Friday, June 22, 2007

Hair loss shocker

I know that having hair is not a given, but I'd always had plenty of it. Too much, even, so that I'd have to stand under a blow-dryer way longer than I had patience for to get all that hair dry. So no one was as shocked as I was to discover a few years ago that my hair was falling out. By the handful. By the brush full. My hairline was inexpicably receding. The drain was clogged with hair each time I showered. It got to the point where my heart started to pound before I stepped in the tub, and immediately afterward, I'd rub a circle in the steam on the mirror to examine what, if anything, had stayed attached to my head.

It was an isolated symptom--almost. I also had drier and drier skin in general, and my scalp had started to itch and flake. I couldn't exactly see what was going on, but my stylist let me know it was more serious than I thought. After cutting my hair, Joe gave me a stern lecture about scalp conditioners, and sold me an expensive bottle of shampoo and a $15 brush so I could "itch" my scalp when I detangled. I tried his shampoo, but the hair kept falling out. Two months later, I went back, still hoping for a magic cure.

"So, what's going on with your scalp?" Joe asked without preamble as I lowered down before him in his chair. He hadn't even touched my hair. He sighed heavily and I watched in the mirror as he now lifted fistfuls of it, peeking underneath with a disapproving frown.

"I'm using that shampoo," I said weakly.

He didn't reply: He left. I sat in the chair for ten minutes while Joe wandered around washing brushes, putting in a new CD, folding manicure towels. Finally, he returned to me with another sigh, pushing the foot pedal to raise my chair like he could hardly stand it.

"You know what?" I volunteered. "I think I'll grow out my hair, actually. Let's not do anything today."

"O.K.," he said brightly. "Let me think." He walked around the chair to face me and frowned at my plain, free of make-up visage. "I could wax your eyebrows. Do you mind?"

I shook my head mutely. And he set to work.

Thirty minutes later I had artfully defined eyebrows and a light application of lipstick. My stylist unsnapped my cape with a flourish and hurried to his checkout desk. I pulled on my sweater and stood obediently at the counter, thinking: $25? or God forbid-$30? What should I tip?

"That'll be $70," he said.

Dumbfounded, I wrote out the amount, neglected the tip, and left for good. I'd gotten nowhere with my horrifying hair loss and my checkbook had just undergone a terrible thrashing, like a feeding frenzy of beluga whales.

The next morning, after I'd cleaned another mat of precious hair off the shower drain, I got desperate and called my general practitioner for a referral to a scalp specialist.

"Oh, your GP can take care of that," the RN said cheerfully.

And she did. I had psoriasis. There was a prescription shampoo and a scalp oil treatment that restored my dry scalp and kept the hair on my head.

The whole experience gave me a new appreciation for the suffering that accompanies hair loss. Temporarily, I'd joined the ranks of people who have lifetime scalp issues, or who lose their hair in chemo, or who genetically go bald. And I'm here to report it's more than humiliating. Hair is a part of our identities, so when we lose it, we lose part of ourselves. Samson lost his hair and his power. In the end, I didn't lose all that much hair, but I did lose my stylist.

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