SEPTEMBER is Alopecia awareness month, which aims to get people talking about the condition.
The more people get talking, the more alopecia becomes normalised and creates a positive environment for people to open up about their experiences.
One Cork woman who has been bravely sharing her journey online is Chloe Sheehan. She suffers from Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the immune system attacks hair follicles, which causes circular bald patches to form.
The procurement administrator says while the condition broke her when she was first diagnosed four years ago, she now loves who she is even more because of her life-changing experience.
Chloe first began experiencing symptoms in 2017 when she discovered bald spots on her head: “I was getting my highlights done on my lovely blonde hair when my hairdresser and best friend Nicole noticed a tiny patch at the nape of my neck.
“I didn’t think much of it when she said it until I went home and became obsessed with this tiny patch, I was immediately so embarrassed and mortified, thinking who may have seen this five-cent size patch on the back of my neck, as I wore my hair up constantly working as a dental nurse.
“Little did I know what was to come,” she said.
Whilst there is no specific cause of the type of alopecia Chloe has (Alopecia Areata), as it’s an autoimmune disease, she believes stress may have contributed to it.
She explains: “I have my own self-diagnosis and believe it’s because my body was under stress at the time, whether I was aware of it or not, and this in turn raised my cortisol levels and kick-started my autoimmune disease.
“I was going through cervical screening tests and procedures at the time my first patch was found,, which continued for about four years and it took a lot out of me.
“It’s something that’s not spoken about very often and I wish it was as it may normalise the situation for more women.
“Also, with it now being September and Alopecia Awareness month, I want to bring as much attention to it as possible, so anyone who finds themselves in my situation won’t be afraid and will know there is help and there are support networks out there.”
The bubbly 28-year-old recalls how the diagnoses back in 2017 was received with ‘complete devastation’ and how she didn’t know who she was anymore:
“I felt like my heart had shattered and I couldn’t understand why I was so vain. It’s only now that I understand it wasn’t actually vanity, it was grief I was going through - I lost my identity overnight and it caused me severe grief and depression, which is only natural.
“I couldn’t comprehend why this had to happen to me and I mentally could not accept it. The rate of hair loss was happening much faster than I was mentally prepared for and every time I thought I was feeling better about it another big loss would knock me back.
“There is nothing scarier than looking straight at yourself in a mirror and really struggling to recognise the person looking back at you.”
The former dental nurse’s hair grew back by September, 2017 - but just weeks later, it started to fall out again in clumps.
By December of the same year, she had lost around 80% of her hair and could no longer recognise herself in the mirror.
She recalls: “I didn’t cope at all. I was utterly devastated and that’s OK to admit. At the time I felt I wasn’t beautiful; I was disgusting, and I had lost my femininity.
“The majority of cultures define long, thick, luscious hair as a sign of beauty and the very opposite was happening to me.
“I feel it’s something I’ll never forget.”
While Chloe had to struggle with the trauma of losing her crowning glory, the Donoughmore woman’s mental state started to go downhill drastically.
To add to the stress and trauma, she ended up having night terrors for months on end at the same time, she explains: “When my hair fell out, I did fall into the depths of depression and it’s OK to acknowledge and say that I’m only human.
“It was a very tough thing when I was in my early 20s, I always loved my blonde hair and make-up, following trends, and in the blink of an eye I was left with only a handful of hair on my head.
“I got desperate insomnia as I was petrified to go to sleep - the nightmares I was having were horrendous but yet I couldn’t leave my bed so I would stay in bed awake and exhausted all day and all night and just became emotionless and numb.
“It’s important to talk about it as people see me now doing so well and if they’re not feeling great in themselves, they need to know I understand and I was there once, but you will get through it.”
Chloe who is now a well-known advocate online, has become a poster girl for the hair loss condition, with fellow sufferers taking courage from her honest and uplifting posts.
Despite alopecia bringing her to her rock bottom, the bubbly Corkonian now admits that the crippling diagnoses had made her more content in life and the woman she is today. She said: “This whole journey has actually forced me to love and care for myself more and has allowed me to understand my mind and my body.
“When this all started, I signed up to a mindfulness eight-week course, which meant I had to be in a room with people, and it forced me out of my comfort zone but in a very safe place.
“It snowballed from there so in the last four years I’ve done countless courses, read a ton of life-changing books, researched until no more research could be done, and it’s all paid off.
“It’s a constant learning experience and has morphed me into the person I am today, and I really like her!”
Deciding to share her story on her Instagram page, @Chloeshairaffair, the 28-year-old is passionate about redefining society’s strict beauty standards. She said: “I set up my Instagram ‘Chloe’s Hair Affair’ simply because, when I lost my hair, I felt unbearably isolated. I would have done anything to be able to connect with someone who understood me.
“The page is now very successfully running over one year and I’m just so grateful to be able to connect with so many amazing people and help people at their most vulnerable.”
This September, which is Alopecia Awareness Month, Chloe is hoping to break down the stigma surrounding hair loss and redefine beauty standards.
The brave influencer now wants to spread the message that there is beauty in being different, and encourages anyone who is suffering to ask for help:
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, just look at me. I thought I would never live a happy and normal life again but I’m happier now than I ever was.
“Embrace what you’re going through. It’s OK not to be OK and bad days are fine too, without those bad days we wouldn’t have good ones.
“Just please reach out to someone. It could be a partner, a colleague, a friend, a doctor, me, etc. Just anyone at all, there is no need to suffer alone,” she said.
You can follow Chloe’s journey on: instagram.com/chloeshairaffair.