April 29, 2016KR BlogBlogReading

Losing It: On Hair, Trauma, and Regrowth

Mom_1968
My mother (right), 1968.

I thought my hair was falling out. I first noticed something amiss on Halloween, when I put on an improvised headpiece as part of my costume. As I used a hand mirror to ensure the headpiece was clipped securely in the back, I caught sight of my scalp. Was that a small bald spot, there at the crown of my head? I stared and stared, as if my attention alone could make it disappear. The thinning patch wasn’t dramatic, and I could shift my hair to cover it, but there it was: my scalp, exposed.

I poured myself a drink and went about enjoying the Halloween party. I tried not to think of my hair—my incredibly fine hair that has never been thick or full—and how maybe I was starting to lose it.

For the next few months, I avoided looking at the back of my head in a mirror. I tried not to notice that my hair felt thinner when I washed it. Anyone with long hair like mine is accustomed to finding the strands everywhere—in the shower, in the bathroom sink, attached in clumps to sweaters—but now, I started to view the lost hair in a different light. Maybe this was something more than normal shedding.

One evening, after investigating the short, broken hairs creating a halo at the front of my hairline, I decided to check the back of my head again. It appeared the original thin spot had spread. Unnerved, I put down the mirror and rushed to my laptop to research female hair loss. You can probably guess where this is going. Confronted with images of yawning bald spots and innumerable women recounting about their own irreversible hair loss, I started to panic.

“I’m too young to lose my hair,” I told my husband as I frantically searched for brightly colored wigs online. (If I lost all my hair in my thirties, I might as well become the type of woman who wore purple wigs. Why the hell not.) I was convinced that every strand that fell out from now on would never regrow, that I’d lose and lose until finally, I’d be bald.

I’ve never considered myself a vain person, and I’m usually low-maintenance to a fault when it comes to my appearance. But the thought of losing my hair was too much. I read once, in some yoga guru’s book, that an attachment to our hair is nothing more than any other materialistic burden, and that an enlightened person should be able to happily shave off his or her hair. Easy for the yoga guru to say, I thought bitterly. He was a man.

For hours that night, I was sick with dread. I felt ugly and hopeless and, even worse, mortal. But in the midst of this self-pity, I thought of something that might comfort me. I went into my email inbox and pulled up the essay draft my friend, Jennifer Marie Donahue, had sent to me over a year ago.

Jennifer is one of my closest writing friends and critique partners, and she still lived in Cleveland back when she was experiencing a dramatic hair loss. I met her at cafes for writing dates during this time. I remember the gray hat she wore to cover up her bald spots. I remember her distress. And I remember reading an early draft of her essay and marveling at how she told the story of her hair loss by unpacking not only the myth of Medusa, but also her past trauma of a rape and abduction.

“I dreamed I was Medusa,” the essay opens. It goes on:

My hair fell out in clumps only to be replaced with tiny buds of serpents and, as the snakes grew in length, their cool, dry scales skimmed my scalp. Each thin body in hues of bright blue and green were identical. Their red tongues flicked in and out of their mouths as they searched me, smelled me. When I woke, tangled in the sheets, the darkness offered little balm to the fear of the dreamscape. Instead of being grounded in the reality of my familiar room with my husband asleep in bed beside me, I still felt the slithering reptilian bodies. I reached up with tentative hands to touch the crown of my head in an effort to dispel the phantom dream sensation. There I felt my hair and the bald spaces where my hair should have been.

Jennifer’s essay, “Strands,” was recently published on The Rumpus. It’s a powerful piece on many levels, but on that night a few months ago, I needed it for comfort and information. I wanted to read about my friend’s experience with hair loss, to learn how she addressed the problem, and to see how she made it through to the other side.

*

Years ago, I dressed up as Medusa for Halloween. I bought fake snakes—rubber snakes of all sizes and colors, plus some wooden, hinged snakes that moved like the real thing—and attached them to a headpiece. I put on a black dress, some black lipstick, and voila. Medusa.

It wasn’t difficult to tuck my hair under the headdress, to hide it beneath the snakes. My hair has always been both plentiful and scarce. It’s long, but it’s fine—so fine that I learned, ages ago, that my best bet is to keep it long and simple. Layers don’t work on my hair. Cutting it short doesn’t add any body and only makes me mourn the missing length. It’s not even worth the $12 to get my hair trimmed at a cheap chain salon; instead, I have my husband trim it straight across every few months or so. Sometimes I even cut it myself.

When I was growing up, like many girls, I wanted my hair to exist as anything other than its natural state. I was desperate for curls. At age twelve I bought a bottle of Wash ’N Curl shampoo, but of course it didn’t work. I tried curling irons, but the curls fell away limply in moments. When I was thirteen, I convinced my mother to take me to the beauty school in town to get a perm. After hours of waiting for the chemicals to set, the hairdresser unrolled my hair only to watch it fall flat again. She told me it was because I had “virgin hair.” I returned later to try again, and this time the perm stuck, but only partially. Every morning, I had to mousse the halfhearted curls and scrunch them into place. My hair looked perpetually greasy until the perm grew out.

For prom and, later, bridesmaid duties, I learned the drill: no shampooing for at least twenty-four hours before the salon appointment, followed by enduring dozens of pointy bobby pins and entire clouds of hairspray. All of this was a chore reserved for special occasions; otherwise, I simply washed my hair and that was that. In college, my closest friends had thick, full, curly hair. I watched in amazement as they woke up early to straighten their wild waves, to tame their hair into sheets as flat as my own. I knew I was too lazy, too lackadaisical about my appearance, to ever invest that kind of time into my hair on a daily basis.

If you don’t count my brief spells of adolescent angst, I didn’t spend much energy thinking about my hair. I believed it would more or less always remain the same—long, straight, and fine. Sometimes I imagined how it would eventually turn white or (better yet) silver, but that kind of change was far in the future.

I took my hair for granted—until I worried I was losing it, strand by strand.

*

I made an appointment with my dermatologist. She tugged at my hair to test how many strands came out. She felt my thyroid. She studied my fingernails. I recognized every step from Jennifer’s essay, and this calmed me, made me believe there was an order in the world that could save my hair.

Because some types of hair loss are hereditary, the dermatologist asked if my mother had experienced thinning or hair loss.

My mother as a teenager.How to describe my mother’s hair? I have an image of it in my mind—blond hair so thin and fine that you could see straight through all over to her scalp. But by this point, fifteen years after her death, I can’t remember if her hair looked like this before or after the chemotherapy. I remember her hair falling out, how remnants clung to her head in patches. How she lost her eyebrows, her eyelashes. How we went shopping together for her first post-chemo wig when I was seventeen.

When hair grows back after chemotherapy, it’s often changed. But even before the cancer, my mother’s hair was fine and fairly thin. She told me that back in the seventies, she owned several long, thick blond wigs she wore for fun. Wigs were in style then, she insisted, and I could tell she had enjoyed having such full-bodied hair, even if only temporarily.

My mother was so blond and palely complected that she once admitted to me that she didn’t need to shave her legs. I was a teenager when she told me this, and I reacted with mock outrage. I had inherited her fair skin, her blue eyes, and her finely textured hair, but my hair was brown, not blond. And I definitely had to shave my legs.

My mother, 1970.
My mother, 1970.

I watched my mother lose her hair to chemotherapy, then tentatively grow it back only to have the cancer resurface and take her life a mere three years after her diagnosis. After her death, I read Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. My twenty-year-old self took a highlighter to certain lines. All these years later, I open the book to find this passage highlighted:

I know the reason I wear my hair long is because I remember the horror of seeing my mother crying in the bathroom the day her hair began to fall out in clumps. It’s not rational, I know—drugs, not cancer, made her lose her hair—but at some level I’m convinced that the more hair I have, the further I am from death.

Hair is life. I couldn’t shake that belief, not even as I sat in my dermatologist’s office and told myself that I had to hold it together. This wasn’t cancer, after all. It was just my hair.

When my dermatologist finished the exam, she looked directly into my eyes, as if willing me to take her seriously when she explained that she saw no patterns of significant hair loss. She suspected my hair was thinning a bit based on some hormonal factors, and that things would stabilize soon.

She leaned in close. “You’re fine,” she said. “You’re not losing all your hair. Okay? You’re going to be just fine.”

*

In “Strands,” Jennifer writes about how past traumas can reenter our lives when prompted by an unlikely source. For me, some thinning hair took me back to watching my mother lose her hair and then her life. A long-ingrained fear surfaced in the process: that I’d one day suffer the same fate she did.

For Jennifer, hair loss recalled a horrific assault. She writes:

Trauma. I stared at the picture of the hair follicle as the doctor left the room to write me a prescription for a topical steroid. All my hair falling out: was this a manifestation of a fifteen-year-old trauma stored inside my body? The hair follicle looked like a diagram of a plant, a seed that blossoms out and transfers the stored up energy to a stalk and then a flower. But the root was damaged. Without that starting point nothing could grow. The self was attacking the self. My body was blaming itself: it didn’t matter how many times I said or anyone else said, ‘It isn’t your fault.’ I believed it was.

After I read Jennifer’s essay, I sent her an email thanking her for what she’d written. I told her that I’d needed her words, that they had been a comfort at a time when I felt ashamed of my own body and how it was betraying me.

In her reply, Jennifer told me: “I wrote that essay because I don’t remember reading anyone write about the particular pain of losing their hair. There is so much of our identity in our hair. I still worry that one day I will wake up with a new spot.”

I still worry, too. That my hair will continue to thin. That it won’t regrow. That something I’ve come to believe is a part of me will disappear for good.

That despite all I have lost, there is still something more to lose.