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  • Writer's pictureMaddie Donohoe

“Hair or no hair, I’ll be fine."

The day after Christmas for an eleven year old typically consists of enjoying new presents and doing a whole lot of nothing. For me, December 26, 2012 was the day I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office crying and confused not knowing what was wrong with me. The dermatologist walked in and explained to me that I had alopecia. You’ll probably be bald; we don’t know why it happens and we don’t know how to stop it, she told me. She continued, describing the numerous steroid injections I’d need in my head of thinning hair if I wanted to attempt to save what I had.

There I sat crying as my mom held me still while the doctor administered some twenty to thirty shots in my head. My mom and I left the doctor’s office and drove straight to swim practice. Even with this confusing, and scary thing going on, swimming was my priority. It was my favorite thing to do, and I was worried about whether I could still swim over anything else.

Alopecia is an auto-immune disorder that causes partial or complete hair loss.

What triggers alopecia isn’t fully understood but when under stress my immune system attacks my hair follicles and causes hair loss. I’ve gone bald and lost my eyelashes and eyebrows. Losing my hair is a weird thing for me. Sometimes it’s not a big deal and “it’s just hair.” Other days, it’s all consuming and destroys my confidence the second I look in the mirror.

On those days swimming is what makes me feel better.

No matter what was going on in my life or how I felt about it, once I hit the water I knew everything was going to be okay. After starting at 5 years old, swimming competitively quickly became my whole life. It’s where I was my happiest and it offered me an escape in the early years of grasping with my hair loss when it seemed impossible.

Within three months of getting my diagnosis, I was completely bald. I had received over 150 shots in my head, but I eventually just gave up on treating my alopecia. I turned completely bald. I could never admit it or acknowledge it, instead I just walked around bald like there was no issue. I wore a wig for about a week but didn’t like it. I went to school bald and acted like it was all fine. I couldn’t find the words to describe how I really felt so I said nothing at all.

This caused me to struggle with my self image early on. I would go through phases of being okay with being bald and then suddenly crumble at my reflection. The person I saw in the mirror didn’t reflect the image of myself I had in my head, and it scared me. At my first big meet after going bald, I finally realized how bald I was as I stood in front of my hotel mirror in Florida. I started screaming and crying just standing there looking at the person I no longer recognized. Swimming saved me in that moment and again offered an escape by allowing me to bury my pain I felt at the time.

I began working with a nutritionist in the fall of 2013 and my hair began to grow back. I was happier and healthier than I had been in a long time. I swam better than I ever had before and was so proud of myself. I went through middle school fairly healthy and continued to improve in the water. I made Olympic Trials and thought I was so cool. I finished middle school and headed to high school with alopecia no longer a thought in my mind.

Then, I got mono my freshman year of high school, triggering another flare up of hair loss. I was even more upset this time around and felt defeated and heartbroken. I finished out my freshman year wearing wigs and hats absolutely devastated. No one at school except my closest friends knew what was going on. My confidence in my appearance was nonexistent. At Olympic Trials that summer I wore my swim cap or a hat the entire time fearing someone would see the bald girl I really was. By the end of summer before my sophomore year I gave up and just decided to go to school bald.

I was tired of hiding.

I dreaded walking into school that first day. Terrified of having eyes on me. The response I got from my friends and school was better than I could’ve ever expected. Not one person made a big deal and I was so relieved. I still struggled with my internal image of myself and felt insecure, but now I could breathe for a second; no longer having to worry about how others would react. My hair eventually grew back and I moved on again.

Swimming did get me through these struggles in lots of ways. I might have felt ugly but at least I could swim fast. I was protected as I swam back and forth with my cap on; I looked like everyone else. It gave me something outside of being bald. I loved swimming and the opportunities it gave me. I got to travel internationally for Team USA and committed to the best college ever, UVA.

Collegiate swimming was better than I’d ever imagined. I thought swimming was fun before, but college was ten times better. I was on an amazing team with amazing people and couldn’t wait to see what we could accomplish. However, my first year, the NCAA championships were canceled because of COVID and all of a sudden, like college athletes across the country, I found myself back home after having my season cut short. It was hard. I didn’t meet the expectations I had set for myself that year and started to lose touch with the escape swimming had offered me for so long. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel better once I got in the water.

While home, I began to obsess over my body in an attempt to find the control I used to feel when I swam. I obsessed over exercise and food during a lot of the pandemic and especially once students were allowed to go back on grounds beginning of my second year. Every second I was on edge, constantly thinking about my body, eating, and needing to be thinner. It was exhausting. Being away from the pool for so long only made my anxiety from swimming grow. I didn’t feel good enough before, so how could I possibly get back to where I once was after months outside the pool. I thought weighing less would equal swimming faster. I was unbelievably wrong. My relationship with food and my body became my sole focus. Swimming became a means to burn calories and avoid eating. There was no joy in the sport I once loved. I lost control of myself while trying to control everything else.

I hated everything that was happening.

I went back home to reset, be with my family, and get some help. My coaches and sports psychologists were so helpful and supportive to get me back to feeling like me. I was able to come back and I even started to like swimming again. I lied to most of my teammates about why I went home because I was embarrassed and afraid to admit it. I thought I could get through it alone.

After not talking to anyone at school, one month later, I was back to where I was before the reset and had to step away from swimming again. A lot of disordered eating circulates around shame and embarrassment. Combating that with honesty and vulnerability was so difficult but was the only way to really beat this. I was honest with my teammates and told them what was going on. Their support is the reason I made it back. I wanted to be healthy enough to race and compete for them. I came back healthier and swam well. I was proud of myself again. I had a new found confidence, in and out of the water, something I hadn’t had in a long time. Swimming was fun for the first time in a long time. I swam because I loved it and I wanted to achieve the goals my team and I set for ourselves.

At that point it had been over five years since the last time I lost my hair. I knew that the stress I put my body through would eventually catch up to me and cause my hair to fall out. I began losing my hair again by the end of my second year, but this time I accepted it. I was sad but I was at a place mentally where I could handle it. I was going to be bald and I was going to be okay because I am more than that. I’m funny, loyal, and a good friend. None of these things change because of what I look like.

I quietly decided to myself on the bus to NCAAs that I would shave my head because I was done being controlled by the fear alopecia had over me.

We made it to NCAAs and I swam well considering the year I had and the obstacles I overcame. I will forever be grateful to have been standing on that pool deck with my teammates when we won our first national title.

A week later I shaved my head with my sister and best friend by my side. I was beyond nervous but I didn’t realize how much fun I’d have in the process. I took back control during a situation I had felt helpless in, and I became the most confident version of myself in the process.

In a way losing my hair forced me to deal with all the issues I had on the inside. People could see I was bald but could not see what was going on internally. I took this as an opportunity to explain my whole story and not hide the truth. I posted a video of shaving my head on my Instagram and found the words I had been searching for from the beginning to describe how I felt. I finally had the courage to talk about my struggles because no one should feel embarrassed to open up about their mental health. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t do it alone.

My parents, sister, friends, teammates, and support team are the reason I am where I am today. I am healthy, confident, and content with whatever comes my way because of them.

Hair or no hair, I’ll be fine.


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