This week's letter comes from comedian and writer, Chani Lisbon. So many of us (consciously, unconsciously, positively or negatively) identify with our external self — physical features, career, bank account, fashion, home...
What happens when an external feature is suddenly, visibly lost? How do we cultivate the internal self to be fundamentally okay?
Chani shares her sharp sorrow and resilient spirit as she reclaimed her confidence. This is a gal who dug deep — past ego, fear and self-pity — to find some freedom.
It's been months since I've really been able to look in the mirror. In the morning when I'm putting on my makeup, I scan my face but I'm not able to make eye contact.
I have so much shame and embarrassment about losing my hair.
Not that it's my fault, but somehow it feels like it is. There's no reason or explanation why some people get Alopecia and others don't. Deep down there's a part of me that feels I brought this on myself. That somehow my negative thinking had the power to create the chaos inside me. Even deeper than that, I know that's not true. I know my body is trying to have a conversation with me. To tell me there's more healing to be done with forgiveness in my life.
I first noticed a small bald spot right before I was about to get on stage at an open mic. I felt a tiny bit of my scalp and I remember my heart sinking, but I didn't have time to go and look to see how big it was. I got on stage and did my set like everything was normal.
But it wasn't.
My hair was slowly and gradually thinning and the tiny bald spot grew to the size of two inches right behind my right ear. I tried to cover up the thinning, I went out and bought tons of cute headbands. But after a couple weeks even those couldn't cover up how much hair I'd lost.
So I bought a new hat. A hat from the 47th street vendor, a hat that if my hair wasn't falling out I'd never even consider buying. But on that day that hat felt like it was my lifeline.
After buying the hat I never left my house without covering my hair. If someone accidentally pulled it off, my entire body would tense up and I'd be mortified. I felt gross, and I couldn't let the world see how ugly I'd become.
Two weeks ago a friend of mine lent me her custom wig. She used to be a practicing Orthodox Jew. It was long, blonde and very sexy. I was so grateful to have something to cover up my entire head. People loved me in it, but I felt so uncomfortable all the time. I felt like a fraud, and it brought up so many feelings from my childhood.
I was raised Jewish orthodox and I never liked the law that says a married women must cover her hair. The reasoning is that hair is sensual and once you're married only your husband can get pleasure from your hair. I appreciate the sentiment, but I've never been able to make sense of it. Most of the wigs women wear these days are ten times sexier than their actual hair. Also, wearing a wig all the time ruins your own hair. But here I was, single, and wearing a wig to hide what was going on underneath.
My friends were so patient with me as I cried and complained at how powerless I was, they were incredibly loving and compassionate.
My Acupuncturist suggested I shave off all my hair, that it could be an empowering thing for me: take back some control in a situation where I clearly had none. I couldn't even fathom doing that. All I ever cared about is what everyone else thinks of me. More than anything I wanted a boyfriend. What man would ever want to love me if I didn't have hair?
As the weeks went by I became more and more obsessed with my hair. I stared at everyone's hair on the subway, I dreamt about hair, it was all I thought about. I had a hard time being present in conversations with people. As they would be talking all I could think about was "You don't understand, I'm losing my hair, and very soon I’ll be bald". I was so scared of the inevitable.
A friend of mine put me in touch with a friend of his who is bald. I felt so safe being on the phone with her, for the first time I felt like here was someone else who understood the loss I was feeling. She gave me a homework assignment to start and end my day by looking at myself in the mirror and saying out loud "I, Chani, am a wonderful and beautiful person," nine times. I started doing that and it helped to soften something inside me. That conversation we had changed me. It helped me to feel validated, understood and it gave me hope that one day I too would be in a place of acceptance the way she was.
I went to see a doctor at Mount Sinai. She didn't want to do the traditional steroid injections because the thinning was all over my head, and there were too many bald spots. She started me on a treatment at the hospital once a week where a resident applies an extremely strong solution that was supposed to irritate my scalp so much that my hair grows back.
I went every Wednesday at 8:20am on 98th and 5th avenue. Every time I left feeling traumatized, emotional and full of despair.
Then the itching would start and last 24 hours. Holy fuck the itching was so bad. And I couldn't even touch my head, because the medication was so strong, If I had any contact with it, I needed to wash my hands immediately to prevent spreading the irritant.
This past Wednesday when I was there the resident told me she couldn't apply the medication, that my scalp was still too agitated from last week’s application, and she was worried that it needed more time to heal.
I left even more defeated. I'd have to wait another week to continue my healing process. At least I didn't have to put up with any of the horrific itching.
I went to my writing class that night wearing the wig for the first time. The other students were kind; they complimented me on my 'new look'. I cringed.
When I was in the shower that night, I felt my hair falling onto my legs as I'd felt the previous few months. I would bend down every couple of seconds to take the clump of hair off the drain so it wouldn't clog it up. Every time I showered I'd lose SO much hair, it was disheartening.
This week though something shifted inside me. I decided I wanted to take some control back. I was done cleaning my hair out of the shower drain and from my pillow in the morning. I was done avoiding mirrors and feeling sorry for myself.
I got out of the shower and ran to find my scissors. I started furiously cutting the thin strands I'd been holding onto. An overwhelming feeling of excitement came over me. I cut until there was nothing left to cut. When I finished cutting, I started crying. But quickly my crying turned into laughter. I was finally FREE! I'd finally surrendered to what was happening, and let go of what everyone else would think of me. Most importantly, I'd let go of what I thought I needed to be okay.
In that moment, and every moment since then I've been okay, more than okay. I've stood taller, walked prouder and smiled more than I can ever remember. I feel more like myself today, without any hair. I keep saying that mantra "I, Chani am a wonderful and beautiful person," I say it all the time now. I can't help smile as I say it. I'm starting to believe it.
I feel liberated and I'm “blessed to have a nice shaped skull,” as everyone keeps telling me. I know I couldn't have done it a minute before I was ready. I'm grateful for my friends on this journey who helped me embrace my truth.
My deep gratitude to Chani Lisbon, who is currently working as a comedian in New York City while co-writing a television series. I’d personally be lost without my Chani-humor-filled Sunday afternoons.
You can find more of Chani here.