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