‘Ms Amazebald’ on living with Alopecia and depression

Anne Harkin, pictured wearing one of her wigs.
Anne Harkin, pictured wearing one of her wigs.

Anne Harkin is a woman on a mission.

The Carndonagh mum lives with Alopecia and depression - both of which are completely unrelated to each other.

Anne Harkin, aka 'Miss Amazebald'

Anne Harkin, aka 'Miss Amazebald'

But Anne is dedicated to raising awareness and helping others who are living with similar issues. She has set up a popular, positive and extremely honest online blog, in which she talks about the challenges she faces and her keys to overcoming them.

Online, Anne is ‘Ms. Amazebald,’ a fabulous moniker she chose as a nod to the baldness caused by Alopecia and a play on the term ‘amazeballs.’ It truly represents Anne, who is never afraid to just be herself.

She discovered she had Alopecia at the age of 17, when a hairdresser noticed a bald patch the size of a 50p coin at the side of her head. More continued to appear, which Anne said was “annoying” but when the hair did not grow back and the patches began to merge into each other, she “freaked out.” Anne’s doctor sent her to a dermatologist, who said she had Alopecia Areata and once she had one type, it would not interchange. But Anne’s did and she later developed Alopecia Universalis, where all body hair is lost.

As her hair continued to fall out, Anne bought her first wig just before her wedding day.

She said: “As the patches grew into each other, I refused to shave it off. But, I didn’t want to go up the aisle a half-bald bride. So, I travelled to Belfast, got a wig and that evening I shaved my head. It’s strange, but I don’t remember the rest of it falling out and I don’t remember my eyebrows falling out.”

Anne revealed how there has been major advancements in wigs since she bought her first in 1999. There are now more colours and styles, with higher quality design and expertise. The Internet has also been a “massive benefit” in sourcing them and treatments such as eyebrow tattooing are also now available. While wigs are expensive to purchase, HSE Aids and Appliances, through a GP, do provide grants, which go some way towards covering the cost.

While Anne has lived with Alopecia for the best part of 20 years, she reveals how it’s only in the last year she is “not really hiding anymore.” Anne showcases how bald is most definitely beautiful and said the blog has been a fantastic vehicle for expressing how she feels, while also helping others.

She said: “A few women have come up to me and said it has happened to them. One woman had Alopecia for 40 years and only her husband and children knew about it. I found it so sad that she couldn’t talk about it. At the beginning, I had blood tests and everything to find out the reason and I tried all I could to stop it. I had to come to terms with it as well, to a certain extent. I didn’t realise how ‘backwards’ I was about it personally until I started to exercise. The sweat was tripping me and I started wearing a bandana as I didn’t want to be bald in front of people. But then I just took it off. And now I don’t even think about. If I’m out and about I don’t like going without my wig, as sometimes I do feel naked without it. It does take time to adjust. But, I was out at Hallowe’en and dressed as an alien! I didn’t have my wig on and just felt so free. And no-one batted an eyelid. I’m not as brave as some people - but I am getting there.”

Offering advice to others diagnosed with Alopecia, Anne told them to “talk, talk, talk.”

“Tell people how you’re feeling. Get your bloods checked as it mightn’t necessarily be Alopecia, as there are a few things that can cause hair loss.”

While Anne’s blog deals with her Alopecia, it also focuses very much on her depression, something Anne stressed she “lives with, fights, but certainly doesn’t suffer from.”

Anne’s depression does not come from her Alopecia and her Alopecia does not come from her depression. She started the blog after attending Sarah Barr, of New Beginnings counselling in Moville. Many people had already told her she should be writing and Sarah suggested blogging “and it snowballed from there.”

Anne told how the first time she was diagnosed with any type of depression was when her daughter was around six months old. While visiting the doctor with her little girl, she was asked how she was feeling. The doctor asked to see her the following week and told Anne she didn’t seem like herself. Anne was diagnosed with post natal depression, something she “didn’t see” herself at the time. She recovered from the PND and then her mother died at the beginning of 2009. Anne was in her third year of college and after Christmas, “hit a wall.” She wasn’t going to classes and knew something wasn’t right. After speaking with her doctor, Anne was diagnosed with depression. She told how, along with her mother’s death, she also moved house and split up with her now ex-husband.

“I had gone through every emotion in a year. I started medication and was on them for six or seven months. I came off them myself, which I really, really don’t recommend.”

Anne again recovered but in 2014 her relationship broke down for a while and “depression hit big time.” She stopped sleeping, and almost stopped eating and drinking. Anne described that period of her life as “just awful and scary” adding how if she had not gone to the doctor she believes she would have ended up in hospital. She returned to medication and began to feel more “balanced.” In 2016, the relationship broke down for good and Anne knew how, this time, she “needed to seek help.” She could feel the depression returning and went to the doctor. She returned to medication and said she now feels more like herself. She is considering coming off the medication soon, but this time under doctor supervision.

Along with the medication, Anne also keeps well through “exercise, exercise, exercise.”

She said: “I’m at the ‘Keep Fit’ gym in Malin with Charlie Byrne. I can’t recommend exercise enough. Even if it’s just a case of getting out walking, please do it. For me, I like to lift heavy stuff. I love it. It helps exhaust me physically and mentally. Sometimes with depression it’s like you live in your head. If I’m exhausted physically and mentally then I’ll sleep. To anyone out there, I would just say to find the exercise that works for you, but do it.”

Anne also stressed the importance of self care and ensuring you look after yourself.

She said: “Exercise, practise self care and take medication if you need it. I tried, at first, to battle on my own and it was not a good idea. Get help, from your GP, a counsellor, a friend - someone. Please don’t hold it in, as it’s the worst thing you can do. There’s a saying that a problem shared is a problem halved and it’s true. I’m very lucky in that my doctor listens to me. Find someone who listens to you too.”

Anne said that someone once asked her for advice on supporting someone living with depression.

She said: “If you haven’t had depression it will be harder to spot the signs, but there are many signs. For me, it’s crying constantly and starting to slip back into not eating. I also sleep a lot. It’s not always the case that people with depression can’t sleep. When that girl asked me what to say to someone going through depression, I told her to just be there for them. If they haven’t said anything, don’t push them but make sure they know you’re there for them. Ask them how they’re doing, but really listen. So many times, we ask people: ‘How are you?’ but we don’t really listen to their answer. And, do something nice, even sometime like sending them a card or making them a coffee - just be there.

Anne said while there still is some stigma, many more people are now talking about depression and anxiety, which is “very important.” She added: “Just keep going. You will get there.” You can find Anne’s blog at http//:msamazebald.wordpress.com.

For information on Alopecia, see www.alopeciaireland.ie. For information and support on depression, see www.aware.ie.