AS new evidence from US scientists proves how acute stress can turn hair prematurely grey, three women tell Fabulous their stories – from surviving a natural disaster to losing a loved one.
‘I escaped death in the boxing day tsunami’
MICHELLE Mills-Porter, 51, is a professional speaker and consultant and lives near Birmingham with husband Stuart, 45, who runs a car valet business.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as I looked out the window of our third- floor hotel room, watching everything around us being submerged in water.
The sea was rising all around us, palm trees had been felled and buildings knocked down as easily as if they were made of sand. Boats and buses were being washed along the road. It felt like the end of the world.
Just before Christmas in 2004, my partner Stuart and I had travelled to Sri Lanka to go scuba diving with a group from the UK. We’d only been there a couple of days when the tsunami hit.
On Boxing Day morning we were woken by loud banging and crashing. Stuart went to the window to find out what was going on, before shouting at me to come and look. The sea had already flooded the first floor of the hotel.
Doing our best to stay calm, we pulled on some clothes and prayed the water would subside. In shock, all we could do was stare outside. There was no one else around and we felt completely alone.
After two hours, the water started to recede, so we managed to half-swim, half-wade out of the hotel. The water, which came up to our chests, stank of fuel, salt, sewage and death.
In a bar opposite the hotel, we found some friends from our UK dive team and then later, the manager of the local dive centre, who took us to his uncle’s house further inland.
Inside, there were more than 100 refugees, and we learned there was a threat of a second tsunami. Terrified that we might die, Stuart and I vowed if we got out alive, we’d finally get married after 12 years together. Luckily, the second wave was not as severe.
Over the following days, everyone rallied together to take care of each other and we were so touched by the local community’s kindness. When we were able to travel back to the UK the following week, Stuart and I felt physically fine.
Terrified that we might die, Stuart and I vowed if we got out alive, we’d finally get married after 12 years together.
But a few days later, I developed a fever and horrendous abdominal pains. I was admitted to hospital, where a gynaecologist asked if I’d been submerged in the water for a long period. I said no, but Stuart explained that it had taken us a while to escape the hotel.
I realised I’d blocked out the upsetting memories. I was diagnosed with an infection caused by the tsunami water and was put on intravenous antibiotics. I began to feel better, but the pain continued and I had several hospital visits with no diagnosis.
I suffered from numerous health problems, including a slipped disc, fibromyalgia and severe eczema. Then in March 2005, I was diagnosed with skin cancer. It felt like my body was giving up. I had surgery on my back to remove the cancer.
Fortunately, I didn’t need chemo or radiotherapy. I also had counselling for PTSD and light therapy for my eczema. A scan on my abdomen revealed I had scar tissue where my Fallopian tubes had fused to my bowel, and was told I’d never be able to have children.
At 35, it was devastating. I’d had two miscarriages before, but assumed having a baby would still happen for us. Despite everything, Stuart and I remained strong and we focused on helping rebuild the lives of the people who had looked after us in Sri Lanka.
Our dive team set up a charity called the Hikkaduwa Village Fund when we arrived home, and we raised £100,000 in six months with charity concerts, table-top sales and quiz nights.
In April 2005, my hairdresser noticed a strange clump of white hair at the back of my head. I knew immediately it was caused by the stress I’d been under, as she said it hadn’t been there the last time she saw me.
At first, I had a few highlights to try to blend it in, but within weeks I decided to go grey gracefully. I felt it was a badge of honour, representing all the trauma I’d survived.
'IT CHANGED MY WHOLE LIFE'
Just over a year after the tsunami, in March 2006, Stuart and I got married on a beach in Sri Lanka. It was a special place for both of us. Over time, my hair turned almost entirely grey. People assume it is dyed as grey hair is fashionable at the moment, but I explain that it’s natural.
The tsunami changed my whole life. I quit my job running an award-winning marketing business and became a motivational speaker. I wanted to help people uncover their own skills and work out what is valuable to them.
Every day I look at my grey hair in the mirror and feel thankful. We are often bombarded with the message that going grey is a negative sign of ageing. To me, it’s a constant reminder that I’m lucky to be alive.”
‘My son was bullied and wouldn’t go to school’
HAZEL Edwards, 46, runs a bridal accessory business. She lives with husband Mark, 52, and their 18-year-old son and daughter, 15.
“As my then 15-year-old son sat silently in his room refusing to go to school, I felt completely helpless. He had been bullied ferociously for four years and I didn’t think he could take it any more. The stress and worry were destroying me.
I met my husband Mark when I was 19 and we got married on Christmas Eve 1994, when I was 21. We had two children and life was busy but happy, until my son started secondary school in September 2013.
Almost straight away he started being bullied by his fellow students, including being spat on and threatened with a weapon. The bullies would also often steal his bag and kick it around the playground.
Until then he’d always been a polite and happy boy who’d worked hard at school, but the bullying caused him extreme anxiety and he would simply stop going to class.
His school was very supportive, and we attended endless meetings and appointments with teachers and therapy groups, but nothing helped.
It was very hard for the whole family. We were constantly worried about my son’s mental health as well as the education he was missing out on. We’d have daily battles with him about going to school, but there was no easy answer.
On top of everything at home, I was also running my own business, juggling many things at once. Mark and I were arguing a lot as a result, and I gained weight as I ate through the stress.
The situation reached a peak in early 2017 when my son, then 15, didn’t attend any classes at all for six weeks, causing everyone in the family huge amounts of stress. The school didn’t take legal action and were understanding, but the strain on us all was immense.
It was around this time, when I was 36, that I began to notice I was getting silver roots. I was shocked, as none of my friends had grey hair yet and there was no history of premature greying in my family, so I was sure it was to do with the endless stress I was under as a result of my son’s situation.
My hair was naturally mousy, and over the years I’d dyed it almost every colour, from blonde to black. At the time I found grey roots, it was pillar-box red, and to begin with, I was determined to hide the silver.
Every time I reached a centimetre of grey regrowth, I’d colour it again, worried it aged me. At our wits’ end and still with no solution in sight, we decided that my son needed to change schools.
In June 2017, towards the end of Year 10, we transferred him to a new secondary school. It turned out to be the right decision, as he settled in quickly and built a good circle of friends, as well as meeting a girlfriend.
In June 2018, he sat two GCSEs and did well, finishing the rest of his exams the following year. We were so proud. The following summer, I decided rather than fight against my grey hair, I’d grow out the dye.
The transition was awful, as I had to put up with long roots and two-tone hair until it grew out. Then finally, last December, all the dye had disappeared.
My hair is now entirely grey. I really like its striking colour and my husband does, too. People often compliment me on my hair colour, and ask where I had it done. I’m only too happy to tell them that it’s all natural.
My son is still doing well, and while his horrible experience at school caused me to go grey, it’s also helped me appreciate what’s really important in life – and hiding my grey hair just isn’t.”
‘I was devastated when my partner died of cancer’
LINDA Magistris, 56, is the founder of The Good Grief Trust and lives in Surrey.
“Graham and I first met while working in TV in the late ’70s. I was one of the original cast members of Grange Hill, playing schoolgirl Susi McMahon, and he was working as a director. The whole cast and crew loved him and he was very charming to everyone.
We didn’t see each other for 30 years after that, but one day in October 2006, we bumped into each other in Wimbledon and discovered we’d been living about 10 minutes away from each other for many years. There was a real spark between us, and we ended up dating and falling in love.
Graham made me laugh and, even after eight years together, he made my heart flutter every time I saw him. Sadly, in May 2014, he was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer.
I cared for him from the moment he was told about the tumour, but though he was so brave and positive, he died much sooner than we expected, just five and a half months after his diagnosis, in September 2014, aged 62.
I was just 50 and his death had a huge impact on me. I’d lost the love of my life and the future I’d imagined vanished before my eyes. What I wasn’t prepared for were the physical symptoms that came alongside grief.
Just a few months after Graham died, I noticed I’d started turning grey along my hairline. I’d never had any grey hairs before this, so I realised that my grief must have caused it.
At first, I didn’t do anything about it as just getting out of bed was hard enough. But after a while, my lack of confidence in my appearance began to add to my low mood. I wasn’t looking after myself and eating proper meals or exercising regularly. I simply didn’t resemble my old self.
Feeling the lowest I’d ever been, I went to my GP and was referred for bereavement counselling. I had four sessions, but it didn’t work for me, I needed to find others who had been through a similar loss.
So I set up The Good Grief Trust charity in August 2016 to bring together the wealth of support available for the bereaved in an accessible database of organisations.
I’m still not ready to embrace my grey hair, and I now tint it back to my original blonde, which has helped boost my self-esteem. Graham would have loved my hair any colour, but most importantly I know he would have wanted me to be happy in myself.
Whether people want to embrace their grey hair or dye it, they should do whatever is right for them. Feeling strong and confident in your physical and mental health is important, especially after losing a loved one.
I am lucky to have now found a special new partner and I’m very happy, but it’s a comfort to know Graham would be pleased to see me confident and looking like the woman he fell in love with again.”
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