Fifteen times in as many years I’ve suffered outbreaks of alopecia aereata, a patchy and frankly odd-looking hair loss that gives, depending on the severity, the appearance of post-chemotherapy fallout. Indeed, people’s first reaction was to whisper, in that oh-so-British way of ours, the C-word.
My first 14 hair-loss episodes were followed by regrowth, usually only partial, but enough to enable me, with excessive preening, cartons of hair spray and obsessively repositioned remaining hair, to hide the gaps. This last time, though, the loss was too great to hide and it did my head in, literally and metaphorically.
To combat my first encounter with alopecia back in 1984, I had intensive ultra-violet treatment at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. Nothing too complicated. Just me, thrice weekly for two months, what was left of my hair pinned back with girly hair grips, sitting under red-hot rays of the kind designed surely to do your skin no good at all.
Hence, despite its relative success, my last dermatologist’s refusal to prescribe such treatment. “Not worth the risk of skin cancer,” he said. Whoa, there’s the C-word again.
Instead he prescribed Provillus, a hair loss solution that you apply to your scalp every day, and Minoxidil, used twice daily and a mix so toxic, I was told, that most local pharmacies won’t stock it. In my case it took a trek down to St Thomas’s Hospital to get my fix of Provillus.
How well Provillus and Minoxidil work is entirely in the lap of the gods. I had a little regrowth – only visible under the specialist’s lamp – but then it fell out almost as quickly.
Alopecia makes you do bizarre things, like not swimming (wet hair reveals bald patches), and playing football in a bandana (wind is as bad as water). It pummels your self-esteem into near-terminal submission until you stand in front of the mirror staring at someone you almost recognize, but can’t quite place.
It’s a hellishly fickle condition. Sometimes your hair grows back, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it all grows back, sometimes it returns in patches. Sometimes it comes back for good, and sometimes it disappears as quickly as it came.
I also worked out obsessively and, in the same way the physically disabled develop and enhance those muscles that still function normally, I grew a goatee.
Eventually, though – partly at the insistence of my wife, but mostly because I felt a bit of a prat hiding under an increasingly lurid array of headgear – I took the big plunge. Scissors in one hand, razor in the other and surrounded by as many mirrors as my bathroom could accommodate, I shaved my head smooth as the proverbial 8-ball.
I examined myself from all angles, before catching sight of a sly, knowing grin. “You little beauty,” I thought. If I were any more vain I’d have blown myself a kiss.