind, my pillowcase in the morning, dating and washing my hair. I grew jealous of my friends who didn’t have to deal with it and could tie their hair up without worry. It was draining and time-consuming. As the spots grew, so did my anxiety. “Why me?” I constantly asked.

As this all happened, I heard back from a job in Hawaii I had given up on. Turns out, I got it, and I was asked to start in a few weeks. I contemplated whether taking it was a good idea. I was becoming dependent on my family for support to make it through each day, which led me to think that going to California and taking time off from life until I felt ready to get back on track was the best decision. The easy choice was to live with my dad. “There will be other opportunities to move to Hawaii,” I thought. “Right?”

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that by passing on the opportunity, I was letting alopecia hold me back from chasing my dreams. After stressing over it for days, I came to the conclusion maybe there is no right decision; there’s just the choice you make at the moment. If it doesn’t work, you change it up. That’s life, with or without something like alopecia.

So I accepted the job and took the risk to move out to Hawaii on my own.

Wong during her 2018 trip to Austin, Texas, where she found the first bald spot.
Wong during her 2018 trip to Austin, Texas, where she found the first bald spot.

As my friends and I gathered around one last pizza on the floor in my Brooklyn apartment, I lamented about how my big move could make my alopecia worse. “What if I’m making the wrong decision? What if I lose all my hair? How will I go to the beach with a wig? That sounds so hot.” One friend turned to me and said, “Try to see alopecia as a good thing. It forces you to stop and choose to not stress the little things.”

Maybe she was onto something. Maybe it was time that I stopped letting certain things take up my energy, lest I lose my hair. My anxiety now had a very real, very tangible consequence. If anything was a bright red stop sign telling me to cut out spiraling thoughts, this was it.

Obviously, her advice was easier said than done. The thing about alopecia — other than the fact that it’s unpredictable — is that it’s a condition that takes a long time to treat and see results. Hair can fall out in a second, but it can take months to see regrowth (and even then, that can fall out).

Shifting my mindset was a slow and sometimes incredibly painful process. When I had regrowth in some spots, I had new spots appear elsewhere. Maybe regrowth somewhere wasn’t very dense. Maybe hair still shed everywhere.

“Stay positive,” my dad would repeat. “Focus on the positive.” At that point, it was all I could do. I started a gratitude journal to remind myself of the tiny glimmers of good even when the entire situation felt bad. I consciously stopped myself when I noticed my mind spiraling.

And when I did spiral about my hair, I turned to Instagram and stumbled across some seriously beautiful bald chicks who looked happy, which was something I couldn’t imagine for myself. Seeing all those confident women defying what society says makes a woman beautiful was uplifting and gave me hope that I could also live a life doing all the things I wanted to do — hair or no hair.

As time went on, dealing with my alopecia got easier. My spirals lessened, and so did my shedding. About seven months later, every single one of my 13 bald spots grew back hair.

Since life is stressful and unpredictable, I don’t know whether I’ll have another episode of alopecia again. But one thing I do know is that if I do, I won’t stop living and chasing after what I want.

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