I was going through some old files recently, and stumbled upon a piece of writing accompanied with a picture of my hair, dated October 2013.
This is my hair four months before I was hospitalized.
It was already starting to fall out in clumps that clogged my shower drain and got between my sheets and managed to find their way into every nook and cranny I came across. But it was still so thick. A pony tail holder could hardly get around twice, it was such a wild, curly, voluminous mess. In this picture I had just cut six inches off, but it used to be so long. People stopped me in the halls and in the supermarket to tell me that they loved my wavy mane.
But today, as I was washing it, it really hit me how thin it’s gotten. The curls are nearly gone, my pony tails that used to be so thick around my hand could just barely wrap around are now so thin they slide out. My buns that used to be larger than my fist are so tiny. I miss my hair. It’s a ridiculous thing to miss. But as much as it was a pain, as awful as it made hot, humid days, I thought it was the most beautiful thing around me. I dutifully took care of it, never dyed it, never used heat on it, and it glowed. It was healthy.
But I ruined that. My body is repairing itself. I can run and jump without being tired and I can walk up stairs and I can dance and I have my emotions back and I can laugh…but somehow this thin, balding mess on my head bothers me more than anything. Your hair reflects your health from the months before, and while I’m more stable now, months ago I wasn’t. And now my hair is still thinning and thinning and thinning….It’s a silly thing to complain about, a silly thing to make me cry, but it makes me so sad that I hurt my body. It makes me so sad that I neglected it and damaged it, and my hair just serves as a reminder of that every day. Will it ever grow back? Will I ever get my crazy, thick mane that I loved so much back?
I don’t know. I just don’t know. But it makes me sad.
My freshly developing writing skills aside, I used to love my hair. It was the thing that made me me- I was the girl with the pretty hair, the hair so long little girls called me a princess and so thick my parents were sick of the shower drain getting clogged. I had never felt self-conscious about my hair the way I felt self-concious of the rest of me. Even when I wasn’t smart enough, good enough, perfect enough, I had my hair.
Maybe it’s silly to put so much emphasis on one physical attribute. But historically, hair has had a strong cultural significance for both men and women. A study at Western Connecticut State University found a strong correlation between people’s perception of hair in relation to their happiness: the more satisfied they were with the way their hair looked, the happier they were. It’s a symbol of many things, of health, wealth, status, beauty, and even competence in our culture, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.But more than that, my hair falling out symbolized something far greater than its impact on my physical appearance. It symbolized the fact that I was dead wrong about what it was I was doing to my body.
I’ve said before that I didn’t believe I had an eating disorder even as I was being hospitalized. Like many eating disorder patients, I had a strong delusion that what I was doing was nothing more than simple control. Logically, I knew the impact of unhealthful activities- deterioration of the body. And yet, I somehow believed that what I was doing would never catch up to me. It’s a sense of indestructibility I can’t quite put into words-maybe a toxic combination of being a teenager and being an anorexic- being beyond death, beyond consequence.
Even lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by a million wires and haunted by the persistent, sluggish beeping of my heart on a monitor, I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong. I couldn’t believe. My mother sat beside me in a chair facing the stone-cold doctor and said, “She’s just too smart for this.”
Too smart for this.
Of course, what kind of an idiot hurts themselves in this way? Eating is a primal human instinct, a necessity to life. As animals, our single goal in life is to simply survive, and I had directly sabotaged that goal. Like a sudden rush of realization, I saw the situation through the eyes of those around me for the first time: I was slowly killing myself, and had done so with stone-cold dedication.
A consequence of anorexia is being entirely preoccupied with the self. It’s true, as awful as it sounds, that eating disorder patients are completely selfish. Our only goal, only fixation, is to cling to the last shreds of control we have over our lives, and everything else fades into background noise. The concerns of my parents? Unnecessary. The warnings of my therapist? Overreactions. The tearful confrontations of my friends? Misunderstandings. I wasn’t sick, I couldn’t be sick, I was too smart to be sick.
And yet, there I stood, holding clumps of my hair like I’d only ever seen a cancer patient do.
My hair once hung around my waist. It was a deep, honey brown that looked gold in the sun. It was thick and heavy like a blanket and bouncy like curling ribbon on a present. I tied it into rope-like braids and complained about how unbearable it made the summer months with a smile.
Now it was thinning and patchy, with my milky scalp being the main attraction. I distinctly remember the tightening of my throat and the dizziness of realization. For the first time, I was being presented with a physical evidence of what I had done. Blood pressure readings and EKG reports were just numbers to me- intangible representations of things I should be worried about, but wasn’t. But now I could see what the people around me saw; a sick person.
I saw the girls I had seen in the hospital that made me want to look away, half out of embarrassment, half out of fear. I saw the sunken eyes, the waxy skin, the balding scalp. I saw the dead stare and the twitchy mannerisms. I saw in myself something I had never seen before: an anorexic.
There are points in your life where you have two options: you can use something as a reason to give up, or you can use something as a reason to get better.
I chose the latter.
As I’ve gotten better, I’ve noticed changes in myself, milestones of health returning. My nails went from a dusty blue to a glossy peach. My cheeks grew flush like roses were blossoming under the flesh, once coiled up for winter. My eyes started to light up again, no longer dull and pulled back into my skull. And every once and awhile, with increasing frequency, a smile would pull my lips wide and a laugh would escape like it was uncertain of its welcome.
But I always come back to my hair.
It’s much thicker than before, I no longer have the receding hairline of a middle-aged man. At first I let it grow long, back down around my waist, but it hung around me like a limp and stringy curtain. I grew frustrated and chopped off six inches, and then a few months later got frustrated again and chopped off another six. It started filling out more, gaining strength and glossiness as time went on. It’s even starting to grow quickly again, suddenly grazing my shoulders and then dripping between my shoulder blades seemingly with no warning. But while it’s clearly healthier than before, it’s still not the same as it used to be.
In a way, I understand this from a scientific point of view: years have passed, my hormones have changed, patterns of hair growth are different as you age. But I’ll always see it as a reminder of what I have gone through, a reminder that you can’t torment your body and expect it to bounce back to full capacity, even with years of healing. It’s a reminder that I am not indestructible, that I’m not above the consequences of my actions. It’s a reminder that many times, we are blind to the realities of the decisions we make.
I don’t see it as punishment- I’m a firm believer that eating disorders are not really conscious decisions, but rather culminations and manifestations of lurking susceptibility to mental illness and life’s stress. But I also believe that the Universe (or God, or Allah, or Buddha, or whoever you choose) sends us reminders in different ways. And to me, this is a reminder of who I have been, and who I’m choosing to become.
It’s more than just hair to me.