"Have you been stressed lately?" Dr. Greene* asked. I looked at her as if she asked me the most ridiculous question ever. After all, isn't life always stressful? My new dermatologist took my hesitation as a need for clarification so she added some examples of really stressful scenarios like whether I had recently undergone a big change or a traumatic life event.
A big change? I had recently graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and consciously decided not to partake in on-campus interviewing. I firmly decided that I didn't want to be an indentured servant in some big law firm working 80+ hours with little free time to do what I loved. I also didn't want to be swayed away from my dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter by trivial things like fancy offices or big paychecks.
So I moved out to L.A. with high hopes and a screenplay in hand but quickly settled for a cubicle and a tiny paycheck to pay for the roof over my head and my law school loans. My current position as a business affairs assistant at a top Hollywood talent and literary agency, William Morris Agency, paid about ten dollars an hour.
That's ten bucks an hour living in one of the most expensive cities on Earth. Evidently, enduring endless hours in front of a computer screen and answering non-stop phone calls for low pay while stressing over paying your bills on time was the way the entertainment industry wanted you to prove you deserved to be there and I was determined to make it in show biz. No matter what.
A traumatic life event? I had recently ended my engagement to my Italian fiancé just three weeks before our romantic wedding in Rome. This whooper of a break up left me devastated for over a year. On top of it, the canceled wedding had eaten up my savings and put me into credit card debt. I didn't have nearly as much money as I should have had to move to L.A. but I moved anyway. I figured I'd find a way to make it work somehow. As you can imagine, I was barely able to make ends meet and I wasn't even able to write unless I chose not to sleep.
According to Dr. Greene, it was this relentless litany of stressful situations that triggered the reason I was now in her office. Just earlier that month - that fateful morning in October 2004 - I pulled back my hair to discover in astonishment a crescent shaped bald spot behind each of my ears. The bald spots were so symmetrical that I started to question myself. Didn't I have hair there? I realized I was being ludicrous for doing so. After all, I know my own body. Or so I thought at the time.
That morning I decided for the obvious reason to wear my hair down instead of the originally planned high, sleek ponytail. As I worried, staring at my thick head of wavy hair easily covering the bald spots, I noted to myself that the ponytail would have indeed looked better with my outfit. But what I didn't know at the time was that I wouldn't be able to wear a ponytail again for what has so far been the rest of my life.
But sitting in that doctor's office was when I first learned about Alopecia Areata. It's a rare autoimmune disease that causes your hair to fall out. My body has somehow become confused due to constant stress and is attacking my own hair follicles by mistake and not allowing them to grow. Statistics state that about 2% of the entire population gets it and it's commonly believed to be induced by a particularly stressful event.
My stressful event occurred shortly after moving to L.A. when I completely freaked over being told I had only a couple days to find a new sofa to crash on with little friends or money to help. I distinctly remember feeling the fear of the unknown slice through me like a cold steel guillotine.
The saddest part about the whole thing was that it was all for nothing. The next morning, I ended up finding a new place easily within one phone call and I didn't even call my friend. He called me having already lined up a back up place for me since he knew my present living situation wasn't solid. Just one more example of how the stress we put ourselves through is usually in exchange for nothing of value.
Dr. Greene recommended painful steroid shots directly into my bald spots and advised that I try to not stress myself - whatever that meant. If I knew I was subjecting myself to such extreme levels of stress that it was causing my hair to fall out in chunks overnight, I wouldn't be doing it. The problem was I was just doing what I was told would make me successful in life.
After all, wasn't I supposed to be 100% dedicated to the job? Didn't I have to cut out exercise if I had to come into work early and stay late? Didn't I have to eat at my desk to get all my work done? And what's wrong with eating a nuked can of turkey chili when you're too tired to make dinner? It's only 200 calories and low fat. Didn't I have to choose between getting the job done or getting sleep? I thought being successful meant hard work, sacrifice, and a persistent drive that's almost superhuman.
But the problem is that working countless hours without rest doesn't actually increase productivity and wealth. The belief that more hours worked always equals more work accomplished is actually false because human beings need to unwind and recharge in order to operate optimally. Countless studies have shown that constantly working in overdrive is neither productive nor profitable. It's not even humanly possible.
I learned that what it actually does is cost you your well being, creative expression and relationships. It's contributing to obesity and the record number of illnesses especially amongst women in the last 30 years. It costs us money in record sick days, less productivity, and outrageous health care costs. It costs us in time not spent experiencing a life we love with the people that matter most to us.
My condition eventually developed into the rarest form of the autoimmune disease, Alopecia Universalis. I ended up losing all the hair on my body including my eyebrows and eyelashes at the young age of 29 just six months before my wedding day. Although going bald didn't keep me from finding and marrying the real love of my life, it did cost me my health and all the precious moments I lost in despair, struggling with body image issues, and the emotional and financial costs that must be paid trying to regain your health and confidence back.
Initially, I thought the life lesson was solely to learn that I didn't have to be a size zero with a thick crown of hair to deserve love. But what I since realized is that this is even bigger than confronting body image issues caused by my overly stressed mind and body (although important). It's about stopping the system of false beliefs regarding success that are causing us to get fat, sick, depressed and half-way to the grave way in exchange for less productivity and profit. It's about stopping what clearly doesn't work and redefining the rules of success so that women like myself can create meaningful and profitable lives by design without having to sacrifice their well being, creative expression and relationships for no reason at all.
We were told the price of success was to work harder and longer than the competition. But now I know that's not true. Success only comes when you take a holistic approach towards your life. It's about putting all the pieces together in such a way that allows you to create a productive and profitable life because of, not at the expense of, your well-being, creative expression and relationships. So be sure to care, love and respect yourself and your legitimate need to unwind and recharge. Because when you give your mind and body what it needs, it gives you success in return. No matter what.
*Name changed for privacy