I dreamed I was Medusa. My hair fell out in clumps only to be replaced with tiny buds of serpents and, as the snakes grew in length, their cool, dry scales skimmed my scalp. Each thin body in hues of bright blue and green were identical. Their red tongues flicked in and out of their mouths as they searched me, smelled me. When I woke, tangled in the sheets, the darkness offered little balm to the fear of the dreamscape. Instead of being grounded in the reality of my familiar room with my husband asleep in bed beside me, I still felt the slithering reptilian bodies. I reached up with tentative hands to touch the crown of my head in an effort to dispel the phantom dream sensation. There I felt my hair and the bald spaces where my hair should have been.
It started just weeks before, after an afternoon at the park with the children under a hot August sun. I had a tender spot on my head that itched and burned. I stood in the bathroom of my sister-in-law’s house in Kansas, facing away from the vanity, angling up a hand mirror to examine the source of my pain. There, I found a quarter-sized spot, bright red, smooth and completely devoid of hair. Was I ill? Once I saw the spot, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I kept touching the tender place and worrying something sinister had taken root and was now unfurling inside my body, cell upon cell, churning out something so poisonous that the evidence had become visible. For the rest of our trip, I kept my hair pulled into a high ponytail.
Within two weeks, the original spot tripled in size and new bald spots emerged in a lacy pattern. Hair decorated my pillow in the morning. Chunks of my hair fell out in the shower and long strands wound into balls and clung to my clothing. When I did the laundry and cleaned out the lint trap of the dryer, I found my hair. I avoided brushing my hair, horrified by the number of strands that pulled away with each stroke, populating the metal tines of the hairbrush. Secretly, I began gathering the hair and collecting it in a plastic bag, the mass of it growing improbably larger with each passing day. I bought a gray fashion hat with inoperable metal buckles that I wore everywhere, even inside my house where no one could even see me.
I went to the doctor, who assured me that the hair loss was likely due to the birth of my daughter nine months earlier. Hormones can wreak havoc on your body, she explained and offered me a placating smile. I sat on the examination table covered only in the cotton gown, but my head still ridiculously covered with the gray hat.
“I’ve read about that, but this isn’t my hair thinning,” I said. “My hair is falling out in huge patches.” My eyes stung with tears. It wasn’t simply the fear that my body sheltered a disease, but the feeling that every hair that fell away took a part of me with it.
I was thirty-three years old. As my hair was lost, so too was a layer of protection. I was exposed.
Short or long, curly or straight, the color, texture and styling of hair communicates who you are and where you come from. Native Americans believed memories and knowledge were physically stored in your hair and long hair was a marker of wisdom and experience. In the growth of hair, you can measure the passage of time.
My doctor gestured to the gray hat. I reluctantly removed the covering, feeling the cool and sharp air on my exposed scalp.
My doctor moved around behind me. “This is significant loss,” she said. She lifted the long strands of hair that remained on my head, starting at the top and moving down toward the nape of my neck. I sat in silence as she examined my lymph nodes, felt my abdomen, and listened to my heart and lungs—all the normal things you’d expect during an annual physical exam. She asked if I had any unusual rashes. I said no, but she searched the surface of my skin like a map anyway and then spent a few minutes investigating my fingernails. She looped the stethoscope around her neck and went back to her small computer console at the foot of the examination table and typed in her notes. After a few moments, she pivoted on her chair towards me.
“Are you under any stress?” she asked.
I shrugged. What mother with two children under the age of four, one of them crawling around and putting everything in her mouth, wasn’t stressed?
“I’m going to order some blood work,” she said. “We need to rule out anything serious.” She didn’t need to tell me the names of the potential serious ailments. I’d searched through the myriad possibilities on the Internet, studying the listed symptoms and comparing them against my own body to see if I found a match: thyroid disorders, autoimmune conditions—lupus and lichen planus, arsenic and heavy metal poisoning, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adult muscular dystrophy, vitamin and iron deficiency, diseases of the pituitary gland, sarcoidosis. I studied photographs on medical websites, examining the pattern of hair loss compared to my own. None of this searching brought answers or comfort, but I couldn’t stop doing it.
When the nurse came into the examination room, I felt a strange sense of relief at preparing to have my blood drawn. Normally the smell of the antiseptic, the pressure of the rubber strap tied around my arm, and the sight of the needle and my own blood were enough to make me feel lightheaded and sick to my stomach. Blood is, after all, the bright red marker of a breach to the body, the physical evidence of injury. This time, though, I didn’t look away. I watched and admired the mixture of plasma and cells flowing into the vials. There was power in my blood, a power that I hoped could reveal the secret of what was going wrong inside my body.
The Medusa dream returned to me night after night as I waited for my test results and tried not to count the hairs I found in the morning. I considered how the snakes in the dream could represent change, how serpents shed their skin in the way my hair continued to shed. I knew only the basic facts of the story of how Perseus had slain the monster Medusa and used her head for a shield, so I went back to Ovid, to Metamorphoses Book IV. Medusa was once a beautiful woman with long, shining hair. On this point all the translations agree, but what happens next depends on which version you investigate. Something happens to Medusa in Minerva/Athena’s temple. Consensual sex or rape? It’s a difference of translation, perhaps a difference of perception. To me, it is no small detail. Here, I felt that I’d finally pulled back the layer to the wellspring of my dream, to what my body remembered in a way that my mind couldn’t understand. The Goddess, angered by this sexual encounter, changes Medusa’s beautiful hair into a nest of serpents. Within Medusa’s gaze is the power to turn men to stone. I wondered, was this transformation intended to empower or punish?
My doctor called five days after my appointment and told me that my blood work revealed no disease or significant illness. The only finding had been a slight positive result in the antinuclear antibodies (ANA) test, but that was still within the normal range. She referred me to a dermatologist.
The dermatologist was a pale-complected young man with patches of splotchy and irregularly colored areas on his skin. When we shook hands, I could see the cracks along his knuckles and feel the residue of lotion. We discussed my history, the hair loss, my visit to the internist. I removed my hat so he could examine my scalp. He circled me, holding up a magnifying glass to get a better view. He gently tugged at a chunk of hair, and counted the number of hairs that came away in his grasp.
Had I ever had any spots before? No. Family history of hair loss? Not to my knowledge.
The dermatologist frowned. “Generally, patients with Alopecia Areata have a hereditary link,” he began. “A mother or father, grandmother or grandfather with the same disorder or some other autoimmune condition.”
“Is that what I have, Alopecia Areata?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “You have the exclamation mark hairs on the border of the loss areas, a hallmark of the condition. The round patches are also consistent. I don’t often see patients with anything this extensive though. I would say that roughly thirty-five percent of your hair is gone.”
“Will my hair grow back?” I asked. This was the same question I had silently worried over, day in and day out, as the bald spots kept growing. Stating aloud my hope for restoration made me feel lightheaded. I laced my fingers together and squeezed. “Will more of it fall out?” I couldn’t even look at the dermatologist as I inquired about my worst fear. In the car, before the appointment, I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t cry. Yet, the facts of the loss reverberated in my head: Thirty-five percent of your hair is gone. I knew there could be more loss in my future—the answer was in the dermatologist’s silence and the concentrated, thoughtful expression on his face. My breath took on a staccato rhythm. I wiped away the torrent of tears. I felt like a child, crying in a full body effort that pulled deep from my center.
I closed my eyes and took a series of deep, ocean breaths, the kind I’d practiced in yoga. When I finished blowing my nose, the dermatologist approached the examination table carrying a diagram of a hair follicle.
“Unfortunately, this condition is unpredictable,” he said. “It’s an autoimmune disease where the body attacks the hair at its root.” He pointed to the chart, where the long strand of hair, the medulla, entered the bulb at the bottom. There was an inner and outer root sheath, glands, vessels and stratums, a complex array of words and shading for something so small and taken for granted.
“The inflammatory process disrupts the cycle of hair growth and it falls out,” the dermatologist continued. “Your hair will likely grow back. Will more fall out? Possibly. When this much hair has been lost, it often goes to Alopecia Totalis. So, we’ll need to wait and see how things progress.”
Alopecia derives from the Greek root alōpēx, which means “fox fur,” and is thought to either reference the shedding of the fox’s fur or the mange that made the fur fall out. This distinction in etymology feels more important when the condition is happening to you. If it is simply a shed, then, in the natural cycle, one could expect the hair to return. Mange is disease with damage that could be permanent and irreversible. Areata is about location and severity. Areata is the best-case scenario, the hair loss of round patches as mysterious as a crop circle. These regional losses could progress to totalis, where all the hair on the head is gone. And then? Universalis. All of the hair on the body falls out.
“What causes the autoimmune reaction?” I asked.
“It can be a variety of things really,” the dermatologist said. “A genetic predisposition combined with a virus, hormonal changes, even trauma.”
Trauma. I stared at the picture of the hair follicle as the doctor left the room to write me a prescription for a topical steroid. All my hair falling out: was this a manifestation of a fifteen-year-old trauma stored inside my body? The hair follicle looked like a diagram of a plant, a seed that blossoms out and transfers the stored up energy to a stalk and then a flower. But the root was damaged. Without that starting point nothing could grow. The self was attacking the self. My body was blaming itself: it didn’t matter how many times I said or anyone else said, “It isn’t your fault.” I believed it was.
I’d failed to protect myself all those years ago, failed to see the danger in my ex-boyfriend whose obsession with the demise of our relationship had been visible in the letters and constant phone calls. I thought, over time, he would heal and move on. I believed he was harmless and that eventually he would leave me alone. I believed I was safe until that April morning when he showed up at my front door uninvited. He attacked me, pummeled me with his fists, threw my body into a bookshelf. He raped me in my own bedroom, in what was supposed to be a safe place, my own temple.
I left the house with him that day, his grip so firm on my arm that it left finger-shaped bruises. He held the edge of the knife blade against my side hard enough to cut into my t-shirt and leave small lacerations on my skin. He drove the car for over 240 miles before exiting the highway onto a dark road in the woods. This was where I felt my life was going to end, until I saw the swirling lights of the police car behind us.
In many ways, I am always in that car, perched on the moment before help came, before I was saved.
I was sitting on the dermatologist’s examination table with my mind pulled apart like a Russian nesting doll. Even from this distance in time I could still see the black spot on my bedroom ceiling where I’d focused my gaze in an effort to leave my body, to live, to curl into the safety of my mind. The pressure of his strong hands around my throat, squeezing until my vision turned to blurry dots. Release. Release. I am only one moment removed always, no matter how many days intervene. My body never forgets.
I found message boards, online communities of support for women who suffered from Alopecia Areata. No known cause. Little therapy existed other than efforts to treat symptoms. I followed links to online stores that sold wigs and wondered if I would order one if all of my hair fell out. I rinsed my head in Listerine because I read of a home cure that detailed the benefits of cleansing the surface of the scalp from all toxins that contribute to inflammation. I ordered a bottle of stimulating scalp oil from a company I found online. I massaged the blend of atlas cedarwood, lavandin, rosemary, and thyme linalol into my scalp every night. It smelled like hippies and yoga studios. It smelled like desperation.
The first time I ever dyed my hair was after the trial and conviction. I thought that maybe physically altering myself would give me control, keep me safe. It was only a matter of time before my ex-boyfriend was released from jail. It was a five-year sentence, but with four years probation he would only serve one year of that time. I cut my long hair short, chin length, and I selected a box of brassy red dye from the supermarket shelf. I used the small applicator bottle to douse my head with color that ran down the sink in blood-red streaks. I imagined him coming to find me, to retaliate—he’d be unable to recognize me or find me in a crowd. I’d pre-packed a “go” bag with black hair dye, scissors, sunglasses, a hat, a scarf, a change of clothes, $300, and a knife. I imagined myself like an agent in a spy movie who could disappear into a bathroom and emerge five minutes later looking like someone else, ready to set off for a new location. I lamented that I couldn’t afford contact lenses that would change my brown eyes blue, or the silicone flesh colored prosthetic to make my nose large and aquiline.
After my appointment with the dermatologist, I made an appointment at the hair salon. I arrived on Saturday morning, my gray cap on my head, and met the new stylist, Tara. A beautiful dark blonde, perfectly styled. Her hair was a beautiful ornament. We went to her station to chat before the shampoo. I told her about my hair and asked if she could help me conceal the bald spots.
“Let me have a look,” Tara said.
When I removed my hat, I expected her to gasp, to exclaim how sorry she was, but she said none of these things. She circled round my head, her face screwed up in concentration as she worked her fingers through my remaining hair.
“We’re going to need to cut it quite short. It will help to get it shorter so we can layer it and tease it to cover the back,” she said as she folded the long hair up to a length just below my chin.
“Tease it?” I asked.
“Yes, we’ll start right here and tease it up to cover the back of your head,” she explained. “It will look great. See, look at my hair, I tease mine here at the crown to give it some height.” She turned to show me her own tresses. “You’ve never teased your hair?”
I shook my head.
“I’ll show you how to do it,” she said. “It’ll take some practice, but you can do it. I’m from Texas, honey, and we always say the higher the hair, the closer to God!” She smiled the most reassuring smile I’d seen in weeks.
One hour later Tara had cut, styled and teased my hair into shape. The hair was set, but didn’t resemble a helmet of hair. She held up the handheld mirror for me to view the back. I could see the labor that hid my growing imperfection. I left the salon with my gray hat tucked into my purse.
I drove home and thought about how the cutting and styling of my hair felt like a magic trick. I thought of the primitive combs carved out of bone, ivory, and wood that have been found in the archaeological sites at the remnants of ancient civilizations. In Roman times, hair styling grew more elaborate and signaled wealth and power. Special hair stylists called ornatrices were employed to do the plaiting, pinning, braiding, curling, and work of taming the hair. Maybe they invented teasing, the art of giving height and substance where none had existed before. I’d never invested significant time styling my own hair. Since childhood I’d worn my hair fairly long. Rarely did I even get haircuts, only twice per year when the split ends made me feel scraggly. But on this day I appreciated the work of all that hair styling history in a new way. I felt grateful that I could regain a protective shell, even if it was only a thin layer of concealment and involved a serious amount of hairspray.
Three weeks later, I went back to the dermatologist and endured the steroid injections into the bald spots. He instructed me to hold pressure on the site of the injection. I sat on the table, waiting for the blood to stop, silently praying for my hair to regrow. I thought about the myths involved in hair being restored. Queen Bernice of Egypt offers her cut hair as a sacrifice to Aphrodite to ensure the safe return of her husband from Syria, but the hair is stolen. Aphrodite herself restores the sacrifice by creating a constellation of stars, Coma Bernice, out of the strands of hair. Here was hope of regeneration. Look at all the evidence of hair coming back. It was written like a promise in the stars.
My hair did eventually begin to grow back, but it was different than the hair that had been lost. At first the new hair consisted of fuzzy strands that poked straight up from my scalp. The texture reminded me of the fluff on new chicks or ducklings. I reluctantly pulled the gray hat of my closet and wore it again. There was no amount of teasing that could dampen down nor hide these new sprouts. Yet, despite needing to resort to my cover-up, I felt a swelling of hope and gratitude in that new hair. I gently touched the tender strands, marveling at how the desolate spots of baldness now held growth. The hair emerged in irregular patches, some longer than others, but eventually all the spots vanished. Thick, coarse and curling: a stranger’s hair populated my head.
As the new, unruly strands grew longer, the evidence of my missing hair was no longer visible to the world. I possessed two different types of hair, old and new, intermingling and showing what I’d endured, the before and after. Both had value. It had taken years to accept how my trauma at eighteen had changed me, how the inability to recapture who I was before wasn’t a failure. In suffering traumatic loss, I learned that resilience isn’t tied to forgetting, but to remembering. Even if the world can’t see it, I will always know and honor the spaces where my body was damaged and then restored, though different than before.
Eventually, I stopped checking the mirror countless times a day to see if there were new bald spots or thinning places. I didn’t count the hair that I found in my brush or my pillow any longer. The plastic bag full of my hair was thrown into the trash. I no longer massaged the natural remedy of essential oils onto my scalp, but I kept the small bottle in my medicine cabinet. Just in case. There was a chance the hair would fall out again. Bald patches would grow seemingly overnight. I knew that all of my hair might fall out next time. It might not grow back again. There was no way to predict when the damaged root would become inflamed or when my immune system would set off on some misguided mission to keep my body safe.
I no longer dream of Medusa, but I still think of her. Though my hair hadn’t turned to serpents, it had changed. I was familiar with this kind of physical and psychological alteration. Fourteen years before, I’d survived, but in that transformation was born a scar of darkness, a coiled up slithering thing with beady little eyes, smooth skin and deadly teeth. I will always be Medusa possessing the power to both create and destroy. This power lives deep inside the root of me where it waits for the right moment to awaken.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.