artist. poet. dreamer.

writing

Hair

The first time I met death, I was sixteen. Then eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and I have stood on death’s threshold so often that I am no longer allowed to ring the doorbell. She has grown tired of my lingering, my questions, and so have I. After all, wishing for death at sixteen is peculiar, and I’ve found it makes people uncomfortable. I use that to my advantage.

Few things are more delicious than watching someone flush with discomfort and scramble for words when I tell them about my experience with the “C-Word.” Cancer. Not even doctors can bring themselves to say it— instead they confuse us with medical jargon, which might make some people feel better, but it always made me angry. This isn’t an essay about cancer, though. Rather, it’s about a side effect of the healing process. This is an essay about hair.

It’s easy to forget about hair. It sits on the top of our head, seen only in periphery and in reflections. We’re bombarded with images of beautiful women with flowing hair as soon as we engage with media— every magazine advertises “hair tips and tricks,” and hair care commercials are a dime a dozen. We teach our girls that nice hair is one of the tenants of femininity, and those girls who have short hair are probably lesbians (and therefore undesirable.) For most teenage girls, blending in qualifies as their survival method, a camouflage of eye liner and curls. Before my illness, I disappeared in the crowd at my private high school with my long gold hair and conventionally attractive face.

And then, right after spring break my sophomore year, I found out I would never fit in again. (Or at least, that’s what it felt like.) I found a lump on my neck, and a cold-handed doctor diagnosed me with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My world shattered. I would have to do four rounds of chemotherapy, which translates to a little less than six months before possible remission. My parents cried for their daughter, but I cried for my hair. After I started treatments where I sat in a room with an IV drip the color of fruit punch, I began to find golden threads of hair in my clothes, which grew into small tumbleweeds that eventually gathered into bird’s nests. I imagine I looked like Pigpen, only instead leaving a trail of dirt, I left a trail of hair. Thinking about how my bone white scalp revealed itself over that week still makes me nauseous.

I was sixteen and bald. I couldn’t bear to look in a mirror. I didn’t feel like myself, no— I had transformed into a hideous ghost that could only waste away, a veritable harbinger of death, set forth to suffer. Perhaps that sounds a touch melodramatic, but you try being stripped of your defining feature at your most vulnerable age and tell me how you feel. The symptoms of illness combined with teenage angst created a powerful anger, one that destroyed from within. I fell into a deep depression. I spent most of my days either numbing my mind with daytime tv or just staring out the window listening to the angry wails of various punk bands. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me— it felt grossly unfair, like the universe had randomly singled me out for the sole purpose of torturing me. I lived in a prison of my own hurt.

On the few days when my waning immune system allowed me to go outside, I wore a beautiful wig, and strangers would ask me if the bright blonde color was natural. “Of course,” I would answer back with an interior smirk. To this day, I can count on my fingers how many people saw my bald head because I always wore a wig or a scarf. Only my mother, father, and a few best friends caught a glimpse of my bare scalp, some by accident, others by an act of vulnerability. I didn’t want anyone to see the outward manifestation of my pain. Though I knew it wasn't my fault, I felt a deep sense of shame.

My hair began to grow back at the beginning of my junior year, a month after I finished chemo, and I gleefully abandoned my wigs to nurture my new bronze crop. As it grew, it curled like vines, and though styling it was a pain in the ass, I looked great with short hair. People commented that I looked like Emma Watson with her post-Harry Potter pixie cut, a compliment that always made my day and helped repair my self-image. Gradually, it straightened and grew, and I settled on a bob hairstyle that I've maintained since— it kept my hair from sticking to the back of my neck during the Houston summers, and it made me feel chic and cool.

Then I hit another milestone in my life: I went to college. I discovered myself. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was on my own path, not just pushed forward by fate's wild hand. Though I had gained my independence from physical illness, my depression still haunted me. I wanted to quit, to die, to melt into the earth, for no real reason other than sheer apathy. So, instead of shouting my angst into the internet’s void via some blog like other people my age, I went to therapy . I’m still in therapy, if you were wondering, but don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a self-righteous diatribe about the importance of mental health— again, that’s not what this essay is about. I felt stagnant, like a puddle full of tadpoles, bursting with possibility but in a state of inertia. I needed a change. And then I had an idea.

I enlisted my best friend to help, and after a brief trip down memory lane to Hot Topic, together we gleefully coated my hair in bright pink dye. I’ve always loved pink, the color of romance and girlishness, and "fuchsia shock" seemed like the perfect color to resurrect my self-love. We sat on the floor watching Bob’s Burgers or something as we waited for the dye to set. I’m sure we were probably a little wine drunk— we usually were those days, even on a weeknight. After an hour, I went to wash out the dye.

As I watched the fluorescent rivulets of water stream down my body, leaving pink snail trails on my pale skin, I felt my past wash away as well. My angst, doubt, and bad habits all swirled down the drain with the fuchsia water, no doubt headed for the sea, our favorite receptacle for grief. I stood and let the water pour over me until the dye stained the bathtub pink, like the inside of a shell, and I stepped out and dried my hair. Looking back at me in the mirror was the girl I had always aspired to be. Myself, but whole. Intact. Unique. Gone was the pale, ghostly figure I had come to recognize as myself, and in her place stood a woman radiating with color and light, reborn in an unconventional baptism. I ran my fingers through my new rosy locks, and I thought about everything that lead me to this moment of renewal— how hard I had fought to survive, how diligently I had denied myself until this point.

Dyeing my hair changed my perception of myself (it was like wearing rose colored glasses,) and I began to love myself like I loved my hair. It definitely helped that everyone loved my new look though, because there’s nothing like validation from others to brighten your outlook. My parents weren’t even mad about my dramatic hair color.

It was February, and my friends and I were all performing in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. We do it every year, switching parts and direction to keep it fresh. At this point, we could all probably recite the entire show, but there’s one line that kept coming back to me after changing my look. The ending monologue begins with the line, “my revolution begins in the body.” Dyeing my hair felt like my own revolution, my own radical act of self-love. My outsides finally matched my inner perception of myself, and my creativity burst like a broken dam, spilling poetry and art over my life. I conquered my cancer. I’m in the process of conquering my depression, five pills a day, plus therapy. My journey, from my devastating diagnosis and the loss of my beloved hair, to my bald, ghostly days of anger, to the spring of new growth, and finally to a new confidence, gave me the guts to take control of myself and the courage to show the world my true self. I am changing, and I am healing. My revolution began with my hair, and nothing can stop me now.

For an academic writing sample, email paige.poe1@gmail.com.

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