How I Finally Learned the Importance of Hair-Combing & Came to Appreciate the Intellectual Rigor of Deciphering the Meaning of Good & Bad Hair Days

My attempt at combing with widow's peak showingRecently, at age 43, I learned a very important lesson about the importance of combing your hair. An epiphany of sorts. Before I get into that though, I want to give you a brief history of what a notorious non-comber I am. [pic shows tonights attempt at combing and presentation of my widow’s peak by cell phone snap in bathroom] — lisa gill

LET’S START WITH THE EARLY YEARS: my mother wanted a normal daughter who did normal things and had friends and sleepovers, a child she could show off as a good daughter to her friends. I was a bookworm and tomboy and always outdoors when not reading and wholly obsessed with poetry, landscapes, and war. The pressure to doll up and be girly was incessant. We fought about hair. We were still fighting about it in my twenties. In high school during my junior year, I cropped it so short, most people assumed regularly and everywhere and aggressively daily that I was a scrawny boy. (I wanted to slip a hand up between the slits of my running shorts and pull the tampon out from between my legs and dangle it across the fenceline of the harassment,  “Boy, huh?”  Yes, these thoughts occur.) During those years of running track, I also had a small bald spot perhaps the size of the quarter that was so unchanging I assumed it was permanent. It was by my temple. It didn’t bother me at all and I sometimes mentioned it when hair came up in conversations but stopped that when neurotic teen girls got all “eww”….  Leg hair really bothered them too. “Sorry. Really, I am sorry.” I still didn’t care about the bald spot. Figured I must have had a head injury there. Expected it to be permanent for life. Six years later or so, sometime in my twenties, I got nostalgic and looked for it and realized I couldn’t find it. I was shocked to miss thumb-welt type rock rubbing spot (though I’d never rubbed it.)

By my early twenties and undergraduate years, I was just going farther my own direction with everything and tended to believe that the purpose of brushing my then midway-down-my-back hair was to retrieve enough useful strands in the brush that I could toss them out the window and perhaps the birds might find it useful and pick some up.  (I have all my old poems about that kind of “making nest” from the Nude with Birds series I was writing… )

And so it goes… I got hired to write brochures and publications and PR for UNM, freelance, work-study, and then that job morphed into that kind of netherworld temporary permanent position where they keep laying you off periodically for a few weeks so they can rehire you without ever having to pay for benefits or offer an actual salary. Eventually I quit, disgusted. But before that, they tolerated my hair as my brochures sometimes won awards. It got a bit wilder though over time…  One especially uncombed day, I came in and set my beautiful blonde coworker into unstoppable fits of laughter with her own memories of the time she’d had such delightfully tumultuous sex that she’d had to go to the hairdresser to get untangled enough to suppress her glow more appropriately…  (Mine had more to do with waking up nights with ideas for advertising and new inventions of dog toys, as well as strange flavor combinations for alcoholic drinks despite the fact I wasn’t drinking—midnight epiphanies suck.) The laugh was worth a lot.

And then in the poetry scene. You all know Danny Solis? Premiere tough strong and head-strong and brilliantly talented slammer and performance poet? The f’ing legend Danny Solis?  Danny is unstoppable and unshockable. Who can feduzzle danny? Lil me? Nah surely… and yet when he first got off the airplane in Albuquerque, coming for one of the Albuquerque Poetry Festivals that were coordinated by Juliette Torrez and Mitch Rayes (with me in wings as behind the scene workers), he came straight from airport to an event at Best Price Books and Coffee at the corner of Central and University and there I was. At work, setting up a reading or workshop. And he stopped cold. “OH MY GOD, I have to brush your hair.” This is how I met danny. The brushing did not happen. The event did.

And people put up with me. My best friend in undergraduate school, and still friend now, and my best EVER poetry sunday morning spot-on writing collaborator, Maggie wholly accepted me. She was so perfectly coiffed, great hair dye that fit her skin, wore only clothes that were perfect and always worked together which she managed by only wearing blacks and whites….. and we laughed together and I wore odd combos of short skirts and tights and cowboy boots and t-shirts. I amused her and her perfection bedazzled me and simultaneously was something I knew well enough not to try to emulate. I am not good with these things. One of the most hilarious things in retrospect was that I knew her almost two years closely before I realized the wedding ring on her finger meant she had a husband. “Really? How did that happen?”

And then last summer when I was in crisis: hair played a part. In June I cut my hair off in a tizzy in ten minutes in front of the mirror so I wouldn’t look so female, even bound my breasts that day, got out of the long dresses I’d been wearing spot on. That particular day a car I didn’t recognize had followed me aggressively for thirty minutes before I was able to lose him. Worse though, was what had happened the day before. While hanging out and chatting and smoking cigarettes near our apartments, my neighbor and I accidentally interrupted an attempted assault on another woman, also a neighbor, and then all of us were threatened for our lives by the attacker… we all interpret the exact meaning/translation of the threats a bit differently but they were threats clearly and undeniably and both myself and the woman who’d been getting assaulted moved out of the building immediately.  Both of us had piles of other accumulated reasons also and very luckily (partially due to how street-savvy my other neighbor was), no one had been hurt in the attack. Fear though sucks. And so did my hair. A couple months after that first impromptu cut, I went and had cut it again, at a salon (something I’ve been to perhaps five times in my life). I wanted someone to help me figure out what to do with it as one part was extra confoundingly short…  and also the fact that I was graying in weird stress patterns…  wanted to feel better about it. I also needed it super short so that I could get aloe and weird emollients right into the roots as the pain and irritation was so severe. Long hair does not let that happen. But I control those issues ok sometimes and now my hair continues growing.

Now flash to this April and May and June, these last few months. I’ve been wearing head scarves for a year due to light sensitivity and pain, the need to protect my scalp from sun, sun which can sometimes make my body go into a systemic reaction. No big deal… I tie my hair up and slap a scarf on.  It helps dramatically and I’ve now got a good scarf collection with colors I appreciate and even one scarf printed with Steve Jobs quotes that I ordered off Etsy—getting a scarf with his misfits quote was my big splurge.

So my doctors appointments continue as they have all year incessantly and we’re all trying to figure out what is up with me besides brain lesions and standard MS symptomology and how my abdomen and breathing and heart rate and all my body’s goodies are getting so hurt….

When I went to my last appointment with my GI doctor  less than a month or so two back, I had a list of all my recent symptoms and changes and felt ready to discuss the whole of my issues. I showered and dressed and went in to the hospital and had a good discussion about torso, got some more tests ordered. I had bathed and combed my hair quickly and thought nothing of it.

Three days later, I’m prepping for a small dinner party for a few close friends and mentors in the mountains (so I could fulfill the promise to myself to not isolate completely for the next ten years). About ninety minutes before guests are going to arrive and about the same ninety minutes when I will have to serve food which I am still coordinating, I run grab a quick shower. When I get out, I dry off, begin to get dressed, and I comb my hair, a bit more thoroughly than doctor prep. I wanted to look nice.

And that’s when it happened. I brushed my hair for real, even in the opposite direction of my standard sweep it into a pony, and I actually looked in the mirror, and that’s when I realized, HOLY FUCKING SHIT there is a giant bald spot up there! I am a glowing beacon of pale light emanating from amidst dark locks…. What the fuck? What the how? Holy fucking shit? Oh my fucking god.

My bright and shiny bald spot

Insta despair. I’ve been telling doctors for a year that all of my hair follicles are part of this disease and no one listens. (The cutesy dermatologist I waited two months to see told me what kind of make up to wear. “Huh, doc? Is that right? Ok, sweetie.”) I have researched for hours trying to make sense, even googling the phrase, “Can you be allergic to your own hair?” because it bothers me so much… Turns out you can, or at least one person on the planet is.  All I could think with this new glaring bald spot is that if I’d been aware a few days prior, I could have said to my GI doc, “LOOK! I’m not making this up.” She hasn’t seen it yet though I plan to send photos. My loss. My failure. My fault. I hadn’t brushed my hair before the appointment.

Meanwhile back at the dinner party… while I’m thinking all this, I’m still supposedly prepping food for guests. My mom who is helping with the dinner can’t quite do the emotional response and frankly there is no time anyhow. If I uncap the weeping, nothing of me or dinner will be in the bottle for the party. I finish prep, dress and scarf my head, and set about mustering the willpower to pretend I’m not horrified and disturbed. And we have a nice dinner and stroll and after everyone leaves, I weep and process alone.

The next day I’m back to my primary doctor in Edgewood who treats me with kindness and great compassion (and less impatience than when he assumes everything is MS and just wants to write a cereal-box script and send me home.) He spends time, talks,  also gives a topical to slow inflammation issues. For the first time, he believes me when I say something more than MS is going on. He sees it. He knows it. He diagnoses it as alopecia, a very particular pattern common to systemic immune system overreactions…. Hair falls out at root in circular from center outward (multiple layers of spirals) and then regrows quickly in center but keeps expanding a bit on edges until you get control. The timing of my hair loss (which was very fast) coincides directly to a massive pain flare when I was unable to stand up long enough to do the dishes or take a shower. I literally had a week with less than two hours of function per day, usually only managing anything other than bed in fifteen minute increments. When it got that bad, I started working with a caseworker to get help at home from government agencies with house chores and also went and got a prescription for a shower chair so I could actually have a chance to bathe (and afford the access to that). When I’m in that much pain, I’m not even able to make urgent calls to my GI or get to town for all those tests they keep trying to catch levels on. At the time of the most recent biggest recent flare, I thought… “Oh, you’ll see her in a week and a half. And worse, you’ll still be sick and levels will be even higher and worse in a few more weeks.” So I waited, then saw my GI on schedule, just forgot to mention some things because I AM THE WORST WOMAN IN THE WORLD AND  I’D ONCE AGAIN FAILED FOR THE FOURTH DECADE OF MY LIFE TO COMB MY HAIR.

My hair is regrowing. I refer to it as being in the shoe-polish phase now. As if I’d just spraypainted the glowing alien-signalling beacon dark to dull it. I can fake it with a comb-over. I still often wear scarves for pain and exposure issues, and always swim with a cap on my head or I think about it every breath stroke in the water, stroke/stroke/stroke/ turn head/ breath/ hey guy on deck watching, “Here’s my baldspot, all you gym-boys, wanna date me now?” But it’s good.

I know a whole helluva lot more than I did. Ultimately, this weird hissy fit of body noncompliance is useful medical information. For me it meant that I could probably take pancreatic cancer off the table, which I was concerned about for other longstanding reasons and new escalations of symtoms. Cancer patients get associated with the concept of hair loss, and scarves for women, but often, perhaps usually (I don’t know all cancers) the aggressive hair loss is caused the drug regiment of chemo etc. The reaction I had was more consistent with the diseases I was already looking at in the porphyria and IGG4 family, some other rare oddballs, and again just pointed back to “Lisa, your body is out of whack.”

I’ll take it. So I’m out of whack as ever with a few new facets expanding the range of now out-of-whackness, but now I’m also combed, as best I can with so little practice for forty years, and undeniably I continue gaining knowledge that might help me make sense of how to survive the challenges of my body so I can have some more fun with the time I get on the planet.

I wish you happy and wise brushing and even a trip to the  salon—go for a good dye if you get a chance…. I would if I could. I fantasize about having horizontal cat stripes up there, after some of my good domestic tabbies…

–lisa gill