Amman, Jordan — According to the instructions on the Rogaine bottle, you’re supposed to fill the syringe to the marked 1 mL line. Despite my painstaking application, the liquid always runs down my face.
“If you’re not careful, hair could grow in accidental places,” the doctor warned. Now I wipe up rogue drips and fear I’ll soon grow whiskers. (My grandma, speaking from experience, tells me it’s going to happen eventually, with or without the Rogaine.)
I always attributed my widening hair part to being a stressed-out teenager. It’s temporary, I told myself, a response to the onset of puberty or the pressure I put myself under to succeed in school.
Then, six months ago, fresh out of college, I learned it was really alopecia, an autoimmune disorder characterized by hair loss. There’s no cure.
My hair loss wasn’t overnight — actually, anything but: protracted, confusing, confidence wrecking. I can’t pinpoint the origin, but it’s been a long time.
In a childhood photo from a 2007 family trip to the Middle East, I’m rocking a mane of curls and a carefree pose in a snug orange top and flowy denim skirt. Now my ringlets are wispy and cling to my scalp, as if unsure of themselves, and my posture seems stubbornly hunched.
To conceal my sparsest patches of hair, I started wearing headbands in my early teenage years. A floral one with eye-catching pinks, peaches and yellows quickly became one of my most indispensable possessions.
I wore it every day, ignoring how it clashed with almost everything in my colorful, very paisley closet. Nice strangers showered it with compliments. Meanwhile my sister could hardly stand the thing. Then, very suspiciously, it went poof one day.
Over time, my collection of headbands grew. Most came from Palestine, where my roots are, and featured traditional Palestinian embroidery. One with hand-sewn red flowers on it — a gift from my grandma — soon replaced the lost headband as my new favorite.
Then I fell asleep on a flight and woke up to discover in a panic that it had vanished. “Headband?” a bewildered stewardess repeated after I, on the edge of tears, breathlessly described my missing valuable.
It never turned up. I imagine an admiring fellow passenger, on her way to the toilet, swiped it off my head. More likely, it fell off and landed at the feet of someone who felt lucky and brought it home.
Outside of family, only close friends, my hairdresser and a handful of doctors knew the real reason for my headband obsession. Everyone else probably assumed it was all in the name of fashion.
This past summer, a 6-year-old cousin wondered why I always wore “that” on my head. From the next room, my aunt called out “Serein!”, classically embarrassed by her child’s uninhibited curiosity.
I showed Serein my fine spots and explained that they made me feel bad and that I was more comfortable covering them. When my words registered, her face telegraphed sympathy: “You’re still beautiful, Hanan.”
But that’s not how I feel, watching in helpless despair as clumps of my hair gather in the shower, on my pillow, in the bristles of my hairbrush. With each strand I lose it’s like a part of me dies. And in the future, as the state of my hair worsens, I’m worried headbands will no longer serve me.
“How will you cope then?” I sometimes ask myself. “Transition to bandanas? Get a decent wig? Find a way to embrace being bald?”These wrenching questions cloud many restless nights.
I used to count the number of strands I lost each day (yes, really), to see how I fared compared to the healthy rate of roughly 100. I’ve since stopped the futile tracking, surrendering to the reality that the degree of my hair loss doubtless exceeds what’s normal.
When I start feeling sorry for myself, a disembodied voice chides me: “Stop being ungrateful. It could be way worse. Your hair loss could’ve been a side effect of chemotherapy.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved a serious illness isn’t the culprit in my hair loss. I know I lucked out in the health jackpot — and I’m beyond thankful for that. But it still hurts to say goodbye to a feature so central to my appearance.
When I’m older and wiser, maybe I’ll reach a point of dignified acceptance about it. I’ve got a ways to go.
Gloria, a 90-something friend I met as a volunteer at a New Orleans-based nursing home, understands. A fellow alopecia sufferer, she kept her precious strands wrapped in a shrinking bun until her hair was too stringy to tie back, leaving her with little choice but to transition to wigs in middle age. Tragically, her sense of self-worth continues to suffer all these decades later.
I feel less alone in my struggle knowing Gloria. But the thought that hair loss could be a lifelong torment, like it’s been for her, terrifies me.
Recently I moved to Jordan to teach English and sharpen my Arabic. My female students don’t twirl their locks mindlessly like I used to in school. The majority of them cover with a hijab. They look — they are — bright, motivated, beautiful. Hiding under a hijab in Amman has been tempting at times, but I’ve decided not to out of respect for what it means to wear one with the right intentions.
For now, I carefully apply Rogaine twice a day. I take vitamins, use a microfiber towel, sleep on a satin pillowcase, gently massage my scalp. My sister keeps me accountable, double-checking through WhatsApp that I remembered my supplements, that I’m still kneading my scalp daily. I try to eat well, stress less. Still, the part in my hair keeps widening, my thin spots getting thinner.
Sometimes I challenge myself to go without a headband on, to prove to myself that I can. This after more than nine years of scarcely letting 24 hours pass without wearing one. I’m a lot more self-conscious on those days, feeling exposed and consequently withdrawn.
When I make it through them, I survey my reflection in the mirror —
And look for that self-assured girl with the wild mass of curls, the girl from the photo, the girl I used to be and perhaps still am.