By Monica Luhar for NBC News – November 18, 2014
Jackie Nguyen no longer spends hours tediously curling, brushing, straightening, or washing out her long, straight, black hair with scented shampoo and conditioning products. These days, after donning a hat or a wig, Nguyen is out the door in minutes. That’s the way it’s been, ever since she lost her hair.
On a warm August evening in 2014, Nguyen — then a 25-year-old musical theatre actress — followed her normal routine. She took a late night shower, blow-dried and brushed her hair. A few minutes later, she noticed more hair than usual on her brush — handfuls of hair had fallen out. She combed again. Again, clumps came off.
She panicked, called her boyfriend, then her best friend. After a few days, she finally told her family, then headed to the hospital in San Diego.
“I checked myself into an ER. I spent hours and hours in the hospital with a doctor, therapist, different dermatologists, gynecologists, every type of ‘gists’ you could fathom. I had every type of blood test, eye test, lady part test, everything,” Nguyen, based in New York, wrote in her blog.
After ruling out cancer and an array of other possible diseases, Nguyen was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder commonly diagnosed during childhood that can lead to hair loss.
“I was speechless,” said Nguyen. “I had never heard of alopecia before. It was mysterious and scary.”
Nguyen is one of nearly 6.5 million Americans and 145 people worldwide — men and women — diagnosed with alopecia areata, according to Gary Sherwood of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.
“When I stare in the mirror now, I don’t see long, straight, Asian hair”
He notes that although the disease is more likely to present itself during childhood, diagnoses can come at all ages, even as late as Nguyen’s.
“When I stare in the mirror now, I don’t see long, straight, Asian hair,” said Nguyen. “It’s a shock when you’re a woman in show business. When you’re constantly judged upon your looks probably 60 to 70 percent of the time.”
When she was first diagnosed, Nguyen’s doctor asked if she had been battling stress or depression at any point during her life. Reluctantly, she nodded her head, and thought back to the years when she struggled with severe depression shortly after the unexpected loss of her brother in 2007.
So much of Nguyen’s energy over the years had been devoted to building her professional life, she’d never paused to reflect on her own emotional well-being. Pursuing a career in the arts had already been a tough pill for her Vietnamese-American parents to swallow.
“It was a long battle with my family as far as gaining support,” said Nguyen. “But as soon as they saw me cast as Kim in ‘Miss Saigon,’ they completely dropped their guard and supported me.”
Nguyen threw herself into breaking barriers in musical theater, earning leading roles in “Miss Saigon,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Road to Saigon” with international and well-respected troupes.
Talent and ability weighed into each casting decision, but so did physical appearance — and Nguyen, whose hair continued to fall out, was feeling increasingly uncomfortable about hers.
“I’ve been struggling mostly with feeling confident as a bald woman and not feeling insecure,” said Nguyen. “Some days I don’t care at all. But then there are days when I don’t even want to be seen in public.”
Eventually, Nguyen knew she needed a way to address the emotional burden that contributed to her condition. To help handle her stress, she made the difficult decision to share it. She turned her usual platforms for expression — her photography, social media accounts, and blog — into vehicles for her to vent.
“If you’re Asian and depressed, you would talk to your friends, not your parents.”
For much of her life, Nguyen had never publicly discussed how depression had seeped into other areas of her life, crushing her lively spirit, making everyday activities into herculean efforts.
She wrote about the days when depression confined her to her bedroom. She wrote about the horror of helplessly watching her hair fall out, day after day, and her daily struggle to conceal that loss. But she also wrote about the love she felt from friends and family, the support she received in her darkest days, and the push she needed to get back into the audition room.
One week, she was writing about the latest show she was working in North Carolina. The next, she was writing about losing her hair.
“I was going into another show two weeks later and my hair was falling out so fast and I was already encountering so many people asking me, ‘Are you okay? Are you sick?'” said Nguyen.
Nguyen now believes her delay in dealing with her depression could have contributed to her sudden diagnosis. Blogging gave her an opportunity to not only discuss her sudden alopecia diagnosis, but also shed light on depression and mental health –- topics that continue to be taboo among Asian Americans, she said.
“I know so many first-generation, Asian-American friends who suffer from depression and anxiety. They’re not able to talk to their parents because their parents make it seem like you need to be strong and not break down,” said Nguyen. “If you’re Asian and depressed, you would talk to your friends, not your parents.”
Over time, Nguyen’s blog posts have transitioned from performance highlights and overseas trips to honest musings on her battle with hair loss and depression, like this one from a post titled, “Fortune Favors the Bald!,”
“I want others to feel like there’s someone out there willing to be completely honest and open”
“My life has been changed with my new friend, Alopecia. She’s that one friend you think is super annoying; she’s always tagging along, maybe talks too much, supes self-centered but really means well and eventually will be the one to help you when you need it most. In the meantime, Alopecia is a basic bitch.”
Recently, she decided to take control of her follical fate. With her boyfriend at her side, she completely shaved her head. He followed suit, in solidarity. Jackie announced her decision with excitement on her blog: “I am free.”
But she continues to document the inevitable dark days that followed.
“I want others to feel like there’s someone out there willing to be completely honest and open about an experience that might not be the best,” said Nguyen, “and still find some way to make it through.”
Monica Luhar is an assistant web producer and reporter for KCET’s award-winning show, “SoCal Connected.”