I started to lose my hair when I was just 26 – now I'm totally bald
Karen Dempsey developed alopecia without any warning. She tells Arlene Harris her story that will feature in tonight's RTé documentary
We've all had bad hair days but Karen Dempsey from Dublin would give anything to worry about something as trivial as lacklustre locks or visibly grey roots.
This evening on RTé Two, the 35-year-old psychotherapist will tell the story of how she started losing hair nine years ago and what began as the thinning of her eyelashes continued to the stage where she has no hair whatsoever.
Her condition (which affects around 1.7pc of the population) is known as alopecia and, although the mother of one had no warning, related illness or genetic reason for losing her hair, she is now completely bald.
"I first started noticing signs of alopecia when a gap appeared in my eyelashes," she recalls. "I had very long, dark thick lashes, so the gap was quite noticeable. Then I noticed a gap in my eyebrow and my friends jokingly referred to me as Shane Lynch because it was similar to his trademark eyebrow.
"Then the hair-loss spread up into my hairline, but I ignored it initially as I believed it would correct itself – and when I became pregnant, it did grow back. However, when my son Beineán (7) was around three months old, it began to fall out at a dramatic rate and within the space of a month, had receded so much that I decided to shave it.
"I had gone from trying to cover the patch, to wearing a full bandana within the space of four weeks – there was no point trying to preserve the few strands I had left, so I shaved my head and began to wear a headscarf."
But whilst being bald is burden enough for any woman to bear, Karen began to realise that there was a lot more to alopecia than she had originally thought.
"Without warning, I developed alopecia and before long my looks were gone," she reveals. "I had been so lucky with my beautiful hair and eyelashes and hadn't appreciated them enough until they were gone, so it began to really irritate me to hear people continually moan about their perceived 'hair troubles'. Losing hair is one thing, but losing eyelashes and eyebrows really alters your profile and the look of your face as there is nothing to register surprise, anger or amusement.
"I have no hair in my nostrils, so my nose continually drips. I get dust in my eyes really easily, and my lack of body-hair means it's difficult to maintain body temperature. You don't realise all the little jobs your hair does until it's gone."
Hair-loss is extremely difficult for anyone, particularly a young woman – but as the initial shock began to sink in, the new mother looked for ways to cope with her visible condition.
"When I first started losing my hair, I was so shocked that I went into a kind of denial," says Karen. "But when I reached the head-shaving stage, I went to my GP, who was incredibly sympathetic and referred me to a dermatologist. She said there was no reason, answer or predictable outcome with alopecia, but as a general rule the more hair you lose and the quicker you lose it, the less likely it is to come back.
"Hearing her factual answers with no sugar-coating was a huge relief – even if my prognosis was bleak, at least I knew what I was dealing with. She also outlined the treatment options – but the side-effects (such as skin cancer from laser-scalp-therapy) far outweighed the potential benefits – there was no way I would risk cancer. so I decided against treatment."
Karen was also referred to a psychotherapist, who helped her to accept the condition.
"I isolated myself at the beginning because I felt a big responsibility to protect everyone from how I was really feeling," she admits. "I looked so tragic with my bald head and tiny baby, that I spent a lot of energy proving how 'fine' I was. I was struggling to adjust, but could see that others were too and focused more on them than myself – I didn't know how else to handle it.
"The psychotherapist helped me to find my way to the beginnings of acceptance as this is the key to living with alopecia – realising there is very little I can do to predict or control it brought a huge amount of peace for me. It is what it is."
Consultant psychologist, Dr David Carey says hair-loss can be very hard to cope with and therapy may help people to come to terms with it.
"Hair-loss can be terribly difficult for a young person, male or female," he says. "Society places so much emphasis on attractiveness and youth, and women in particular feel the need to have 'shiny, beautiful hair' – few of us would cope effortlessly with significant hair-loss.
"Alopecia can be doubly stressful because the pattern of initial loss may be patchy and its gradual worsening can extend to total loss of all bodily hair so self-image and self-confidence will inevitably be involved in this situation."
"People react differently to these things and some will cope more effectively than others. Those who have been raised in a hyper-critical environment will be most negatively affected but people who were raised in a loving and accepting family are more likely to come to terms with the condition.
"Counselling can be helpful but it's important to have people around who will listen and care – as support is critically important."
* Karen's story can be seen on 'Hair – The Long And Short Of It', tonight at 9.55pm on RTé Two l For more information visit Karen's support group on https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rockin-The-Bald/526263254086257 www.karendempsey.ie l For advice visit www.davidjcarey.com and www.alopeciaireland.com