Life was never easy for me this year. December 2015, my Alopecia recurred again few days after the 2nd phase of our project in PaWeCan Do It—a marine turtle conservation education project funded by the US Embassy in Manila. I was scared because I knew then how difficult life would be in 2016 carrying the shame of being bald at an early age. I’ve been carrying this disease since it occurred in 2009, I was still in secondary education, and it recurred again in 2013 when I’m on my third year in the University. The disease is chronic and science hasn’t found a cure yet for this disease. Knowing the facts, I have accepted already that this remains with me forever.
I decided to shave off my hair in January 2016 because my hairs started to fall excessively. It was such a smart decision I made yet a tough one. It’s a challenge I saw at first since I have my organizational & professional responsibilities in which confidence is my capital. A big part of my work as an environmental educator and a research assistant in an anthropology project is facing the public, yet the thing that gives me confidence was lost already. It was a motivation for me to see the baldness as an opportunity rather a challenge and a weakness. I went on with our project swallowing my pride for not having my crowning glory, toughening myself as I witnessed people laughing at me or making fun of my baldness.
One of the motivations I’ve thought of that time was developing myself professionally so I could convince myself that at least with my current condition, I could still achieve greater things. So I applied to YSEALI Generations: Oceans workshop in February 2016 and was fortunately accepted. I traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia from March 16 to 20 to attend the workshop and met different marine conservationists coming from different ASEAN countries. It was at that time I felt my self-worth. With my regained confidence, I came back to the Philippines knowing that I won’t feel being a social misfit again.
We’re down with the last phase of our project and I felt more empowered in finishing it. My passion for marine turtle conservation was immense that people’s dejected actions weren’t enough to undermine it. In May 2016, I was given the chance to be a research scholar of the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Research Institute in their Marine Turtle Interaction Study in Apo Island. I stayed on the island for a month and did an in-water research observing the behavioral ecology of the Pawikans. It was an addition to my list of achievements that I’m proud to show to those people who laughed at me.
It boosted not just my professional career but my life’s aspects as well. Confident with what I’ve achieved, I applied to the YSEALI Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues. It’s an environmental leadership training in the USA together with other ASEAN youths. At a certain point, I gave up hoping since I didn’t receive any call from the embassy in the first week of June 2016 for the interview round. I thought that time, “it could’ve been a great platform for my development”. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail on 11 July 2016 congratulating me for being selected for the fellowship.
Two out-of-the-country trips in just a year were more than I’ve ever wanted, and they’re both free! I didn’t’ even think of the challenge that my baldness posed at this point since I’m overwhelmed with opportunities. With a successful culmination of our project on 26 June 2016, I embarked on a new journey for self-actualization. What I carried that time with me, and until now, are my experiences, ardor, drive, and determination to survive the battle. I am not sure if, as a bald person, I already mastered the art of facing people because it still pains me to see people looking at me like I’m a freak.
Before my USA trip, I received good news from the US Embassy. I was invited to attend the YSEALI SEA Camp Summit in Manila! Another unexpected opportunity to finally meet one of my inspirations in conservation, Tita Anna Oposa! Just a few months back, I was only a fanboy sending her messages on Facebook and tweeting to her, but the moment came when I actually got to talk to her personally. Too bad that I faced her bald but it turned out to be a great send-off gift from the embassy.
The time finally came and I visited the United States of America. I asked myself: if I gave up and let the disease stop me from doing the things that I’m passionate about, will I achieve this? The fellowship was my most significant milestone in 2016. It was a culmination of all my hard work and efforts. If I faltered, stopped, and gave up, I wouldn’t be able to visit the Pearl Harbor, see the most photographed bridge in the world (Golden Gate Bridge), and visit the Yosemite National Park. They’re my rewards, I convinced myself, my rewards for my discipline and determination.
You see? I used my baldness as an opportunity to broadcast my ardor for conservation. I’ve tried convincing myself that the only way to regain my confidence is to develop professionally. So I did not stop trying and pursued greater goals. Though it was a difficult year, I managed to survive because in every step of the way there were milestones that contributed to my confidence.
I just want to add what Tita A said, “if that’s the chip on your shoulder to motivate you, then so be it”. Shameful I’ve been feeling maybe, but my baldness brought me to places, widened my social network, and granted some far-fetched wishes. The key takeaway of my story is that life’s challenges come in many ways, but the way to overcome these challenges is to view them as opportunities, not weaknesses nor threats.
More challenges await me in 2017, but this disease can not stop me from doing the things I love. Because just like Pia, I’m confidently beautiful with a heart. ❤