Recently I went bald. Not necessarily unusual given my age and sex but, generally, when a man loses his hair, he sees it coming. Or going, as it were. Unsettling but at least time to prepare for the inevitable—to grieve, make arrangements, say goodbye.
Mine disappeared overnight.
Okay, it might have been months—but I didn’t actually see it happening. Sure there’s been some natural thinning since the lustrous 90s but one morning I woke up to what could pass for a crop circle on the right side of my head; or as if tiny loggers had clear-cut a section of old growth while I slept.
Reaction to seeing sections of my own pallid scalp for the first time was similar to how the theatre audience responded in 1980 when, as a hair-feathered 10-year-old, I first glimpsed the back of Darth Vader’s disfigured dome in The Empire Strikes Back.
“It’s because I went vegan,” I told my partner, Suzy, an experienced plant-eater with extravagantly luminous hair.
“Why do you think that?” she asked.
“Because I Googled it,” I replied. “IT’S A THING.”
Determined to bridge any nutritional gaps in my diet, I hit up the local health food store and bought protein powder, nutritional yeast, vitamin B12, vitamin D, silica, collagen, L-lysine, and branched-chain amino acids.
I also reintroduced chicken twice a week—yet a month later I was still shedding like a golden retriever.
Then my beard began moulting. I shaved the rest because it’s tough to look professional with half a beard.
“Maybe it’s because I quit drinking,” I said to Suzy.
“Yeah, that is definitely not a thing,” she replied.
I called my mom. “Go see a doctor,” she said.
I booked an appointment.
In the meantime, my son’s mom, Tina, kindly offered to shear my head. “It’ll look better,” she promised.
I had qualms but, since daily efforts at concealing my rapidly expanding bald patch with bespoke comb-overs weren’t going so well, I grabbed my clipper from the bathroom, sat down on a kitchen stool, and took a deep breath.
“It’s just hair,” Tina said, angling the trimmer to remove a swath of it.
Just hair, yes, but the relationship’s got roots—though demonstrably not as deep as I thought.
CUT TO: Things being much worse.
Turns out my pre-buzzed hair—still voluminous in sections—had been concealing a network of crop circles—on the back, sides and top of my head.
Reviews of the new look were mixed: My 10-year-old son London cackled: “Oh my god you are so bald!”; my 16-month-old daughter Dylan sternly shook her head, retreated several steps, and burst into tears.
“You still have a nice face,” said Suzy.
After following up with the Internet, I self-diagnosed alopecia areata, a systemic autoimmune disorder characterized by spot baldness on the head and beard, though it can affect the entire head (areata totalis), body (areata universalis), and can even disfigure (scarring arealis).
Basically, the body attacks its own anagen hair follicles and suppresses or stops hair growth—in some cases, permanently—though no one seems to know why.
I presented said findings to my doctor, who agreed with the assessment, requisitioned blood work and referred me to a dermatologist with an 18-month waitlist.
Plenty of time then to revisit the type-in clinic, which informed me that, while alopecia areata isn’t contagious, it afflicts millions of otherwise healthy people around the world, regardless of race, gender or age; it sometimes occurs within family members, suggesting a role of genes; and that it’s occasionally associated with other autoimmune conditions such as thyroid disease, vitiligo, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis.
Also, there’s no cure, but treatment options are available—which is what I wanted to talk to a dermatologist about—preferably sooner than 2020.
After pestering my doctor’s receptionist for alternatives, I lucked out and got in to see a specialist only four short months after Day Zero, or what amateur historians in my family are now calling BHD (Bad Hair Day).
My appointment lasted six minutes, just enough time for the doctor to second the official alopecia diagnosis and tell me that it can be treated by localized steroid injections—a course he didn’t recommend since most people with the condition get full spontaneous regrowth within a year, and he could already see hair starting to grow back in the affected areas.
Not for nothing, I told him that my dad almost died in the 1990s from an autoimmune disorder when he was 55 years old, though I couldn’t remember what it was called.
“Well,” he said, “this isn’t going to kill you.”
Turns out the most-serious potential health hazard of the condition (besides subtle shade thrown by doctors) is psychological trauma associated with sudden hair loss—anxiety and depression do occur.
So far, though, I’ve managed to keep my head held high—albeit somewhat concealed—under a new collection of hats.
There’s been a learning curve. For example, you can’t wear a toque and sunglasses in the summer without looking like you’re trying to do a live reenactment of a police sketch; a middle-aged man should only wear a baseball cap in the traditional brim-forward position—never backwards or sideways; a latex swim cap is like a Speedo for the head—acceptable in the lap pool but disconcerting on the giant water slide.
Hey, it’s a slippery slope but for now I’m keeping a lid on it. And I take solace in Shakespeare’s observation that “There’s many a man with more hair than wit.”
Besides, my shorn head has already grown on my daughter, who now enjoys rubbing it.
For good luck, I hope.
An edited version of this essay originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.