November 26, 2008

Looking Forward

I hope the laser hair removal entries helped some readers. I know from experience the amount of curiosity surrounding the procedure. If anyone has any questions that weren't answered in those two posts, don't be shy. I will do my best to answer them. But just because I suffered through it doesn't make me the expert. I'm in the same boat with you all. ;-)

I apologize for not updating last week. I've started to become fashionably morose on my birthday. You know how it is on sit coms, when a woman moons over all the things she hasn't attained yet--wedding, babies, etc. Should a girl be doing that at 23? Please!

I had such a rough time last year, turning 22 and hating the way I looked. I was experimenting with astringent skin products at the time, thinking that if zits became one less thing I had to worry about, I'd be so much happier. The products were drying me out and making my sensitive complexion even worse. I actually broke down in a restaurant after a day out shopping because I felt so miserable about my appearance. I thought, "Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?" The situation has been better since I've figured out a few things that my skin likes (see this entry for products I currently won't do without), but still, the age of 23 rolls around and I'm as bearded as I ever was.

Of course it makes me think I can't get a date, let alone a wedding, even though I know that's not entirely true. For the most part, I'm far too particular, and far too stand-offish in first impressions. Those are things that have nothing to do with hirsutism, but added all together, I get to thinking with cloying self pity how much of a romantic pariah I am. And don't even get me started on children. What if my hirsutism is hereditary? Could I risk imparting that to my children and have them go through these fluctuating times of hope and shame?

It even influences travel, which is something else I really enjoy. I have a hard time camping in its truest sense. ("What do you mean there are no showers?!") I feel limited about any place where I might need to wear shorts or swim suits. And the change in lighting in a hotel bathroom, or the fact that the sink and mirror may be out in the open where whoever I'm rooming with can witness my required ablutions, are also factors.

So I need to seriously pep talk myself into a better state of mind. This physical detail does not bodily prevent me from these things I feel like I'm missing. It's the way I feel about it that prevents me. I need to either be okay with that, or find a way to control that.

So I haven't had a proper date in five years? A lot of that is because I'm picky about personalities, or have been too busy with post secondary education, or because I've never been the kind of person to risk embarrassment my sharing my feelings first. If the dry flaky skin or outbreaks from shaving repel a guy, I should be thankful. He's not someone I would have found lasting happiness with anyway.

I also try to think about all the things I've done, to remind me that there's even more to be done out there. I've galloped on a beach and swam with dolphins. I've made it through modeling and dance auditions (I know, I was surprised, too!) I've written first drafts of novels and earned a bachelor's degree. I've rode some of the biggest roller coasters in Texas and been to famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Chichen Itza. I can't help but smile to think about the things that have thrilled me over the relatively short time I've been alive. The beard is a large part of me, but it's not everything about me. I should be grateful, not disappointed. I should be optimistic, not defeated.

And there it is, a nutshell version of what I've been telling myself this past week. Because as soon as my inner dialogue circles around the thought, "Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?"--fearing showing my skin, battling every day to get the closest shave I can and then get foundation to lay smoothly over it, feeling terrified when talking to a handsome man, making vacation plans around the plumbing arrangements--I need to smack myself.

Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like? For goodness sakes, I'm lucky!

November 12, 2008

'Fire the "laser!"'

This is a continuation of the post: 'Begin "laser" ignition sequence!'

I went to the laser clinic once every 4-6 weeks, in order catch some hair in its growth cycle. Those are the follicles we aim to damage when we get laser hair removal--the active ones. I went the first time without any local anesthetic for two reasons: one, I didn’t know what it would feel like, and two, I didn’t want to walk into the office with saran wrap stretched over white cream on my chin, as I had seen some women do. I preferred the average person to have little or no clue why I was there until I went into that particular door.

I lay on a beige chair rather like a dentist’s chair, which the technician (who had also been my consultant) reclined most of the way back. She took off my glasses (and commented every time how she would like to steal them), disinfected my jaw line, and squirted cold gel onto my skin. It came from a plastic bottle resembling a diner ketchup bottle, and because I couldn’t see what she was doing, the slurping sound and sudden chill of the gel always startled me. The laughing afterward helped to break the ice.

Then she started up the laser with a gentle humming sound, and distributed eye protection to everyone in the room. My mother often sat in with me, possibly out of curiosity as well as moral support. She and the technician got to wear orange lab goggles. The protection I had to wear as a laser-ee was the much less stylish tanning booth kind that basically blocked the world right out.

The laser was about one or two centimeters in diameter, and she held a plastic gun-like apparatus to my face before she zapped. Sitting in the dark, I could always prepare myself that way. An elastic snap is a good way to measure the pain--it certainly wasn’t any more intense than that. But for myself, it felt less like a snap against the area and more like a one or two centimeter square of needles poking my skin for a fraction of a second. I could feel the heat flow down each hair shaft into the follicle. Some areas were less painful than others. I found the point of the chin, where the hairs were coarsest, caused a more vivid sensation. Some hairs under the jaw made a close second. As soon as I would jump in surprise at the feeling, it was gone. She would always ask if I was all right before continuing. I always was.

Though it did hurt, I was very gung-ho. I liked feeling each of the offending little follicles burning. Sometimes, you could smell it.

When it was done, she took away the goggles and wiped the rest of the gel off my face. She spritzed it with something light and cool that smelled like lavender, and my skin which was beginning to feel like I’d been out in the sun, was relieved. The last thing she spread on was a light SPF 45 cream, and handed me my glasses and an ice pack.

I thanked her, said the procedure wasn’t bad, but that I would like to use the anesthetic cream from now on. She gave me a small tube and explained how to use it, we made our next appointment, and I was on my way. Though a little singed, I felt excited about this path I had embarked upon. That very day the family--the family who doesn’t know about my facial hair--was going up to a resort for the weekend. No sooner did I come home than we were in the van and on our way. There was still growth worth shaving on my face the next day, but that was normal. The follicles, the technician explained, were shedding, and then a new cycle of hair would begin in dormant follicles. I slathered some SPF 45 on after my shave, and some foundation over that, and I went on as normal. The skin was red and irritated, but not much worse than a shave could do.

The next time I went back to the clinic, I was prepared. I unfortunately have forgotten the name of the topical anesthetic I was given first. It was the kind that has to be applied with plastic over top and left to sit for half an hour. I was advised that I could wash it off before I set out for my appointment, so that is what I did. After I had used up that tube, though (in about two appointments I might add) I was given something new called Maxilene 5, which contains lidocaine and is used for things like burns, insect bites, and hemorrhoid relief. It was much less of an inconvenience to apply, because although it had to sit for just as long, I didn’t have to keep plastic over it which made a huge difference. I found myself thoroughly entertained by the effects of the anesthetic. I could still feel pressure, like fingers on the skin, but I could not feel temperatures or textures. It was fascinating--but as a word of caution, don’t get it near your mouth. Lips lose their feeling very easily, and it can be very unnerving.

Did it work? Well, it certainly improved the situation. I would wash it off before getting in the car so the feeling in my skin was returning by the time I got into the chair. I was still gritting my teeth by the end of each session, but it was a big help.

I began to look forward to my appointments. The technician was lovely, and I was glad to be doing something about my hirsutism. I wasn’t seeing any difference overall, but then, these were always new hair cycles starting that hadn’t been affected by the laser yet. Every now and then, a treated follicle would give up and release the entire hair and it would come out on my washcloth. That was a thrilling event in my day.

When I came to my sixth session, however, she was going over my skin before applying the cooling gel and said, “Huh. You’re not noticing a difference at all?”

I told her no, and she went very quiet for a moment. “By now, you should be. Did your GP get you to take a blood test before referring you here? You know, to check for hormonal abnormalities and such?”

“No,” I said darkly. (I must segue to add that this was the third time my GP had jumped to a conclusion without making any more investigation than a few pokes and a flurry of questions. That’s why I am currently and voluntarily without a GP.)

My wonderful but now slightly flummoxed technician said she would be sending the order for a blood test to my local lab, and in the mean time, this final session was on the house. She said I could call back in about three weeks for the results, and we would go from there.

After the session, I stared out the car window on the way home, realizing for the first time that it was very likely this had all been for nothing. That was the time my mother asked me, “Would you rather have this--or would you rather be fat?” Anything but this, I thought. Anything but a bearded freak--especially one who doesn’t know why she’s bearded.

I took the blood test as soon as I could, and called back in three weeks. My technician wasn’t there, but the woman who answered the phone was very confused about my request for my results, and said I should probably calling the dermatologist who referred me. I thought that was odd, because I had very little to do with that dermatologist since starting treatment. But I called his office, and the lady who answered that phone was just as baffled. She said the doctor was on vacation and she had no record of it here, but I should probably call whoever had ordered the test in the first place. Disheartened and more than a little annoyed, I can’t recall if I ever contacted anyone after that.

But then, after about four weeks, something curious happened. I took my washcloth away from my face and noticed several full hairs lying there, root and all. I scrubbed again. More came away. I peered into the mirror. Could it be there were less hairs than usual? I almost cried.

Gradually, the damaged follicles released their hairs and no new ones grew in. I still had the odd dark vellous strand, but the terminal ones had disappeared completely. That summer, I didn’t shave once, and rarely plucked. I went on a houseboat trip with my family and could wake up in the morning and climb right onto the top deck without having to worry about my face. I had three wonderful, carefree months, as far as my face was concerned.

Then fall came, and I began to have to pluck more. It was identical to my first onset of hirsutism. When I was spending far too long each morning plucking, I moved on to bleaching. And when bleaching became too much of a chore, and was turning the terminal hairs golden instead of blond, I went back to shaving. And here I am, nearly four years later, in the same boat I was when I started.

See, the thing is, I don’t know why this happened to me. I haven’t had the heart to break down doors to find out what happened to this rogue blood test. I can’t say that it’s not worth it either, because I had three months of freedom from all tweezers and blades, so something there was working for a while. The results have been even better for some, I’ve read. It is absolutely worth a try.

Would I do it again? Yes. If I had the money to spare and knew it might only give me a quarter of a year of hairlessness, you bet I would. In a twisted way, it was enjoyable to be doing something about the way I felt about myself.

November 5, 2008

'Begin "laser" ignition sequence!'

New layout! I like redecorating.

Perusing support forums I often see women--particularly young women--asking about laser hair removal. "Should I do it?" "How much is it?" "Does it work?" There have got to be a lot of girls out there wondering what it’s like and if it’s worth the money. Now before you read this post, allow me to insist one more time that each lady is different and may get different results. It seems to depend on the root cause of your hypertrichosis. Mine is yet unknown. But hopefully my experience will help you to make a decision you can feel good about.

Now, in 2004/2005 when I finally decided to try the procedure, there weren’t any of those commercials you now see on TV. Not for hair removal. It was all scar and cellulite reduction. I originally went to my family doctor a couple of years before that and said, “Look, I’ve got this hair in places I shouldn’t. What’s up with that?” He referred me to a dermatologist, who in turn referred me to a laser clinic in the same building. A laser? For hair removal? How was that going to work?

Created by Aesthetic VideoSourceIt was a nice-looking place, almost spa-like, and the consultant was sweet and sensitive. She gave me some publications and tried to describe the process to me, and what I would be expected to do, and how it was supposed to feel. "Like an elastic snapping against your skin, at most," she said. She even offered to zap my inner elbow once so I could see what it felt like. Now, I’m terrified of needles, and her putting a mysterious machine in the same spot you get pricked for a blood test intimidated me far too much, and I gave a nervous laugh and declined. But she zapped herself in the arm like it was nothing, which heartened me. Still, I said I’d think about it.

But I was getting sick of shaving, and I was getting older. I left high school; met a guy. Well, I met a few, but one of them was particularly special. In my second year of college, I started thinking about living life as a couple--even though the relationship didn’t work out, it awakened in me the awareness of that eventuality. Was I going to have to sacrifice half an hour of each day for the rest of my life to this? Besides, how much easier would it be to tell a boyfriend about my hirsutism if I could refer to it in the past tense? I knew there were no guarantees on the permanency of laser hair removal, but I was finally willing to try.

I got another referral. I met with the same consultant. She commended me for the effectiveness of whatever hair removal method I was currently using (shaving and slathering on the make-up)--said I was very good at hiding it compared to some of the women she’d met. It was a welcome tonic, but my eyes welled at the possibility of waking up one day and not having to spend half an hour in front of a mirror shaving/bleaching/plucking before doing anything else. We went over the procedures together once more, and I booked my first appointment.

I won’t go into how laser hair removal works here, because plenty of places already do that. Like here, for instance.

There were a few stipulations before treatment. I had to avoid the sun for 4-6 weeks before and after treatment, and use a sun block of SPF 30 or higher even for short trips out of the house. I started treatments in September, so that was not a big deal, but I’m extremely fair skinned, so I wore SPF 45 all the time. Darker skinned women might have to begin a bleaching regimen 4-6 weeks before treatment can begin, which may be more of an imposition. And if I’d had cold sores, I would have also had to take a course of anti-viral pills starting the day before treatment and for one week afterward.

Also, there was to be no bleaching, plucking or waxing for six weeks prior. I was at a shaving stage of my life then, so it made no difference to me. This may freak a lot of girls out, but it’s for the best. If you remove the hair from the root or lessen its pigmentation, the laser can’t get at it to damage the hair follicle. The area to be treated had to be shaved 24 hours before treatment, and no later.

I was also told that after treatment, I could continue with my day right away. There could be some redness and swelling, but makeup could be used immediately. She recommended not using hair removal products like depilatories that could aggravate the area afterward, but I was allowed to continue my shaving regimen as normal.

I bet you’re curious how much five courses of this was supposed to cost. Keep in mind, these quotes were rough estimates, in Canadian dollars, and given to me four years ago:

Sideburns and chin: $500
Stomach: $600
Lower back: $1200

Unfortunately, those are the only quotes I have. I don’t have quotes for chest, arms, or legs written down anywhere, but assume the larger the area, the more expensive treatment becomes. Now for a girl who went right into college after high school, completely funded by scholarships and student loans, how was I intending to pay for it all? Well, having the cushion of the student loan made me feel more confident in parting with so much money all at once. I went for the sideburns and chin only, which would eat up all the money I had ever earned in my life--from baby-sitting in high school. When you’re young, $500 seems like a lot of money to pay for any one thing. That, I think, was the most difficult part of the decision.

To keep this from getting too long, next week I’ll talk about what it was like, and how well it worked.