Zelda Burborough, 52, a coffee shop worker from Kent, lives with her husband, Mark, 48, and her three children, now Rafferty, 17, Bella, 16, and Amelie, 13. The shock of her father’s death caused Zelda's hair to fall out. Here she shares her story of living with alopecia.
Arriving at the train station in my hometown of Beckenham, Kent, with my three children – Rafferty, Bella and Amelie – on a Friday night in November 2018, my phone rang and it was my father John, calling from his home in France.
As the children and I were heading into London to go ice-skating at Somerset House, I didn’t have time for a long chat. But after I checked that everything was OK with Dad, I asked him if we could speak the next day. "Of course, I’ll phone you then," he’d said, his voice as strong, as full of life, as ever. "Speak to you later, Dad," I said, distracted by the approaching train. "Love you."
It was one of countless conversations I’d had with him over the years, and hardly one of our most heartfelt. But it’s one I will always remember. Because it was our last. The next day, I received another phonecall. This time from my stepmum who called to say Dad wasn’t very well and had been taken into hospital.
One day in the shower a clump of my hair came away in my hand as I was shampooing it. Soon I became too scared to wash it.
By the time I was boarding a plane to their house in the early hours of Sunday morning, he had already died. Doctors suspected it was a cancer that hadn’t been diagnosed and it had eventually turned into sepsis.
When my stepmum broke the devastating news when I was at the airport, it felt completely surreal. He had sounded so well on the Friday night, no one had a clue anything was wrong.
As I sat silently on the plane, it felt like there was a whirlwind swirling inside me. Growing up, my father had been my mum and dad rolled into one. After he and my mum had split when I was three, he’d brought me up in Kew, South West London. A true English gent, he loved culture, so we spent our Saturdays in art galleries or going to the theatre to see Shakespeare.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t full of fun though – I remember us jetting off to Cuba when I was 15, back in 1986 before anyone was going there, and having the best time.
Charming and so knowledgeable, I jokingly called him a walking encyclopedia. But in all seriousness, he was my true inspiration – the most important person in my life.
Grieving for my father
Looking back now, it’s easy to see that I should have been kinder to myself, given myself the time and space to acknowledge what I had lost and grieve for such a wonderful man.
But I was the problem-solver in our family, the person who got things done. I was the one who made dinner and made sure everyone got out of the door on time. Not the person who fell apart.
So rather than focus on my own feelings, I turned my attention to my three children, who were 12, 11 and eight at the time. "It’s OK to feel sad, we’ll miss Grandad a lot," I comforted them. "But he was 90 and he’d had a very good life. We have to be grateful that we had him for as long as we did."
Whenever anyone asked me how I was, I told them I was fine. Because I was always fine. I was the one who coped with life, no matter what it threw at me. That was just who I was.
Plus, everyone lost their parents, didn’t they? It was the natural order of things. So I plastered a smile on my face and did my best to ignore the gaping hole in my heart.
First signs of hair loss
Yet, no matter what I told everyone – and myself – it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t alright. Because one day in the shower, in February 2019, a clump of my hair came away in my hand as I was shampooing it.
“Look at this!” I said to my husband, Mark, in shock, holding it out for him to see. And over the next few days, more and more of it came away. Soon, I became too scared to wash, or even brush, it.
When I went to my GP, she didn’t look as surprised as I’d expected. "Has anything upsetting or out of the ordinary happened to you recently?" she asked. "My dad passed away," I mentioned. "But could that really cause this?"
Apparently, it could. She explained that trauma could bring on alopecia. The good news, however, was that because I had alopecia areata, the type that was just confined to one part of the body, it could just be temporary. We just had to wait and see.
At home, having lost about 70% of my hair, I desperately tried to style it to disguise what was happening. Having always worn it around my shoulders, I tried cutting it short. "That doesn’t look too bad," I tried to convince myself.
But within a couple of weeks, I’d lost so much, I was just left with a few strands. "I think it’s best if we just shave it all off," I said bravely, handing a razor to Mark.
‘I think it’s best if we just shave it all off,’ I said bravely, handing a razor to my husband Mark.
The whole situation must have been equally shocking for him but he was nothing other than completely supportive. He told me repeatedly he still loved me, and thought I was as beautiful as ever.
An emotional realisation
Looking in the mirror afterwards, it was more shocking – and more emotional – than I’d anticipated. I’d always taken my hair for granted. Despite bemoaning the fact that it was too fine, I’d never really given it much thought.
But now it wasn’t there, suddenly I realised just how much of my identity had been caught up in my hair. How drying it nicely or pinning it up had been as much a part of getting ready for the day as picking out my clothes.
It was a huge part of my femininity. I’d always loved going to the hairdressers, treating myself to a volume-boosting treatment or enjoying a massage before settling into the chair and hearing the comfortingly familiar snip of the scissors.
I started to dread going out, facing the stares, sometimes even comments.
In recent years, to combat my growing amount of grey hairs, I’d dyed it all pink and laughed when everyone gasped when they’d seen it for the first time. Now it was just… gone.
And of course, when anyone sees a bald woman, they always assume the same thing – cancer.
"Are you sure there’s nothing you’re not telling us?" my children asked anxiously. "Of course not," I reassured them. "It’s alopecia. It only affects your hair, not your health."
When I left the house, I had to have similar conversations with friends, neighbours, other mums at the school gates. "I thought you must be having chemotherapy," a few of them said in relief. "You’re so lucky it’s only your hair."
I found myself agreeing with them. But while, of course I was glad I hadn’t been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, I felt far from lucky. Whenever I caught sight of myself in the mirror – and I was amazed to realise just how many mirrors were in our house – I was confronted by someone I didn’t recognise. Someone whose facial features looked suddenly lost and different underneath the stark, bare scalp.
I’d spent so long teaching my children that looks didn’t matter, that it was what was on the inside that was important. So I felt superficial and vain to be so distressed by the change in my appearance.
Trying to ignore my feelings, I experimented with hats and wigs, but I didn’t feel comfortable in them. So I took to wearing a headwrap when I left the house.
That summer, some of my hair grew back and I felt a brief spark of hope. But by my dad’s first anniversary, it had fallen out again completely, this time taking my eyebrows and eyelashes too. That’s known as alopecia totalis, when you lose all of the hair on your head.
By my dad’s first anniversary, my hair had fallen out completely, this time taking my eyebrows and eyelashes too.
But even that didn’t prepare me for what came next – alopecia universalis. Where every hair on your body falls out.
I started to dread going out, facing the stares, sometimes even comments, I attracted when I left the safety of my house. I couldn’t believe the double-takes, the points and nudges people gave when I walked past.
So when lockdown was announced in March 2020, it felt like a reprieve. Having that time alone helped me and my family come to terms with my new appearance. I also realised just how badly my mental health had suffered over the past two years. Alopecia may not be life-threatening but it is certainly life-changing and it was a relief to recognise that.
It was also during lockdown that I came across the charity Changing Faces on Instagram. I saw a huge range of people, all living with various visible differences, and that really helped me start to accept myself.
Now, over four years on, I’m feeling stronger. I’d be lying if I said that I am completely comfortable with my appearance. I still struggle when I take my children to the hairdressers – although if I catch them looking at me sympathetically, I can now whisper, ‘Will I take off my wrap, ask them to give me a new style?’ And we all laugh.
But 18 months ago, I started researching hyper-real eyebrow tattooing and I eventually got mine done, as well as a smoky eyeliner. It made such an incredible difference, to be able to wash off my make-up at night and still have that definition.
Now I can appreciate the things that having alopecia has taught me. It’s not weak to admit you’re struggling. It’s not ‘just hair’ and it isn’t vain to be upset that you look different.
And now, I can appreciate the things that having alopecia has taught me. It’s not weak to admit you’re struggling. It’s not ‘just hair’ and it isn’t vain to be upset that you look different. And that I need to be kinder to myself, to not always put others first.
I am also so proud of how empathetic my condition has made my family – and our wider community. We are far more understanding of what other people are going through. And the bald truth is, we all need to be more like that. To make everyone’s lives that little bit easier.
Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for everyone who has a scar, mark or condition that makes them look different. For more info, visit Changingfaces.org.uk or call 0300 012 0275.