I had an odd thing happen this week, something that does happen occasionally, but surprises me every single time.
I was forced, very painfully, to confront my own deep-rooted insecurity.
I am bald. Completely. Full body. I have a condition called Alopecia Universalis, which has caused me to lose all the hair on my body. Doctors are still unsure what causes it, knowing only that it is an autoimmune condition.
I developed this in 6th grade, which is a tough time for kids anyway. Just starting to develop and figure out who I wanted to be, I was then forced to face this issue. Lucky for me, I had been living in the same town since pre-school. I had grown up with my classmates, and they were very supportive. My teacher even took me around to the different 6th grade classes and let me explain the condition, giving a little seminar and asking questions. My principal agreed to allow me to wear hats in class. I had this Chicago Cubs hat that I had bought on a school trip to the windy city. I wore it every day. It became my signature at school, and at the end of the year, I had all my friends sign it. The outpouring of support was amazing.
Then we moved. My family relocated from Indiana to Atlanta, Georgia. Now in the dirty south, I was going to be attending my first day of Middle School (the school system in Indiana included 6th grade in Elementary school) with a bunch of kids who had already made it through one year. I wasn’t allowed to wear hats. I got stared at in the halls. Kids would tell me about rumors they heard, that I was a burn victim or that my family were skin-heads. Kids who didn’t even know me, never even talked to me, told everyone my life story before giving me a chance to confirm or deny their information.
And honestly, this only bothered me marginally. I was a realistic enough kid to know that this was just how people my age acted. I never really felt on the same page as a lot of people my own age until about high school. I always felt a little bit outside of that, I think just because I was such an observant kid and could see the ins and outs of the social world around us. Also, I was able to make friends. At first with just the outcasts, being the new kid and all, then with more popular kids. I stayed friends with the outcasts and spent more time with them, but it was the friendship with the popular, athletic kids (which I honestly developed many by allowing them to cheat on tests – a process that would eventually earn me money in high school) that made me feel more confident. These kids had my back. They spread the truth about my baldness, they would protect me against any would-be bullies. I kind of had it made. I manipulated the system like a middle school Lannister.
But away from school was a different story.
Going to restaurants or the mall. Going to church. Visiting family/friends, or having family visit. All these times when the peering eyes were unavoidable, that’s when I was at my weakest.
My teenage mind also turned my condition into a villain or some sort of persistent malady. Turned down by a girl? Because I’m a bald freak. Someone doesn’t feel up to hanging out? Because I’m bald and weird. It was a tough time, but hey, it was middle school.
As high school progressed, I got better. Stopped being as nervous about it around people. Still wore a lot of hats, but wasn’t as freaked out about not having hats in class. Heck, I even grew my hair back for a semester, before it all began to fall out again.
I was growing. I was becoming stronger. Eventually I got to where I am today, where it is a part of who I am, just the same as having hair. However, that took a long time. I didn’t stop insisting on wearing hats to public places until late college. I even wore a hat at my brother’s wedding reception, where I gave the toast. I remember hearing after the fact that some of the Bride’s family were outraged that I had a hat on in church (it was like the church gym, get over it). My sister-in-law politely told them that I was the groom’s brother and that I had a condition that made me bald and I felt better with a hat. It was nice of her to explain, but hearing that made me feel weak and singled out.
It has been a struggle, and it still is. People still stare, people still make comments, but I’m at an age and relative buffness now where people typically just assume I shave my head and tell me how nice my head is or ask how I shave so smooth. I make jokes with other bald guys. I’m over it.
Until someone sends me right back. Wednesday of this week, a guy came into my place of business and I was helping him find the product he was looking for. As I was doing the salesman thing, he interrupted me. With a disgusted look on his face, scanning me like you would a rabid, dirty weasel, he asked “are you okay?” I responded, staggered, that I was fine. My response hung in the air, me being unable to think of a follow up question or statement. He leaned away, still looking disgusted, and said, “You just got that whole… thing” and moved his hand in a back and forth motion above his head, the universal sign for bald. I have that whole bald thing, and thus he was concerned I had some sort of sickness or disease. That I deserved his pity or disgust. That I was dying.
Thankfully I am not. I cannot stress enough how much I understand that I am lucky to have only lost my hair and not much more. As I said, most people just assume I shave my head, and for the most part that is hardly a problem. Though the frequency of comments on my baldness is almost unbelievable. I have someone ask me about my head (from a shaving angle) probably daily or every two days. I have someone ask if they can touch my head at least once a week. Annoying, sure, but I can live with that, because they just see me as this guy with a nice shaved head. But for every 5 people who assume I shave, there is one person who notices something is up. One guy who notices I don’t have eyebrows or lashes. One person who notices my bare arms are different in some way. And it’s those people that stare, those people that make comments. Those people that pull up to me while we’re both driving, motion to me to roll my window down, and then shout “enjoy your cancer, dying boy,” honk their horn and drive away (actually happened, around Christmas last year). Those people bring my insecurity to the forefront.
After that guy said that, I went back to the busy work I was doing. I could feel the A/C rolling across my scalp. I could feel the three eyelashes I do have in my left eye brushing across my eyeball. I was aware, painfully so, in a way that I hadn’t been since sixth grade.
I was right back there. A young boy. Scared, humiliated, and exposed.
It effected me, messed me up. Downward spiral.
Then I posted about it on Facebook. And received an outpouring of support.
Just like sixth grade.
And it made me realize one of the things I’ve always known about life but too often forget: that it is much better shared with other people. That friends and family can enrich your life in ways that you never thought possible. That even the toughest challenges can be overcome with the help of someone who cares. Even acquaintances or strangers may surprise you. There are assholes, there are bigots, there are people that are filled with hate.
But there is also so much more in the human spirit than that. SO much compassion and respect.
I guess I’ll end with this: if you know someone who is different, physically or mentally or just in a weird/challenging point in their life, just be there for them. In any way. Don’t avoid helping them or talking to them. If you are someone struggling with something, don’t try and face it alone. Whatever it may be, find a shoulder for whatever you need. If you need to vent. If you physically need help or aid with something. Don’t be so consumed in pride that you forget how good people can be.
Now is the appropriate time of year for us to be reminded how much we can help one another, how terrible some people can be and what the good folk can do to counteract that.
Thanks for reading this excessively long post, and thanks to all those that have been there for me over the years. If ever anyone reading this needs anything, let me know. I’ll help however I can.