The Removal of a Soother.
Today I’ll get my hair cut in an actual salon for the first time in a year. (One stylist, one room, fifteen minutes between clients to wipe shit down, masks the whole time.)
My dear husband and daughters know the significance of this. As do my very close friends.
Fact is, I have been bound up tight in a compulsive habit since summer, since my hair grew from pixie to long-ish, long enough to grab and pull at a section on the top left side the way someone may pull at an unresponsive stop-chord of a bus. That plot of scalp-estate is highly abused. It is pulled, clicked, and splintered. A clump of hair emerges from the source as a distressed tassel, inches shorter than the rest, ends like frayed yarn. That spot is always a bit tender to the touch, a little burny to brush. Hair is much thinner up there, a sparse patch the crows have picked through in an otherwise fertile field.
I have attempted to stave off the habit with bizarre hair styles—multiple buns and pony tails to shield the scalp from the predatorial fingers of my left hand. (I often look like my five-year-old, Ruth, has done my hair.) Opal says, gently, "Mom, I can't even look at you with that hairstyle."
OR, I wear a hat around the house all day like we may lose the roof at any moment.
This is not something I have kept secret. I hate that I do it, I hate that I can’t STOP doing it, as I am the first to announce to anyone who will listen. God forbid anyone think I am acting out this strange behavior unconsciously. It feels like a consolation for them to see me struggle before it wins.
Ruth now twists her hair like me. She doesn’t break it or destroy it, and is clearly not as tormented by her light-habit as I am with my heavy-one. But, there she is at the table, twisting with her left hand (like me) and eating her peanut butter and honey with the right. I think of those first few days without her pacifier after her third birthday. She was asked to simply be uncomfortable, until she wasn't. How brave that is.
I think of my pre-COVID life, my work with folks with dementia and Alzheimer’s. (Oh how I miss them!) And how one of them would sit and fiddle with a sensory blanket her daughter made her, with zippers and buttons and tufts of fabric of all different textures. She’d be happy as a clam, fingers recognizing only that they were given a purpose.
(I am pulling at my hair right NOW. Damn, where do I go when I am yanked away like that? Land of fuzz and white noise. Pause. Come back. Feet on the carpet, shoulders relax and both hands on the keyboard like pubescent lovers at the dinner table after having been yelled at to keep their hands in view!)
In her book, Can’t Just Stop, Sharon Begley argues that compulsions are the "safety valve that allow us to diffuse the stress generated by the anxieties that plague us as we negotiate the demands of our modern world."
That rings true. There is often an unsettled, buzz-like quality behind my ribcage and beneath the day-to-day. Like bees plugged up in a log. Belief: all the world needs to feel right again, aligned, safe and tight, is a few juicy pulls and breaks of the hair. The ultimate exercise in futility that has taken on the role of soother.
(Before kids, when compulsive eating was my thing, I remember having a bar of chocolate at the ready for any given moment. I would nibble it throughout the day, tongue consistently stained with the flavor, feeling like it was a success to not be proper-binging. And then my OA sponsor asked me, what would a day need to look like to not require a constant flow of chocolate in order to make it through?)
I know I did this hair-thing before, but I don’t recall it ever being so pronounced, bold-faced and constant. I have cycled between pixie cuts and medium-length hair for the last two decades. I have little memory of the habit-eras when I’m not in one, but there is a vague recollection of relief when I am back to short hair. The candy has been taken off the table, so to speak. But I don’t ever remember this level of urgency to get to the salon. I may weep in her capable hands.
What happens when my hair is too short to yank at? The habit—along with its accompanying, deep-seeded anguish—vanishes. I don’t miss it. I don’t hang on to the torment it caused.
It’s as if a crow infestation—with their pick-pick-picking—simply vanishes and then life without the crows is again the new normal. When my hair grows out again, incrementally as hair does, when do I start to remember? This latest COVID round of hair-growth, I spent weeks of in-between length vaguely recalling that vulnerable patch of scalp, but in the dream-way that smooshes memory and thought with the distance of time.
And, as with every time before, the cellular memory was just too strong. One hot day during the summer, in the pocket of a dreary or bored or just-fine moment—who knows?— the left hand reached up as if under a spell. And, just like that, the curse of the crows returned and seized the landscape. Like faulty wiring.
So, today, after months of nursing the habit from the deepest of impulsive reservoirs, I will have the faulty writing removed. The wild buzzing in the log will need to find yet another source of soothing.
My fingers will reach up to find, only, empty space.
So long, pacifier. xo.