Wednesday 28 December 2016

Alopecia - Journey's End and a New Chapter Begins

December 2016
May 2016

I can always remember my late Father's wise words. 'Give it time,' he would say. 

He would say it very often in his daily practice as a Vet, to anxious owners who wanted to know how long before their sick or injured pet to make a full recovery. He would say it to us kids when we were being impatient and expectant. 

There were occasions when I thought this to be an avoidance tactic when my Dad didn't have the time, energy or motivation to engage (and I'm sure this was the case more often than not). However, it taught us kids a valuable lesson in the virtue of patience, though I'm sure we weren't aware of this at the time, and probably didn't appreciate it.

I remember hearing his very words ringing in my ears last May when I made the decision to embrace my alopecia and shave off my remaining damaged hair. Initially I felt the need to find out the cause and a way to fix it, but I soon came to realise that I may never find out why it happened, and there may not be a way of fixing it - and I was OK with that.

Like my Dad said, I knew I just needed to give it time. 

We tend to assume that the GP will have all the answers - after all, they have a pill for most things, and if there isn't a cure then at the least they can usually offer an explanation.

We humans seem to need to have a reason/diagnosis/treatment or plan of action. It serves the purpose of putting our minds at rest,  it can allow us to apportion blame, or it reassures us that it's not all our own fault, Above all, it gives us hope and empowerment - we feel we are able to do something constructive, and we are given back some semblance of control.

However, often when investigations draw a blank, rather than being relieved that nothing sinister has been uncovered, some people can become frustrated and even disbelieving of the medical profession, and can feel that they have been let down.

What we're not terribly good at is sitting back, doing nothing and accepting something for what it is without knowing the reason why. It is the element of control, or lack of, which can really mess with our emotional well being because being able to exercise autonomy is one of our essential emotional needs.

Along with my Dad's words, I have held on to some other expressions during my journey with alopecia, and they have been my inspiration along the way. 

'Let Nature take its course'; 'Wait patiently for what time brings', and especially the words of the Serenity Prayer;

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;

and the wisdom to know the difference.

I feel that the most important part of my recovery has been emotional rather than physical. I have been extremely fortunate in being able to give myself the gift of time in order to do a lot of introspection and reflection, and to implement changes where needed.

Most importantly, I have been able to focus on ensuring that my emotional needs are met as fully as possible - and I still make this a priority. I see this as not by way of any selfish need, but as an absolute necessity - because if I don't look after myself, then I cannot give my best to those that I care for.

I am convinced that my sound emotional health has been my mainstay throughout my journey and has undoubtedly helped me to accept the loss of my hair and the prospect of it not returning. Of course I feel immensely lucky to find that it has regrown, but I was mentally prepared for this not to be the case - and I was OK with that.

Sadly, I know there are hundreds who live on a daily basis with the anguish, embarrassment and low self-esteem that accompanies alopecia. To those who are suffering in this manner, you may find it useful to consider the following: 

It is not so much WHAT we experience, but HOW we experience it. It's not what we go through that determines our ability to cope, but how we deal with the stress, and how we still manage to meet our needs as best we can, retain hope and feel empowered.

Most people will accept us for who we are with or without hair - those who feel the need to poke fun or are unkind are generally acting out of  ignorance, and these are not the people we need to associate with right now. Much of our criticism comes from within, so it is vitally important that we learn to love ourselves and to ensure that as many of our emotional needs as possible are met on a daily basis.

You might find the following links helpful and

Sunday 25 September 2016

Alopecia - Nearing my Journey's End

May 2016 - immediately after the chop!

August 2016 - with added blonde!

It is now five months since I shaved my head (and 14 months since discovering my first bald patch) and I'm delighted to report that my hair is growing back!The patches are closing up and there is new (dark) hair growth clearly visible in their centres.

I have attributed this recovery to a very simple, yet powerful Five Element acupuncture treatment given to me by my tutor and mentor, Nora Franglen, whom I consider to be the authority on Five Element Acupuncture in the UK. 

The treatment she gave me was to clear a CV/GV block. This protocol is primarily used in Five Element acupuncture, but less so by practitioners trained in the more widely available Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupuncture. 

A CV/GV block can occur as a result of major trauma (recent or historical) or after surgery in child birth, and can leave the patient with chronic, low energy (eg ME, MS), infertility and auto-immune deficiencies. If a CV/GV block is suspected, it is vital that it is cleared as this energy flow is responsible for supporting all the other energy meridians and officials.

In Nora's eyes, my sudden and dramatic hair loss pointed clearly to a major energy block and a CV/GV block clearance was indicated.

The procedure involves clearing blocked energy in the Conception Vessel or Ren Mai (CV) and the Governing Vessel or Du Mai (GV) by needling the following points;
CV1 (located at the centre of the perineum); GV1 (located between the tip of coccyx and the anus); CV 24 (located on the chin in the mentolabial groove); GV28 (located inside the mouth, on the frenulum).

In reality, many acupuncture practitioners avoid clearing this block because of the intimate nature of the needling, but it can be done very discreetly with minimal embarrassment. Whilst it is important that the needling is carried out with intention, any discomfort is short-lived and the benefits far outweigh this.  

I have been reflecting back over my own past to try to think of a root cause to my hair loss. I know I am not alone in having experienced several traumas and losses in my life. Undoubtedly the most traumatic event was the sudden and unexpected home birth of my second child, who arrived two weeks before term, and was delivered before the ambulance arrived with just my husband to help. Sadly my son only survived for two days as he was born with congenital hypo-plastic left heart ie the left side of the heart had failed to develop, and so it was a fatal defect. 

This happened 29 years ago - but I didn't allow myself to grieve at the time as I had a 13 month old toddler to look after. I blocked out my grief to enable me to take on the role of supporting my young son, husband, parents and in-laws, who were all naturally absolutely devastated. 

I know now that I was clearly in shock and possibly suffering from PTSD, but certainly felt closed off emotionally for many years subsequently. I spoke very rarely of my loss and hid it from my children and others - in my mind I thought I was protecting them from hurt, but the fact was that I didn't know how to initiate the conversation or to answer potentially difficult questions. As coping mechanisms, I became an expert at avoidance and compartmentalisation, and adopted a frenetic life-style, absorbing myself completely by looking after family, home and work. 
Could it be then that my alopecia was indeed a very delayed response to this and other traumas?

My conclusion is that finding the exact cause doesn't really matter, but I believe that my own regular Five Element acupuncture treatment over the past six years and my understanding of how trauma affects the Five Elements, have helped me to finally reconcile past events, and to let go of unresolved emotional issues, unrealistic expectations, grief and guilt. 

Perhaps losing my hair was symbolic of this process of letting go? Certainly it has felt like quite a journey, and has really made me take a good hard look at myself and our society, and at the importance we place on looks, hair and imperfection. It made me realise that, hair or no hair, I am the same person on the inside and actually it really doesn't matter to me what I look like or what people think of me.
I feel that this experience has allowed the real essence of who I am to emerge. For the first time in my life I feel that the real me has arrived. 

I like the person I have become and feel very privileged to be here with a wonderful family, home and good health. 

Thursday 21 July 2016

Alopecia - My Continuing Journey and the Rise of the Brave Shavers

I have great admiration for all those who are Braving the Shave for Macmillan -, the hugely worthy cause for an organisation which does tremendous work in very difficult situations. 

The decision to shave one's head is not an easy one, for many reasons. One practical reason being that it does get rather nippy around the back of the neck. I slept with a bobble hat on for the first few nights.

I decided to shave my head after 9 months of significant hair loss through alopecia. I had got to the point of considering options - headscarves, hats or even a wig, before I questioned my reasons for hiding my condition. I came to the conclusion that, having made the decision to shave my head, I no longer had a problem with my hair loss. However, I realised instead that I wasn't sure how to deal with the prospect of my acquaintances struggling with knowing how to act and what to say.

This was highlighted when I went into my local greengrocers with my newly shaved pate. Neither of the two young female assistants were able to make eye contact with me and acted as if nothing had changed. My day was saved when their boss took one look at me and said "What's with the hair then?"

This was exactly the prompt I needed - someone grabbing the situation by the horns and saying it straight. I decided at that moment that this would be the best way forward for me. I needed to prepare the ground before I walked on it by having some scripts ready at the tip of my tongue. Communication was definitely the key to managing this transition effectively.

To ensure that my alopecia didn't become the elephant in the room, it was important for me to initiate conversations. And so, just as the Brave Shavers did, I spread the word around my tribe using all the means available to me - email, social media etc - not to attract attention but to forewarn them of my radical new look, and to reassure them of my health.

Being open and honest also worked well for me. A child asked me very directly what had happened to my hair. "It fell out," I replied. Her response? "Oh, OK." My grand daughter declared that she didn't like Nanny's new haircut. I told her that I wanted to have the same haircut as Granddad and she was OK with that!

Embracing my alopecia was an incredibly liberating experience for me. It meant that I could rock a brand new hair cut and funky colour, I bought loads of new earrings and scarves, and re-vamped my make-up and spent an amazing day having a complete make-over and photo shoot at Dream On . I rediscovered colour, sparkle and lipstick! It was as if the real ME had finally emerged and it made me realise how much I had been hiding behind my old mop of hair.

It is now almost 3 months since I braved the shave - and my bald patches are getting smaller! Having turned my back on western medicine's drugs and hair transplants, I just stuck to healthy eating, vitamin B12 supplements and acupuncture. Here's an account of a really significant treatment which I'm sure marked a turning point for me :

My journey is by no means over but it feels like I'm coming down the other side of the mountain now. It would be wonderful if my hair returns in its entirety, but if it doesn't, then I've already initiated Plan B - watch this space!

Friday 29 April 2016

My Journey with Alopecia

We have always been a family with good hair - and youthful hair at that. My Dad kept most of his hair until a ripe old age, and didn't turn grey until well advanced in years. My brothers all still have full heads of hair and I've always had a real mop of strong, healthy, shiny hair which was thankfully and conveniently very low maintenance.

Imagine then, my surprise when my hairdresser rang me immediately after my appointment to tell me that she had noticed a bald patch at the back of my head, which she thoughtfully hadn't want to flag up in front of others in the salon. Surprised, yes - but also relieved. I thought she was going to tell me that I had head lice! Somehow, alopecia didn't seem quite so bad at that point.

The immediate thought in cases of alopecia is that it is a response to stress. Yes of course I've had stress in my life (having four children under 5 years old was one of them) - haven't we all? - but I would say that these days I'm probably the most chilled that I've ever been. Blood screens for thyroid problems, diabetes or other auto-immune conditions all came back clear.

Alopecia is one of those mystery auto-immune conditions where there's no specific cause and no effective treatment. Alopecia areata (which is what I have) is the non-scarring variety so at least there is the potential for the hair to regrow in time.

So over the past nine months, I have gradually but significantly been losing hair from the back of my scalp. What started as a patch about the size of a £2 coin, and very well hidden somewhere in my mop - has now affected almost three quarters of the back of my head. I still had a wispy covering in the worst places but it was becoming very drafty indeed!

The remaining hair was not unaffected though. In more and more places the ends of the hair were becoming slightly crinkled, as though it had been heat-damaged. And more and more hair was falling out each time I brushed.

So today I took the plunge and had it all shaved off - short back and sides if ever there was one! Yes, it feels a bit chilly at the moment but I've still got some on top, AND I still have slightly more hair than my husband has!

This may seem rather extreme, but embracing the next stage in this way is exciting and actually rather liberating. I was more than ready to ditch the old mop and now I'm looking forward to experimenting with headscarves, new earrings and even a head tattoo!

I have pre-warned my family and close associates so as to lessen their shock, and will cover my head at times if I feel some, particularly vulnerable people and patients, may feel unsure of how to react. But ultimately, I don't want to hide my alopecia - after all, it's not contagious or life-threatening, it's just different.

At the end of the day, it's only hair (or rather, lack of) - the person underneath it all (me) is still the same.

Monday 7 March 2016

Grief in Everyday Life

When we suffer the loss of a loved one, then we must allow ourselves time to grieve. Grief is a process of healing, and it is necessary to experience each stage of this process before reaching the final stage - acceptance, learning to live with the loss which has occurred.

The stages of grief we experience start with shock and denial; we feel anger and want to blame - ourselves, someone or something; we may feel guilty or sink into depression and withdraw from life; we may start bargaining - asking the 'what if's' and the 'if only's', until gradually we learn to carry our burden and accept the loss, enabling us to reach out to others and get involved in life once more.

The stages of grief don't follow any particular timeline. Some people experience all the stages, some seem to skip a stage; many bounce back and forth between stages and some get completely stuck. There is no expected duration - there is no right or wrong. Some people are denied the time to grieve or don't allow themselves to do so, often by keeping themselves frenetically busy. This is a coping mechanism and /or an avoidance technique which allows them to function in the short term, but it cannot be sustained.

The grieving process also comes into play at other key moments in our lives - often when things are done to us or taken from us ie things happen which are not of our choosing. Things such as being sacked from a job or being made redundant; retirement; divorce; children starting school, leaving home, going off to uni or getting married.

When it comes to our health, there are also instances when it would be appropriate to go through a grieving process, although it may not be obvious at first glance that this is indeed what we're experiencing.

Some women can struggle emotionally on reaching menopause. Fluctuating hormone levels play a big part in this, but with it also comes the realisation that her child-bearing days are over - the door has closed on that part of her life and she will never get it back again.

Being diagnosed with a life-changing medical condition  can also bring about an emotional struggle, brought about by the realisation that it is no longer possible to live by the same lifestyle as before the diagnosis. This diagnosis can bring with it intensive medication and treatment regimes, dietary changes, limitations in mobility and life expectancy. Once again, the door has closed on the 'normal' pre-diagnosis life and it will never be the same again.

At times like these it is therefore appropriate - and indeed necessary - to grieve the loss of the previous 'normal' life. Although the body will never fully heal, it is possible to heal the mind and the spirit by allowing ourselves to grieve - to give ourselves time and permission to experience fully all the stages and emotions, so that we can reach the stage of acceptance of our 'new normal' and begin to live our lives again.

Five Element Acupuncture is a very useful therapy in supporting patients who have received a life-changing diagnosis. The treatment room provides a safe space where the patient can talk about how they are feeling, a place where they can be heard and given permission to off-load without fear of being judged. It is particularly useful at times when talking is just to painful - we just let the needles do their work.

Monday 18 January 2016

Short Crust or Flaky?

Is it my imagination or have we as a society become rather flaky these days?

This has happened to me several times in recent weeks - people making an arrangement and then backing out at the last minute or simply just not turning up.

Of course this can be excused in times of crisis or illness, but very often people are flaky because a better option has come along, or they simply just can't be bothered.

Not only is this disappointing for the person who has been let down, but it shows a complete lack of respect by the perpetrator. Making a commitment with someone shows a sign of respect to that person - it tells them that they are important and worthy of our attention.

When we break that commitment, it tells the person that they are no longer as important as they were when the arrangement was made because something/someone else has come along that is more important and more demanding of our attention.

Not only are we showing a lack of respect to others when we renege on arrangements, we are also showing a lack of self-respect. The moment we feel pressured into changing our prior arrangement means that we are putting the needs of others before our own. Of course there will always be exceptional circumstances, but generally we are entitled to give our own needs and wishes priority and request that others wait their turn.

Very often we get sent a text message to remind us of a forthcoming appointment. This may well improve the attendance rates but it is actually relieving us of our responsibility to honour our original commitment.

And if we find ourselves breaking a commitment for legitimate reasons, then there really is no excuse for failing to letting people know. Left to their own devices, the person who has been let down may jump to the wrong conclusion and wonder what they have done to upset the other person; either that or they'll fear the worst.

It is worth noting that children, elderly and vulnerable people do not handle a lack of commitment well. By their very nature they are indeed vulnerable and they rely on trust - breaking a commitment will disappoint hugely and will erode trust.

Let's leave flakiness to pastry and endeavour to make our commitments short crust and solid.