Paula Tutman: Hair today, wig tomorrow

Paula Tutman shares her personal struggle with hair loss

By Paula Tutman - Reporter

DETROIT - If you ever feel sorry for yourself for something like losing your hair, become a news reporter for a few days. It is, indeed, the great reality enforcer. 

There are serious things going on in the world, right now.  People in Oklahoma are suffering.  Marathoners who used to think 12 miles was a warm-up, are learning how to simply walk again with artificial limbs.  Try walking or running a mile in their shoes for just a few moments.  

There are bigger things going on than hair loss, but I want to take another reality check.  It may not be the most important thing in the world, but that doesn't make it hurt any less when it happens.

After being in hair weaves and extensions off and on for years in order to stay active—I loved to sail, I loved cycling about twenty pounds ago, I loved being outside, in water, out of water, around water, wind and sun—my hair got too long to comfortably conceal.  I always loved my thick, coarse hair, I just didn't want to be bothered with it.

When I took it down, I embraced it.  I decided I wouldn't style it myself, I would go faithfully to a professional.  Something that was easy to avoid when I was wearing hair I purchased instead of hair I grew.  I asked for referrals from friends and chose a stylist who specialized in long hair.  That stylist did a wonderful job!  My hair was thriving and growing.  Every Tuesday at 1pm, I was sitting in that chair to get my hair professionally washed, (I like calling it laundered) conditioned, trimmed and styled.   I also got it colored.  A lot!  I am a woman of a certain age and I've been almost completely gray since my early 30s.  When we were children, my twin sister and I used to say that we would go gray gracefully like our mother who was almost completely gray at an early age.

Don't believe it.  It's a lie.  The moment our hair started turning, we got busy. 

My hair grew so fast, the edges were being colored as early as, every nine days sometimes.  Sometimes I could get away with two weeks, but then I got, what I call, cobwebbing.  When the roots turn gray and it looks like little cobwebs on your scalp.  I hated it.  I would text my stylist and say, "COLOR TODAY!!!!". They always knew that not a single gray hair was to be allowed to park on my scalp.  It was a gray-free zone.

But one day, my hair seemed thinner.  I was losing lots of strands of hair.  I told my stylist my hair was coming out.  The same question was always asked.  "Long strands or short strands?"  I'd answer, long strands, and I was told that, "As long as it's long strands it's just natural shedding."

It didn't feel right.  It felt like a heck of a lot of shedding.  But I didn't want to challenge my professionals.  I'm a bossy reporter who often believes that if there's only one answer, I probably have it.  So I let it simmer. Even though every week, I was losing more and more hair, and I'd bring it up at the salon, and I'd get the exact same answer, I simmered over it.  It just didn't feel right.  I was losing way too much hair.

Then my hair started breaking off.  That's actually not a fair description.  It started disintegrating.  I lost an inch and then another inch and then another.  By the time I had lost eight or nine inches of hair in less than four months, I was incensed.   I kept asking what was going on and couldn't get an answer as to why my hair was thinning and breaking.  By the time my hair was just beneath my shoulders, I just left the salon and never went back.

I went to another stylist, but my hair loss and breakage continued.  I went to another stylist and then another and then another and then I found Carmel.  I remember when I walked into her hair studio she tilted her head and commented on how dry and brittle my hair was.  She mentioned that she'd be afraid for anyone to light a cigarette near me because my hair might catch fire, as if I were The Straw Man in the Wizard of Oz.  By now my hair was a hot-mess and well above my shoulders.

Eight months later, Carmel had gotten my hair fairly healthy again, but it hadn't grown an inch.  We both became concerned.  It wasn't natural for my hair to not grow.  That's when I looked up Dr. Bobbi Edwards of Michigan S.K.I.N. Associates.  I had done a story on her a number of years ago and had even gone to her professionally for another problem.

She took a look and did a ‘pull test'.  She had a handful of hair.  She ordered blood work and a scalp biopsy. I got the biopsy part but I thought the blood work was extreme.  Besides, I hate needles.  She said she just wanted to take a look ‘inside' and rule stuff out.

When I returned to her office in Southfield a week or so later she said she had a diagnosis.  The good news, it wasn't Lupus.  She also rattled off several other serious diseases.  It turns out hair loss isn't always benign. Hair loss can be a symptom of several other serious illnesses.  Dr. Edwards says women should never consider hair loss and excessive shedding a seasonal, passing thing.  Up to a hundred strands a day, depending on the person is normal.  But if hair is shedding more than what's normal for that particular woman, don't just pass it off as stress or something temporary.  At the very least it could be permanent, irreversible hair loss. At the most it could be the warning sign of a deadly disease. 

ALOPECIA just means hair loss.  There are many different kinds.  If it's genetic Alopecia, and it's caught in time, you can't stop the hair loss, but it can be slowed down in many cases.  If it's styling related, it can be fixed by halting the offending hot comb, permanent, wave, bottle of bleach, relaxer or flat-iron.  Dr. Edwards says relaxers and waves are the worst.  They chemically change the texture of your hair and weaken it.  Flat ironing is the second worst because it's the follicle-killing combination of heat and pulling.

She diagnosed me with Central Centrifugal Cicatricial Alopecia It's also known as Scarring Alopecia and follicle degeneration.  Something created an inflammation on my scalp and it crept across my entire head killing off hair follicles in its wake.  The likely culprit, the hair color I craved or some other chemical my hair dresser unwittingly put on my hair.  I didn't have a chemical straightener, my hair was pressed and then flat-ironed.  But I did love that hair color.  And now it was possibly the chemical that's responsible for my losing my hair.

I was angry.  But mostly at myself.  I knew I had symptoms.  There was something going on, on my body that wasn't normal and I passed it off as unimportant.  Even as a trained journalist who's paid to ask questions and be nosey, I wasn't nearly nosey enough about myself.  I didn't want to be ‘THAT' customer who was always backseat driving my stylist.  I didn't want to seem like I didn't trust.

I was wrong.  It's not about trust.  It's about getting answers about what someone was doing to my hair.  If the stylist thought I was being disrespectful for asking pointed questions about my hair care, I needed to move on to a new stylist.  I have learned that while a hairstylist works for ME, by virtue of the fact that they're being paid—that relationship doesn't work if we're not partners.  We should have had an honest give and take about what was going on and what my concerns are.  And if my stylist wasn't sure, they should have said they weren't sure.

I grieved my hair loss big time.  But then, I got busy.  I organized a team.  I figured out who I needed on that team to help me fix this thing and I went out to find the right person to be part of that team.  A dermatologist who specializes in hair care.  A stylist more interested in hair health than hair styles. A support group of friends and family who would cheer me on and cheer me up and listen to me no matter how many times I called to cry, complain or search for answers. Carmel was part of that team in that she made special time on her time-off to wash my hair after prescription hair treatments made me look like a wet cat and I had to get to work the next day.  When Dr. Edwards said less heat, she figured out a new way to blow-dry my hair.  When Dr. Edwards told me to use specific shampoos and conditioners, Carmel kept them safe in her cabinet—and I noticed she paid attention to every ingredient.  She would read everything my dermatologist sent me before she put it on my head.  She was a critical member of the team.

When the idea of putting me in a wig came up, I went out and found a consultant who wouldn't dictate to me but would work with me.  Pam Dave was that stylist.  I had no idea she had complete hair loss from genetic Alopecia until she showed me during our consulting session.  Her own devastation pushed her to find solutions. And when she couldn't find solutions, she did the homework to come up with her own.  I showed her pictures of my former self with big hair.  She considered my lifestyle and look and she worked on custom designing a wig for me.  And then I went to wig stylists, Tony Powell and Annette Miles to finish the look.

But I was still grieving.  When I heard the word, "BALD," I balled. 

I talked it over with my husband.  He told me that he didn't love me for my hair.  He assured me that he loved me for me.  He doesn't like the fact that I throw my clothes on the floor and leave dishes in the sink, but he loved me for who I am.  His words, "I would love you if you were fat and bald."  I had only one answer to that.  "Then please pass me another donut."

I talked things over with my mother and my twin sister.  I talked it over with my boss and friends.  And all encouraged me to go public in hopes other women would catch the warning signs and take care of themselves as much as they take care of others.  They promised me it would empower me to heal myself by not trying to hide the fact that I'm wearing a wig.  "Just own it!" was the universal battle cry.

And so that's what I'm doing.  I'm owning it.  If you ever see me on the street and wonder if I wear a wig, the answer is, "YES!".  I do.  And I'm so grateful the option is open to me.  I'm so happy that by resting my hair and relieving it of heavy shampooing, heat, pulling, blow-drying...and yes... color—I have an opportunity to possibly save what's left of my hair.

Right now Dr. Edwards just wants the follicles to rest.  To try to heal themselves.  And if they heal themselves, maybe, just maybe they'll start to grow hair again.  At the very least, they might stop dying and falling out.  My hair follicles are very sick right now and this wig is the intensive care unit.  And I'm grateful for the chance. I might even get an Afro wig or a Beyonce wig for the weekends.  But only if my husband wants me to.  Right now, though, this is about healing myself.

And I'm done crying.  I'm even done whimpering.  What's gone is gone and it's never coming back.  And with everything going on in the world, all the pain, all the suffering, all the illness, all the sadness over things that really count in the lives of human beings—if losing my hair is the worst thing that ever happens to me—I'm doing pretty darned well!

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