I’m doing homework at the dining table. Mum is standing behind me with a brush. She pushes my hair aside and analyses my scalp. She moves a strand forward. It drapes over my face.
I feel her hands tense against my head.
‘Oh, God,’ she says. ‘I found another one.’
I’m calm as she tells me this.
‘It’s fine,’ I say.
By another one, she means a patch – a missing spot of hair. A small area of my scalp where the skin is exposed.
Ever since I developed the autoimmune disorder, Alopecia Areata, this exact situation, with Mum hovering over me and flicking through my hair like a flea-hungry monkey, has been repeated time and time again.
Whenever she sees even a single strand fall out, a part of her dies inside. This isn’t because she’s superficial or precious about the way I look – it’s because of the other symptoms associated with the condition. Alopecia weakens the immune system. This means I am sick a lot more often than what would be considered ‘normal’. It’s a vicious cycle: I catch a cold, my body undergoes stress, and sometimes, this causes a shiny, fresh patch appear on my head. The more patches, the weaker the immune system. The weaker the immune system, the more patches.
It’s a wonder that this issue isn’t widely-known – it’s the most common autoimmune disease that exists. It’s estimated that 5% of people will experience it some degree of it. This varies, from losing eyelashes, eyebrows to hair thinning out in general. I guess people just wouldn’t be aware of it even when it’s happening to them. Some spots of missing hair can be invisible.
Just after I started primary school, at five years old, the condition reared its ugly head. Or, I guess, my ugly head – I was totally bald for almost a year before it grew back. Baldness aside, alopecia wrecked me, physically and mentally. I was always exhausted. I fell asleep everywhere and anywhere and couldn’t get myself out of bed in the morning. Along with that, I had intense muscle and joint pains that never went away.
Despite these debilitating symptoms, I have few bad memories of this stage of my life. In fact, I remember one day ripping off the beanie that was concealing my bald head and announcing to my prep-aged classmates that I have no hair!
And even now, when I wake up to find the sporadic patch of hair missing, I remain calm.
Mum worries about it for me so I don’t have to. It’s like my anxieties are sucked out of my body and dumped onto her. I walk away stress-free. It’s bizarre.
In a way, I feel like Alopecia has given my mum and I a different relationship to that which she has with my siblings. We have spent more time together than the two of them combined: Mum decided to home tutor me as soon as she realised how the condition was affecting me physically. She decided to continue with this until I ‘got better’.
I ended up being homeschooled until I started high school, despite my hair growing back within the year. During this time, she dedicated seven years of her life to me and me alone: she quit her job, bought a whole bunch of textbooks and got cracking. I can’t imagine caring about anyone that much.
The dread Mum feels on a daily basis is tangible – my hair is notorious for being unpredictable. Hair loss is always imminent. Everything can be stable for months on end and then, within a matter of weeks, I may have three or four coin-sized patches. They take anywhere between two to six months to fill in and are sometimes in obvious parts of my head, such as where I part my hair or on my hairline. They’re a bitch to cover up.
I can usually always pinpoint the ailment that causes a patch to pop up. It could be a cold I had a few weeks before or an event that caused anxiety (anxiety that not even Mum has the power to absorb). I can guess approximate time frames if I look down at my nails. There are horizontal grooves that denote when my body went through trauma or tension, when the nails themselves weakened. It’s all linked with this condition, hair and nails and skin.
It may seem strange to many that my mum is so obsessed with my hair. She doesn’t keep clumps of it in jars or rub it against her face or anything like that, I promise. She’s just protective.
‘Don’t be so rough with it!’ she’ll say when I take out a hair tie.
Or, ‘Is it a funny kind of itch?’ whenever I scratch my head.
This worry of hers has extended from just my hair to most aspects of my life. From uni to work, Mum is constantly checking up on me. If she knows I’m going out, she’ll ask for updates throughout the night so she knows I’m safe.
A lot of people would hate their parents being this involved in their adult lives, and I used to be one of them. I used to ignore Mum’s calls and dismiss her stress. But now, I’ve learned that that’s just how our relationship has turned out.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.