18 months ago Claire Fulham was diagnosed with alopecia areata. She is a mother of 2, Farragh and Elliott. She started a Facebook and Snapchat documenting her hair loss and has gathered thousands of followers thanks to her honesty and sense of humour. I was lucky enough to have a really cool phone call with her last week and we talked for over an hour.
Heya Claire, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me!
Honestly Aisling thank you for thinking of me. The Shona Project is an amazing initiative.
Thank you thank you. We’ll crack on! What was the moment that turned your world upside down?
Well I suppose the first moment was when I spotted the first patch on my head. I went about my business, then a week later I could see my hair falling out a lot. I went to do the doctor got blood tests and there was nothing wrong, so I went to a specialist and she told me I had alopecia. It took me a couple of weeks really before it sunk in and at that stage I had lost maybe 40% of my hair which seems like an awful lot but I had so much hair that I could kind of cover it up.
What was the worst time for you?
I think it was 3 weeks after I was told I had alopecia, I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t see at times, I couldn’t breathe. I was having full blown panic attacks. I thought I was just getting a bit hyperactive about it all. I never understood panic attacks because I never had panic attacks. My whole life I’ve always been the outgoing kid and the popular kid in school. I didn’t have a hard life at all. I was never nervous or anxious I was always well able. But I had this sense of non-controlling no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t going to be able to control this.
I had 5 days or so of just lying in bed being physically ill, having all these thoughts and just kind of looking at the rest of my life and thinking this is too much effort for me to make.
That was my lowest period. I’ve had loads of low periods in the past 18 months but I think that was the moment I decided if I don’t get up right now I never will. My mam rang me thinking I was in work and asked me “are ya alright?” and I was like “no I’m not in work” going mad crying. She tried to encourage me but then she broke down too because she could hear how scared I was.
I think when I heard her cry I went “dya know what Claire, stop being selfish, there’s other people affected by this too” I think that took a lot of strength for me to do. And if there’s a tiny glimmer of hope that you can try to get through this, hang on to that glimmer because it goes and it can be gone forever. So whatever you do hang onto that glimmer of hope before it goes. If my mam didn’t call me at that instant I could still be in bed right now. But I got up and made an appointment in a wig shop and I got a wig the following week and I carried on.
What was it like having to wear a wig?
It was about 3 weeks after I got my wig that I started to tell people about it. The hardest part for me was trying to disguise it, trying to pretend that I was okay all the time. I’m very good at doing that, but now I recognise if I need help and I’m not afraid to ask anymore. People asked me “was I stressed” and I wasn’t. Now I realise I’ve been on autopilot for 7 years and I couldn’t take my foot off the pedal because if I did things would fall apart around me.
I had Farragh quite young, I was 22. I bought a house. There was never a proper excuse for me to be sad and I had Elliott and then I got married. Between never taking my foot off the pedal and sleep deprivation (because Elliott never slept) and especially as women we compare ourselves all the time to each other, I think that I didn’t have a good enough reason in my mind to be stressed enough that my hair would fall out. I was almost ashamed of the stress I must’ve been under for 85% of my hair to fall out.
What would you tell someone who is experiencing hair loss to do?
100% the first thing you do ditch the bad shampoos. Don’t drench your hair in dry shampoo and GHD it everyday, park everything for the minute. Go and get a blood test. It will tell you if there’s an underlying reason like thyroid or hormonal imbalances. There’s lots of reasons why people lose hair because of imbalances going on in your body. Girls won’t talk about it, they could lose 50% of their hair and they won’t say anything to anyone. They’ll be so scared to tell their mam or sisters because they’re embarrassed. The quicker you react to something the better. Go to your hairdresser, your hairdresser should be informed. Invest in good treatment for your hair good shampoos and conditioners.
I was recommended to go to a dermatologist by the GP but the wait was like 6 weeks with private health insurance which is the story for the whole country. You need to catch it quick. If you leave bald patches for too long the follicles can die so you need to act fast. I didn’t go that route, I went to a Trichologist. She diagnosed me straight away and she told me I had alopecia areata. I went to the universal hair and scalp clinic I went there every week for 10 weeks. They used light treatment gave me lotions and potions for my hair, heat treatment, and a head massage to try to wake the hair follicles. My hair was still falling out when I went. By the 8th treatment something changed in my mind and the lady showed me there was hair all over my head. So, I booked in more treatments
Was it hard to get up and just go to your treatments?
Yeah, you were really exposed. The first 3 times I went I wasn’t wearing a wig. The only people who had seen me without my wig was my family and these strangers, but you have to just come out of yourself to take off your wig, you feel disgusting. I used to put on loads of make up before I went in, I needed a mask, I needed to look slightly beautiful, but I looked ridiculous. They knew when you wanted to talk and when you didn’t but its so hard. You totally expose yourself it’s like being in the nip infront of your boss!
I was totally scared. Physical vulnerability is awful.
I did cancel a few and they would give me lotions and stuff to put in at home but there would be times where you’d try to pretend you were fine all day you wouldn’t have the energy to go after. But I am glad I did it because it made me feel proactive about it all. I think no matter what it is with mental health anxiety or whatever if you feel like you’re in control or you’re being proactive about something like a yoga class or whatever it is you do that makes you feel proactive you feel in control.
How did you find people reacted when they knew you were wearing a wig?
Well it was a very good wig most people didn’t really notice.The first day I went into work I had been puking all morning, I was shaking, I was crying and I didn’t wana leave the house. My friend Catherine met me because she knew. And I thought my friends might have told everybody. No one really noticed because it was so good. They were more awkward than I was. I feel like once I started Facebook or snapchat people started to avoid me a bit because they didn’t want to say anything which has taught to be empathetic. A woman I know would come up to me every two weeks and just ask me “you alright Claire” and she would squeeze my wrist just to say I’m thinking of you and it meant so much. It said ‘I’m not avoiding you but how are you doing?’. When you’re that person that people don’t want to talk to you learn how to act. The worst thing is avoiding these conversations. ‘How are you?’, and a squeeze of the wrist goes a long way.
What would you say to your younger self if you met her today?
Be yourself, enjoy your own company and be confident in who are as a person. Be satisfied with who you are.
Don’t be striving for xy or z. When I was young like 7/8 I was mad, and I didn’t care but then when I was maybe 14-18 you’re afraid to be yourself and afraid of being judged. It puts pressure on you to be so many different people. Now, since snapchat, I’ve learned people accept you for being you for being honest people don’t just like you for it they love you when you put everything out on the table.
Individuality is exactly what its made out to be its what you should be, individual and yourself. I do everything on snapchat I literally tell everybody everything and I’m okay with that. I don’t care that people know I struggle with different things or that my life isn’t perfect and that I’m not perfect all the time. People can’t believe that I’m so open. People will love you for being yourself. I am enough, I am plenty and I am brilliant. People liking you for being you is amazing.
Follow Clare on snapchat @claire.balding and like her Facebook page Claire.balding