This past year, I have felt like a foggy cloud of anxiety, sadness, and unnecessary worry, surrounded my life, I had no idea why, or what could result in such a negative change in my life.
Having played collegiate volleyball at a very high level for two and a half years prior to the spring of 2019, I was well adjusted to stress. I was adjusted to a large amount of responsibility for my own nutrition, health, physical readiness for competition, and decisions on and off the volleyball court. I felt invincible in my lifestyle as a student athlete and I presumptuously prided myself on being a steady, unemotional, and levelheaded student athlete. I found, and still find, great self worth in being adaptable, steady, and levelheaded in my daily life.
Challenging this steady image of myself, in the spring on 2019, three major events happened to me that I believe, and my doctors believe, all had an adverse impact on my health.
Firstly, in February of 2019, the week before finals week, I came down with the worse sickness I have ever experienced: Mononucleosis. I had fevers above 102 degrees for a week, my spleen was enlarged that it hurt to cough or breath deeply, and as a result it pressed up against my stomach, completely squelching my appetite. I lost nearly 10lbs in the span of 2-3 weeks due to this extreme lack of appetite and I had large, swollen lymph nodes in my neck and groin. Trips to the restroom, showers, and the kitchen left me lightheaded and out of breath. Following the initial week of sickness, my fevers went away and my energy returned slightly, only to allow room for anxiety to creep in. I was filled with unhealthy thoughts about how my teammates saw me, anxiety about how my once always-healthy body was recovering, and anxiety about how to “get back to normal” as soon as possible.
With mono, your spleen, a major organ in the lymphatic system, becomes enlarged and swollen due to the extreme stress of trying to filter out the mononucleosis virus. As a result, any physical movement or exertion of the body can put pressure on a swollen and enlarged spleen, causing it to rupture. Because of this, I was not allowed to partake in any team workouts or practices. My spleen took nearly a month and a half to return to its normal size, and during that time, I could not practice or workout, even though I may have appeared “fine” on the outside. Additionally, my appetite barely returned and I found myself eating scarcely enough to sustain a sedentary lifestyle, let alone one of a student athlete.
During this time, in spring of 2019, I was incredibly frustrated. Admittedly, I wasn’t the best teammate, I often felt sorry for myself that I couldn’t get back to normal, and many times I chose to wallow in that self-pity cycle. I constantly worried that my teammates were looking at me like I was “just making a big deal about it” and that it had been a month so why wasn’t I working hard to get back? I worried that my teammates, even my best friends, thought I was “taking the easy way” by using mono as an excuse to not go to 7am beach practices in the freezing cold, or just push through it all because that’s what we are taught to do as D1 athletes. My first practice back, I could not jump and hit two balls in a row without being completely gassed. I was then plagued by the selfish thought that I would not be able to participate fully in spring training. I had a hard time letting go of my need to control my recovery and wellbeing. On the outside, I looked fine, perhaps a little tired, but still fine. But on the inside, I had a swollen spleen, no appetite, and increasingly growing anxiety that I did not know how to push out of my mind.
Lets fast forward to adverse event #2 and 3. I delve into some very personal, very vulnerable, and mature issues here. Please read with no judgment, or just don’t read this part at all.
A few months after I was sick with mono, I quit the birth control pill (event #2) that I had been taking for acne since high school in hopes that it would allow me to regain my energy and my appetite. I wanted an IUD, for the simplicity, reliability, and convenience it offered me (in hindsight, I’m chuckling a bit at the irony of that description). After popping some Advil and gritting through the pain, I had an IUD placed (event #3) and went to practice right after. Life doesn’t stop because you chose to get little plastic T shoved into your uterus and this was something I’d learn over and over again in the upcoming months.
I will delve into the reasons why this little Skyla IUD was a monumental mistake for my life in the future, but for now, I will just state the fact that it was not a good idea for me. In the months after having it inserted, I became increasingly more moody and unstable. My identity of steadiness and emotional restraint crumbled. I found myself holding back tears in practice weekly. My daily anxiety increased and my appetite vanished yet again. My skin broke out like I was experiencing puberty 2.0. My breasts grew and hurt constantly. During this time, summer of 2019, we were coaching volleyball camps and having morning workouts. I had literal morning sickness (not because of the reason you may assume), and it was normal for me to force feed myself a little food after my 7am workout and then throw it up, or gag it down on my way to my summer class a few hours later. One specific day during this time, I remember throwing up on my walk from Alaska Airlines Arena to my car in E18, then skipping my summer class and crying on my way home, wondering why I was feeling so awful everyday.
I accepted this cycle as my new normal- waking up tired, waking up anxious, wincing as I put on a sports bra, not eating before a workout, forcing food down, feeling nauseous, feeling tired and shaky, binging when I finally was hungry, then feeling bloated and nauseous immediately afterwards. I would nap constantly, as a way to escape the crappy way my body felt everyday and the anxiety my mind felt each time I wondered, “what is wrong with my body?” As a naïve 20 year old, I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know how to ask my family for help without worrying them. I didn’t know how to ask my team doctors for help, as I it just felt weird talking about these intimate issues with someone who is connected to my trainers and coaches. The doctor that gave me the IUD told me that it was ~highly unlikely~ that it was causing these side affects, that she would recommend this to her own daughter. I didn’t know how to ask my teammates for help; I did not want to burden anyone with the heavy realization that I was rarely happy anymore, I did not feel healthy anymore, and that I felt completely out of control with my body.
The last straw came in June 2019, when I was in Anaheim training with the USAV women’s collegiate national team. Even while competing in the USAV gym, I remember ending a hard training session and having to put up my ponytail for the 4th time that practice. Feeling my hair, a terrifying thought crept into my head as the head coach of this program spoke to the huddle at the end of practice. “Doesn’t your ponytail feel thinner?, My anxiety said. Your hair has been shedding a lot lately. Wouldn’t it be awful if your hair was actually falling out and there’s nothing you can do about it? What if its your IUD? What if there’s something seriously wrong with your body?”
And that little maniacal voice of anxiety was right; my hair was shedding so much. At any point in the day, I could run my hands through my long, medium-thick hair and pull out at a substantial handful of hairs in my fingers. In the shower, it was even worse. With every shower, I felt like I was literally washing away my hair as I watched 50 hairs go down the drain.
This only got worse- both for my physical hair health and my mental health. Following my own intuition, I removed that IUD only a few months of it being in (I’m going to talk about that struggle in another post). But still, my hair, and my perception of its loss became my idol. It dictated my happiness. I was extremely anxious about controlling the loss of my hair and I obsessively hyper-focused on each hair that fell out. I counted hairs in the shower, even when there was upwards of 50 or more. I became scared of doing basic hygiene tasks such as brushing my hair and washing it regularly, as those were the times when I observed the most shed. If I observed a large amount come out, I took a picture of it and cried. If I saw a picture of myself where my hair looked especially thin it changed my entire mood for the worse.
I HATED wearing my hair down, so I kept my hair in a messy bun nearly 24/7, as if I was telling myself, ”out of sight, out of mind.” But it wasn’t out of mind. I spent DAYS researching possibilities on the Internet. I joined Facebook support groups with thousands of women experiencing the same, detrimental affects to their hair. I saw countless doctors that told me I was “fine” on paper. I was told my labs were relatively “normal”.
What wasn’t normal though, was the fact that my once long and healthy hair was falling out, and no one could give me a concrete answer as to why. In August of 2019, I chopped my hair short so that it wouldn’t look thin, and by December 2019, it had barely grown an inch. For reference, my hair used to grow upwards of 6 inches every six months when I was taking an oral birth control pill. On top of this, my body was adjusting to finally being synthetic-hormone free after the removal of my IUD. My appetite was gone again (surprise!). My acne flared up. I experienced brain fog, bloating, and lethargy, right in the middle of when I was supposed to be performing at the highest level. My anxiety skyrocketed, and I developed symptoms of nervous bladder- meaning I just had to pee ALL THE TIME. I was ending many of my days during fall of 2019 crying to either my mom on the phone, to my pillow, or to my boyfriend (all of whom dealt with it all in the most gracious way, I cannot ask for better support there :’) ). I was doing my body no favors, I was not eating enough to support my hormones and my thyroid and my adrenals and I was allowing anxiety to rule everything that I did.
My relationship with some of my teammates weakened as I isolated myself when I felt depressed and anxious over my hair and my health. I remember a night when I was supposed to go out with my teammates, and instead of getting ready, I muffled my tears after attempting to style my hair as an effort to hide my sadness, all while I listening to the carefree laughter of my friends coming from outside my room.
This may seem dramatic, and as I write it out, it does sound dramatic, but it was also my reality for months. Yeah, it’s “just” my hair. But when you are already feeling awful, under the immense stress of a 6 month, D1 volleyball season, not understanding why your body doesn’t feel the same anymore, and then your hair starts falling out uncontrollably and quite noticeably, you’d probably start acting dramatic too. Looking back now, my hair was a catalyst for some anxiety and control issues that I had ignored for a while, and I had to learn how to deal with this while under incredible pressure to perform academically and athletically.
Between the months of June 2019-Decemebr 2019 I obsessed over taking pictures of my thinning hair, spent hundreds of dollars on tests and supplements, and squeezed in appointments with dermatologists in the midst of the busiest time of my year, my junior volleyball season. I went to one of the top rated dermatologists in Seattle, who told me the hair loss was most likely in my head, a figment of my anxiety, and then proceeded to give me a $600 acne prescription after looking at the acne on my face.
One of the team docs (who is amazing) took a plethora of labs, looked at them, said I looked healthy on paper, and that perhaps it was just stress. He suggested therapy, maybe that would grow back my hair. No one could tell me something was physically wrong with my hair/body, and as a result, I felt invalidated, as if I was just making a big deal out of it all- that I shouldn’t care “this much” about my hair. This further discouraged me from seeking support from teammates and coaches…. how selfish could I be to complain and worry about my hair falling out when everyone else is also under great pressure to win a Pac12 title and perform in the NCAA tournament? Season is the best time of the year, but also the hardest, and I knew that everyone has their own battles to deal with day by day in order to compete at this level.
The thing about hair loss is, you can’t diagnose a hair loss condition with certainty until you get a biopsy which is when a dermatologist takes a literal HOLE PUNCH of your scalp and sends it to be analyzed by a pathologist. On one of my very few and sacred off days, I went to my 3rd dermatologist, who, and I’m not exaggerating here, these were her exact words, looked at me and said unemotionally, “I’m not sure what is going on, but your hair really is thin”. I held back tears and she proceeded to numb me up, take a circular punch knife, and cut out two, 4mm holes in my skull. After packing the wound holes in my head, she said she’d have results in a few weeks. A few days later, I was playing in front of hundreds of people in Alaska Airlines Arena with my thin hair strategically covering the two holes in my scalp. No one, besides my mother and my boyfriend, quite understood the turmoil that I was under with my hair loss, and I felt really alone. After the trauma of having my scalp cut into, the results of the biopsy came back unclear, and I was referred to yet another dermatologist who’s nearest availability was 3 months in advance.
I could go on and describe the hormonal mechanisms that cause your hair to fall out, but I think I will save that for another post. For now, I eventually had the referral in January of 2020, a top-rated hair specialist dermatologist in the state of Washington, who told me that I most likely have a hair loss condition called Androgenic Alopecia (AA), or female pattern hair loss (FPHL). FPHL is a genetic, permanent, condition in which your hair thins and falls and does not fully grow back, or it grows back with miniaturized hair follicles (think thin, wispy hairs instead of long, strong ones). This usually occurs with age due to the scalp developing an increased sensitivity to androgens and their byproducts (hormones such as testosterone). It’s common in women with PCOS and aging men, but if you’re genetically predisposed to this condition, it can also develop with any disruption in the body that would cause hair to shed in a process called Telogen Effluvium. In my case, this hair loss was triggered by a viral event (mono) and a hormonal event (quitting the BC pill & inserting an IUD, then removing it), which caused hair fall and accelerated this condition that I would have seen much later down the road. It is something that I will be dealing with for the rest of my life and I was told that I may never get my full head of hair back. That is an incredibly hard pill to swallow.
I recently, as of this September 2020, had a follow up appointment with this dermatologist. After 6 months of religiously using the medication she prescribed, applying minoxidil every day, stressing and crying over my hair, I was told I maintained the hair I had left and that the shed has stabilized, but that I had very little regrowth of the hair I lost months before. After all that stress, sadness, and worry, nothing had truly changed the hair on my head. Absolutely heart broken, I’ve made the decision that I can no longer waste my time and happiness stressing about my hair. Instead, I CAN investigate the root cause of WHY my hair won’t grow back, WHY fatigue issues still plague my life, WHY I still experience brain fog, and WHY my appetite is so erratic. I can learn to nourish my body to the best of my ability and I can learn to navigate stress and anxiety better.
These are things that I can control, so therefore, I slowly am learning to let my hair loss go. I’m far from perfect. It’s been so difficult and it’s been sad, but its motivated me to learn how to treat my body better and keep it functioning at a higher level. I am learning to love the hair that I have left. I splurge on high quality hair products without feeling ashamed of how thin my hair has become. I wash and brush it regularly. I am working on changing my inner monologue when I see hair come out. I use a special thickening spray that makes my hair density appear untouched by the bitch that is androgenic alopecia.
And through this journey with my hair, I have uncovered unhealthy eating habits, sleeping habits, and anxiety habits in my daily life that I am actively trying to correct. I have read books, studies, obsessively researched on the internet, and learned an incredible amount about the female body, nutrition, and relieving stress- knowledge that will forever benefit my life and hopefully others lives someday as well.
Part of the reason why I wanted to begin this blog is to hold myself accountable to making lifestyle changes to help heal my body holistically, and in doing so, perhaps inspire others to do the same. I want to share what I have learned, and am currently discovering, about the female body, hormone health, physical performance, and how those all relate to knowing how to heal your body with food and lifestyle changes. I believe that you shouldn’t have to go through your hair falling out, or a serious illness, injury, or mental health disorder to finally find the root cause of you health and how to best support your body.
“The new feminism includes being so well informed about your body that you can be 100% confident that you are making the best decision for you” -Dr. Jolene Brighten, Beyond the Pill
As the quote above says, you need to be 100% informed about how your body functions in order to know that you are doing the best for it. A year ago, I certainly didn’t know what was best for my body when I got an IUD, or when I was sick with mono, or even when I was competing in the Elite 8 while still stressing over my hair loss. I want to hold a space where I share what I’ve learned about maintaining a balanced lifestyle while dealing with stressful hair loss, stressful health issues, a stressful athletic career, and a social and academic life. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read all of this. Secondly, heres a few pictures of what my hair is like now… still quite thin, but healthier and happier and longer. I finally starting letting my hair down again, and with that, I am slowly letting my insecurities about it go.
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