When she was eight years old, Terri Heshka was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that doctors didn’t have a name for. And then, all her hair fell out. She was prescribed Rogaine, in the days when this treatment for hair loss was still available only by prescription. She underwent aggressive steroid injections into her scalp every six months — some 100 injections per treatment — and prayed for her hair to grow back.
“I was completely bald at nine years old,” says Terri, who started riding at about the same time, turning to the unconditional and mutual love she found in horses and eventually finding her way to membership and competitions with Reining Alberta.
“I wore a wig to school, and was bullied and teased. It was very tough… very, very tough. I didn’t understand what was going on in the first place… and having my wig pulled off in the hallways between classes made everything harder. Later, I would learn that stress is the biggest symptom trigger for people living with autoimmune disorders.”
Through her twenties, the alopecia worsened again, and Terri did her best to hide the hair loss, while focusing her energies on living the best life she could muster in light of her highly visible condition, a disease that carries with it the added burden of social awkwardness.
“You can’t watch a commercial or TV without seeing someone flipping their hair around, having it blowing in the breeze. Alopecia is such a shameful disease,” Terri says.
“People just go into hiding. I’ve talked to so many people who live with alopecia who are crying all the time.”
The last time Terri competed in the Reining Alberta ring, she says she was more concerned about her appearance than riding and enjoying her horse.
“I was desperately trying to hold on to my cowboy hat, which was pinned to my bandana, which was pinned to the few strands of hair I had left. I was just way too uncomfortable, too scared, too nervous.”
It was too much. Terri gave up competing. She’d enjoy her beloved Ares in private — named after the Greek god — now a 14 year old quarter horse Terri’s had since the day he was born of her mom’s mare, entering the stable only when she knew no one else was around.
Until last month, when Terri re-entered the show ring at the Reining Alberta Summer Classic in Red Deer July 6-8. It was her first foray back into public competition after a self-imposed three year hiatus. She and Ares scored a personal best. And she did it bald.
“Two years ago, on September 3, 2010, I shaved my head. All of a sudden, all those years of hiding… hiding Terri… I’m liberated from all that. Even though society says healthy people have long flowing hair, I know now I can still be beautiful, even with no hair.”
She did it with Ares’ horse clippers.
“My mom had just bought me a beautiful new wig, and when I took it off, at the end of the day, and looked in the mirror, I said, ‘I can’t continue living like this’.”
She walked down to the stable.
“I was constantly cleaning up hair, from the floor, in the bathtub. It always felt like I was throwing myself in the garbage. I had been using the little horse elastics to tie up little pigtails, and when I shaved them off, and was holding them in my hand, I was struck in that instant with how desperate I had become to try to hold on to this tiny little amount of hair… like it was my lifeline.
“I gave Ares a great big hug and he nuzzled me like he always does, like he still loved and accepted me the same.”
Still, it took Terri another six months before she’d show her bald head to anyone, including her mom and her boyfriend.
“It’s only been in the last year that I started going around without anything on my head. I love who I am now, and I know where I stand in the world.
“There are still moments I struggle socially. Every once in a while I’ll get the jaw dropping gawking stare — ‘oh my god it’s a bald woman!’ And I get the cancer question a lot. I had one woman ask me if I’m contagious. I’m now strong enough to just help people understand, I’m bald and this is what it is.”
“It was so gratifying to experience so much support at the Reining Alberta Summer Classic. People were happy to see me back in the ring, and I couldn’t be prouder of Ares and me for earning the highest score we’ve ever earned.”