NAKED

Beth Finlay on her seven year battle with alopecia and why life's too short to worry about hair...

I have been suffering from Alopecia Areata for about seven years now.  I first noticed a small bald spot at the bottom of my hairline by my neck when I was seventeen years old and just about to finish high school.  It was about the size of a £2 coin and at the time it didn’t bother me too much, as you could barely notice it and I wasn’t really sure why it was there.  When I left school, I went to work seasons in Canada and while I was there, a few more small patches appeared at the back of my head.  Again, I wasn't too worried. My hair has always been so thick, it was unnoticeable to the naked eye and I was having too much fun abroad to even think about it.  But then the patches in my hair began to get considerably worse.  There was a patch at the back of my scalp which was about the size of my palm and seemed to be growing rapidly.  Thankfully, my hair was still so thick at this point and the only people who knew what was going on were my close friends and family.  I was becoming more and more concerned about it, but it was still never the first thing on my mind.  After a while, chunks of hair began coming out in the shower and there were two considerably large bald patches on either side of my scalp, which by the end of the summer had joined together to create one huge patch that started on the left side of my head and went all the way round to most of the right side.  By the time I had come home, my lack of hair had grown increasingly harder to hide.  My hair no longer held its luscious thickness, instead it was limp, thin and I couldn't wear my hear down without the patches showing through.  My confidence was in pieces. During high school I was always shy and had struggled with confidence, but my time working in Canada helped this and gave me confidence to do things I would have never done before.  However, my alopecia was slowly but surely bringing me back down.  I was so ashamed of it and terrified that someone would notice. 

After a while, I began to notice some small patches growing back on the left side of my head, and I was over the moon.  My hair began to grow back so quickly and although I now had awkward tufts of hair coming through, it was at least my hair and I was finally able to concentrate on what I wanted to do with my life without worrying about it.  I applied for University and was accepted to Glasgow Caledonian to Study Fashion Branding at the beginning of September 2014.  My hair had almost all grown back with only a few small patches left, when I noticed a new patch that had formed on the crown of my head. It was, again, about the size of a £2 coin. I decided to ignore it this time, hoping it wouldn't grow much bigger, but of course this was not the case.  Within a matter of months, the patch had grown to the size of my hand and covered almost my full crown, and the parts of my hair that had previously grown back fell out again.  I was devastated, my confidence was gone and I could not have been more embarrassed.  I looked like a monk and it was seriously difficult to hide.  At this time, I found a product online which was a dark brown powder made for people with thinning hair to cover hairless patches and I was able to use this to cover my baldness temporarily. However, this meant constantly being covered with the stuff.  My pillows were forever a mess and it was always a risk even touching my hair as my hands would end up being covered in the dark brown powder. I felt so ugly.  Anyone who knew about it would always tell me I was still beautiful, but I couldn't hear them.  In my head, I was hideous.  

It is so hard to even describe the psychological struggle that alopecia has on a person. It is so distressing, because there is no specific reason for it happening and there's nothing you can do to make it better.  I had been to the doctor several times and no one had any answers so I was referred to a dermatologist where, again, I was told there was nothing they could do.  I had gotten to the point that I couldn't even speak about it to anyone, because I would just start crying.  The dermatologist asked me if I had ever considered wearing wigs, as I would be able to receive two free from the NHS.  At first, the thought of wearing a wig sounded horrific to me and so I didn't even make an appointment to get one.  Then I took a step back and looked at the situation differently.  Why was I letting this disease take over my life? And if there was a way I could try and make myself feel good again, then why not give it a try? I made an appointment and went to get my wigs.  The lady who met with me made me realise that even though this was a horrible situation to be in, I had been so lucky that I have pretty much always been able to hide it.  There are so many people who suffer from alopecia and lose all of the hair on their head, or in places that cannot be hidden.  She told me that she had actually suffered from alopecia herself, but hers was brought on from being domestically abused.  This left me completely stunned.  How ridiculous I had been, feeling sorry for myself when there were so many people out there who would feel lucky to be in my situation.  My mindset began to change, but even though I was gaining more confidence, I was still nervous of people knowing I was wearing a wig or that I had alopecia.  I still had quite a bit of hair left, but my hair was so thick that it became very uncomfortable to wear the wigs.  After all that, my hair suddenly decided it would grow back - I must have mentally threatened my hair follicles enough that they decided they would help me out!  I was so happy and I could wear my hair down - it was tufty and did not have any exciting style to it - but I had hair and that was all that mattered.  

I was then blessed with my hair growing for several months, and I thought this was the end. I would finally be free of bald patches in my hair - I would finally be normal again...  Until the summer 2015 when suddenly my hair started coming out again.  This time it was more drastic than before.  I was in Madrid at the time attending a fashion summer school at a university in the city.  It was about half way through my time there when it started, and I was hysterical inside.  Every time I washed my hair, there would be handfuls of it coming out in my hands. And everyday, the patch grew bigger and there was nothing I could do.  I tried not to think about it and just enjoy myself but each time I saw the masses of hair in my hand, I felt so helpless and distressed.  I can’t fully describe the way I felt at that time. I had been so sure my hair would all grow back and then within a matter of days, it was worse than it had ever been before.  When I arrived home, my hair continued to come out and it got to the point that I could only hide it by tying my hair in a braid at the back, and even then it was not completely hidden. A patch at the front of my hairline had also started to form and by then it was pretty much impossible to hide.  

I was then told about a hair salon called Lucinda Ellery, who specialise in fitted wigs for women suffering from alopecia and women going through chemotherapy.  They were able to use the hair that I had left to create a mesh that fitted my head where they then attached extensions.  The technicians at Lucinda Ellery were magnificent, and they gave me a head of hair that looked exactly how mine did before it started falling out.  I suddenly had this whole new confidence and I actually felt like myself again. It's hard to comprehend, but losing your hair feels like your identity falling out in your hands. It makes you feel like a stranger to yourself.

Since the summer of 2016, the hair on the top of my head had done so well to stay put, but it had now begun to fall out too, and the hair piece that was previously attached now had nothing to hold on to. So I had to go back to Lucinda Ellery and have a full wig fitted.  The wig that they made for me is stunning and my hair has never looked better. It took some time to get used to, but after a while it just felt like my own hair.  My eyebrows had also started to fall out, and by Christmas 2016 they were completely gone and so had the eyelashes on my left side.  I was struggling again with feeling good about the way I looked because I would wake up in the morning and barely recognise myself in the mirror.  I made the decision to get my eyebrows micro-bladed, as it was getting more and more tiresome drawing them on every morning, and it wasn't difficult for them to smudge and reveal that there was no hair underneath, blowing my cover and showing my ever-growing baldness.  At my work’s Christmas night out, I was dancing with my best friend Izzy, and after a lot of drunken hilarity we bumped into each other and one of my eyebrows imprinted perfectly on her forehead. You can’t help but laugh, really!  Instead of being ashamed, I just held my head high and continued enjoying my evening, as if nothing had happened.  I have realised that, actually, it’s unnecessary to get upset over the little things because most of the time people don't even notice.

I have just returned home from 6 months studying abroad in the Netherlands and it has now come to the point where most of my hair has gone, so I've decided to take the plunge and just shave it off all together.  Whether or not I will be ready to stroll around bald yet is another matter, but I’m at least willing to try.  Despite the fact I have lost all of my hair, I have actually never felt more confident and happy in myself.  I have taught myself never to get stressed or anxious about anything, and I have a whole new mindset and outlook on life.  I want to be there for people who struggle with confidence, as I feel I now have a strong understanding of how to overcome it. I want people to see that there is much more to life than how other people perceive you. I have the most amazing support from my parents, my sisters and my friends and could not have gone through this without them there by my side.

My journey through alopecia has felt like a lifetime and it has been a real struggle.  Now might have been the time for me to curse this disease, but I am taking a different stance:  alopecia, I just want to say thank you for everything you have put me through.  I would not be as strong or as confident as I now feel without your help.  You have made me realise what is important in life and what is not. And you certainly are not.  You have stripped me naked, but my life would have been naked without you. 

FOLLOW BETH'S JOURNEY ON INSTAGRAM @BETH.FINLAY

PUT ON A HAPPY FACE

In times of need, we all have our vice. Mine? Its musicals.


"Oh, help!"

"Oh, help!"

I was in a right old funk last Sunday. I was getting no further in my gruelling quest to become ‘a grown up’ and the self-doubt had just piled up until I found myself miserably traipsing down to Waitrose for a comforting bottle of Gavi. (I’m trying to be an adult, Blossom Hill is no longer on the cards.) With the house to myself and a glass of vino collapso in hand, I flung on the telly and typed in ‘The - Sound - of - Music’, turning to the only therapy I know: musicals. After all, no one had a harder time growing up and finding themselves than Fräulein Maria.

There is little in this world as far from reality as the common musical - perhaps that is why they are where I seek refuge. In musicals, everything is so wonderfully twee. Each moment is carefully composed and choreographed, and one song has the power to ameliorate all misfortune. Musicals are a dreamlike place, an augmented reality in which even the most horrendous circumstance can be solved with excessive buoyancy and a supporting cast. I mean, never in real life would a woman lose the love of her life to her best friend, and after a brief tantrum think, ‘To hell with it! I’ll just marry Wild Bill Hickok instead!’ Yet, in musical-land, Calamity Jane did just that, and she even shared her wedding with said best friend and ex-love-of-life, the blissfully ignorant four disappearing into the sunset while the orchestra plays a reprise of ‘Secret Love’. Had it been real life, I reckon old Calam’ would’ve taken to Instagram a la Rob Kardashian, to expose the good-for-nothin’ coyotes, before she disappeared into the sunset ALONE, because she’s a feminist and she won’t settle for second best. (Although I must say I’d take Wild Bill over Danny any day.)

I’ll admit, a lot of musicals are complete nonsense. And yet, I swear by them. The first man I ever fell in love with was Danny Zuko. I was five, and he was a fictional character with an Australian girlfriend - but it was real. My mother tells a hilarious account of the day I took my own Grandpa by the collar, cocked one hip and shouted, “Tell me about it, stud!” Oh, the naivety! This would be the first in a long line of scenarios where I have confused musical theatre with reality, its just that back then it was cute. Now, though desperately trying to prove myself as an adult, I still find it hard not to allude to a musical number in times of woe. Boyfriend pissed you off? Perform ‘The Cell Block Tango’. Can’t pay your rent? Sit on the window sill and lament ‘Tomorrow’. After all, what did Fantine do once she’d sold herself to a horny sailor and had her teeth wrenched from her skull? That’s right, she sang about it.

In fact, I reckon I could fully blame musicals for my evident inability to grow up. Having learned all life lessons thus far from the warbling protagonists of the silver screen, now, the days in which I should really be diligently applying for proper jobs and paying off my student loan are largely spent performing renditions of ‘Good Morning, Baltimore!’ in the mirror. Turns out, knowing all the words to ‘Why Can’t the English’ - no matter how erudite you sound - will not gain you a career. And yet, I can’t bear to give them up - musicals have kept me sane (or insane, depends how you look at it). As I grow older, the veneer of a perfect world is becoming as thin as Velma Kelly’s laddered stocking, and real life is not as innocent and full of promise as it once seemed. But musicals, no matter how fictitious, reassure me that I’m not the only one who deals with hardship through optimism, hope and impromptu sing-song. 

When I didn’t fit in at high school, I was Elphaba, full of wonder and magic - my peers just couldn’t see it yet; as an au pair, I became Mary Poppins, and all tasks were approached gleefully with a cheery disposition and a spoonful of sugar; when I worked in a seedy London bar, I performed after hours as the murderous jazz babe Roxie Hart; and when we found out we had rats in the garden, I didn't care. I simply became Tracy Turnblad and started belting out, "the rats on the street, all dance around my feet, they seem to say, 'Titi, it's up to you!'" At present, as I navigate my twenties, I’m the callow Maria Von Trapp, leaving the shelter of the convent (youth) to face the unknown (adulthood). If I don’t have confidence in myself, the least I can do is have confidence in sunshine, rain and the fact that spring will come again. You see, I’ve always, at some point or another, been able to relate to the heroines of musicals. They are to me what Desert Island Discs is to Dolly Alderton: they make me feel less alone. They are my role models, and in my darkest moments, though they may seem a world away, the messages of encouragement hidden in their songs are the only thing that fills me with the fervent belief that things will be ok. 

Something tells me that in order be an adult, I must give up the musicals. I mean, do you know any other adults who’ve been politely asked to leave Earl’s Court tube station after a frantic performance of ‘Its a Hard Knock Life’, in which they whipped a man’s scarf from his neck to use as a ‘cleaning cloth’? No..um..nor do I…. Its just that if I lose musicals, I’ll lose part of myself - and its the one part of me that I will protect as fiercely as Holden Caulfield wished to protect the children in the rye. Musicals are the epitome of my youth, my naivety and my positive outlook - and I’m determined not to let life ‘kill the dream I dreamed’, like it did Fantine. So I’ll end this piece with a fitting lyric from ‘Bye, Bye, Birdie’:

"I knew a girl so gloomy, she’d never laugh or sing. She didn’t listen to me, now she’s a mean old thing! So spread sunshine all over the place, and put on a happy face!"

 

MY ABSOLUTE FAVOURITES....

THE LIFE OF 'BRIETY

Why I stopped reaching for the bottle...

Me "managing" the bar pre-sobriety.

Me "managing" the bar pre-sobriety.

It wasn't until I'd experienced over 4 weeks of violent diarr - loose stools(!), that I decided to visit the doctor. My anxiety issues kept me awake at night as I dreamt up all manner of ridiculous reasons for said bowel movements, including the age-old "it must be cancer!" or my personal favourite - an outbreak of Cholera. Contrary to my diagnosis via Web MD, neither of these illnesses were the cause. It was, in fact, Sugar.

I was so taken aback when I was told my blood sugar was so high I was potentially pre-diabetic, that I began to weep. I don't eat sugar in vast quantities whatsoever - I live on hard-boiled eggs and spinach, and I pride myself on my clean diet. So where was the sugar coming from?

It didn't take long to click - I manage a busy Tequila bar in West London, and those on the London bar scene will know that we are all undiagnosed alcoholics. Its true, and its just part of bar culture. Would you want to work in a loud, dark environment being bombarded by fat Englishmen slurring their words, and have nothing to drink yourself? Nope. By all means, some are worse than others. I've known some bartenders to get through a whole bottle of Tequila in one night, and end up half-naked, being forcibly removed from the building while telling customers to Fuck Off (mentioning no names Edi...!)

So you get the jist. Much like the rest of London, the bar trade is corrupt. And working in this environment, its easy to be under the influence ALL THE TIME without even realising. But I'm not an alcoholic, I told myself. I don't crave alcohol, I don't shake or feel ill when I haven't had it. I don't feel any different. But it turned out I sort of was. I was dependent.

I quit and went cold turkey the day after I received the dreaded news, and the week that followed was one of the darkest, most depressing epiphanies I've ever had. I cried uncontrollably every day, I became ill, and my skin broke out into a vile rash of death. I had zero energy and the worst attitude - but I realised that these side-effects were nothing more than amplified versions of the ones I was experiencing in the weeks leading up to the doctor's appointment...

Alcohol, when drunk in vast quantities, can cause depression, irritability, clumsiness and a foggy mind - and that's exactly how I was feeling (I thought it was bad PMT). I was knocking things over, moping about, and occasionally - although not in front of people - I would have mad fits of rage over trivial issues. I was so angry with myself, I had no direction or motivation - and the worst part was that I hadn't performed any musicals in the mirror for months (i.e. DEAD INSIDE). What's scary is that it took a nasty bout of the shits for me to accidentally find out why.

It is crucial that I share this article, because (and I am talking to you especially, Londoners) it is so easy to have one drink a day and think you'll be ok. But the reality is that not only is alcohol fucking poisonous and full of sugar, but its probably holding you back from ambitions and dreams you never even knew you had. I'm real life proof that sobriety is the way forward: I'm finally working towards my goals, I'm achieving new things every day, I feel uplifted and constantly hyper, my relationships have improved, and last - but most certainly not least - I lost 4kg in 4 weeks and my bod' is now slammin'.

If that's not a reason to quit drinking then I don't know what is.