Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hair and Other Post Traumatic Traumas

This morning.

The time of baldness is a blur now, a long, sustained surreal blur in which I became ultra-focused on hats, scarves, and bandanas, and lost the habit of reaching for shampoo in the shower. I still forget to wash my new hair on a regular basis.

I suppose I'm in denial about this new hair.

When it first started coming in, so white, I was amused. It felt like I was wearing the remnant of a daring Halloween costume, hard core biker punk-rock roller derby chick, or Susan Powter in the height of her "Stop the Insanity!" kick. I liked it. (psst - don't know that reference? Feast your eyes here.) But then, as more and more hair came in, darker but still absolutely gray, I saw a pixie-faced prematurely old woman in the mirror. It felt like someone had stolen years of my life, not to mention my eyebrows.

People, especially gray-haired women, though not prematurely so, could not stop laughing with delight over how much they liked my new hair. Of course I appreciated their compliments, but I had a harder and harder time listening to them, thanking them, answering their questions about whether I would keep it short like this or grow it back (they hoped I'd keep it short). I wasn't exactly sure why these conversations were so hard on me until it all came out during a counseling session in a spew of angry tears. Having spent the winter sick and miserable and scared and fighting for my life, I felt like I was betraying my own self, dishonoring the truth of my full experience by passing the spring and now summer in such superficial conversation.

To be fair, it could be that every one of those women who commented on my cancer-makeover first inquired as to how I was doing. Many times I recall saying, "Right now? I'm doing okay," which I assume sounded to them like "I don't want to talk about the past." The almost inevitable response came back, "Well you look great." to which I, of course, said, "Thank you." And then, if we both stood there another second, they reiterated, or rephrased ("You really do look great" or "I really do like your hair like that. Are you going to keep it that way?") and we were off to the races.

All this would be fine if only I could figure out how to not give off that I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it vibe so that once in a while, I could feel supported rather than drained by these well-meaning interactions. The trick is that sometimes these conversations take place in the grocery store aisle when I've got just twenty minutes to fill the cart and get to my next appointment, or in moment when actually, I don't want to think about cancer. But also, I've learned from experience that many people don't want to or are not capable of listening to the hard core reality, won't know what to do or say if I tell them, "Well, the truth is, I feel like I have post-traumatic stress. I feel like I just came off the battlefield. And, by the way, I'm still in treatment every day and I'm still scared out of my mind when I think about it, and yesterday my beloved neighbor told me she just found out she has breast cancer too, and suddenly I can't stop eating." In fact, I imagine some of these innocent inquirers would shuffle nervously and respond like this: "Well you look great."

But maybe one or two would say nothing and just hug me while I weep.

Here's a hint: If you want to be a friend to someone going through cancer or even pregnancy or any other body-changing mortality-awareness-inducing life-altering physical experience, sure you can tell them they look great. But don't leave it at that. Assume that the reticence you may perceive as lack of interest in talking about the hard stuff is probably more of a self-protective knee-jerk expectation that you really don't want to hear. Figure out a way to acknowledge or inquire about the depth of experience beyond the surface. Whether or not your friend has the grace and presence to acknowledge it in the moment, whether or not he or she walks through that open door, they will appreciate your efforts. I promise you.

Can I get a witness?


Lisa said...

I always hope that I say/do the right thing when a friend is in need. Your advice is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

At risk of sounding like another one of those people wanting to talk only about your hair...I began getting going gray when I was in my early 20's and began dying it a few years later and never looked back. For just my own self esteem I feel better not being gray. I am not sure if putting a rinse or some sort of color would make you feel better, etc. but just something to consider.

Kerry said...

From the woman who puts her foot in her mouth just about every time she sees there ever enough time in the grocery aisle, parking lot, wherever, to get any real dialogue and feeling out? Your beautiful matter what is growing on your head. Peace~

Linda Floyd said...

you said it sista

Ally said...

Amen to that! :)

Paula said...

Having undergone major upheavals (although non-cancer-related) in my life, I can only imagine that the change from having long brown hair to having short gray hair mirrors the change from being a woman in her 30s suffering infertility and perhaps wanting a child to being a woman in her 40s now fighting for her own life and being chemically shocked into menopause.

While most of us have time to process all these changes -- from brown to gray, from fertile to infertile, from young to older -- it's all been thrust at you at once. It's a lot to deal with.

Sometimes it's easier for people to focus on the external when they don't know how to broach the trickier internal realms, and they don't want to pry. Don't hesitate to tell people that the changes have been really hard. They are trying to be supportive and encouraging, if feebly. You might open the door, too, although you should do whatever you feel comfortable with.

Getting used to a new version of yourself (Amy 3.0?) is never easy, especially when it's been thrust on you without much choice. Many of us empathize with this feeling.

Amy said...

Thanks for all the comments, peeps.

Kerry, I have never seen your foot anywhere near your mouth, no worries. And by the way, I'd like to think our conversations are not limited to grocery aisles and parking lots.

Paula, all very very well said, thank you. I particularly like the concept: Amy 3.0 . I'm going to wear that one around for a while.

Paula said...

Maybe I should have said Amy 4.0 for your 40s? (I'm in my 40s, too.) And I'm sure your new version will be fantastic, without any of the annoyances of software companies that just move things around and hide them to be annoying. ;)

Grammie said...

When my dear friend's hair began to grow back in after many rounds of chemo and months of feeling sick....we all did comment on the new look. To us, the new growth represented new hopes and promise for her and we were so happy to see it happening....and, she did really look great in our eyes.
I hadn't ever really put too much thought into it until I read your well-written post today. I appreciated hearing your take on the whole thing.
Like everything else in life, I guess that it is all in the person's perspective.
Thanks for sharing yours....