I study the landscape of my daughter’s newly shaven scalp as she sleeps, examining it for repopulation and fresh decimation. I want to run my hand over the fuzz that pokes out, brown where blond once was, but I stop myself. I stare at the moles I never knew she had: two vampire bites just above her left ear.
We opted to shave my 12-year-old’s head after a particularly rough bout with trichotillomania that left her partially bald nearly six months ago. Trichotillomania is a body-focused repetitive disorder that results in chronic hair pulling. It’s in the same family as skin picking and nail biting and is often a lifelong struggle for those who suffer from it. There is no cure, no drug to help, just various forms of therapy to manage it. For my daughter, trich has been an unrelenting opponent, one that she has occasionally wrestled to the ground, claiming victory, and at other times been swallowed by whole.
Trich began for my daughter when she was 9. First, her lashes went missing; next, her brows. Within a few weeks, her face was totally hairless. This pattern ebbed and flowed until we found a cognitive behavioral therapist to help. After so much work, she was ecstatically pull-free for more than a year.
Then, when she was 11, trich began to creep back in, slowly, for no apparent reason. A few lashes missing one day; brows getting thinner another. When I noticed her hairline had inched back one evening in late December, I panicked. This felt bigger, more intense. Three weeks later, three-quarters of her hair was gone.
Once your child starts being a person of their own, it’s hard to find the “right” amount of involvement in anything — especially something that causes them pain and frustration. During these phases, I have watched from the sidelines and I have jumped in, depending. I do my best to persist, support, and ultimately accept, even when all I want is to protect her from this or somehow fight it off. I just want her to be okay, but I’ve learned that the barometer for that is malleable.
When she’s in the worst of trich, life feels like a constant race against her hands, as I try to control something I have no jurisdiction over. Sometimes it is as simple as catching her eye and putting my hand down to remind her that hers has wandered. Other times, it’s reaching over and literally holding her hand in mine. Which is why, when I watch her sleep, I feel at peace. There is no fight in her; no fight to try to subsume into myself instead.
Lately, we spend a little bit of time together each night applying castor oil, thought to stimulate hair growth, to her eyebrows. I paint it on with a tiny brush, and we chat. Looking up at me from her bed, she often says, “Do you think we’ll look back on this and laugh someday?” Finding it funny may be a stretch, but I do take this time to soak in her face and its beauty. To me, that's an upside.
A radically independent, fiercely feminist, ukulele-playing, gregarious dog-lover, my daughter is one of the most intriguing and strong-willed people I’ve ever met — even if I’m partial. She favors impossibly skinny black jeans and band tees; suits with brogues and Adidas slides. She has always been a proud other, having long ago eschewed gender norms. She wholly celebrates living outside the mold and thrives on pushing boundaries.
This winter, she had spent weeks with a red beanie pulled down, hiding her head, afraid of being seen. I watched her sink deeper into an unfamiliar quiet. She was anxious about having her hat pulled off. She was in a place of painful, silent vulnerability that was wholly unfamiliar to both of us. Other parents whispered questions — was she okay? — and all I could do was hang by her side, feeling around in the dark.
A shaved head felt so drastic to me; I feared my daughter hiding because of it, dimming herself. But she jumped at the idea — just as quickly as she had dismissed ever wearing wigs, which many people with trich choose to do. So when we decided to go for the shave earlier this year, it was what felt like a last-ditch effort. Simply put: If we removed what remained of her hair, she’d have nothing to pull.
At her therapist's suggestion, I called my daughter's hairdresser, a mom herself, and explained our situation. The salon opens early on Saturdays for any clients who might want some privacy, she explained, and I made an appointment immediately. We arrived at 8 a.m., and the beanie came off for the first time in weeks. An hour later, she left the salon with a gorgeously bald head.
Shaving her head brought her back. It was as if she reappeared, regaining her voice. She couldn’t wait to go to school and show off her new look to all of her friends. They loved it, and she felt like a badass. A bald head felt stylistically in line with who she was becoming. She felt relieved and liberated. She was no longer in hiding.
We began to reframe baldness. We began to notice it. Grace Jones, Cara Delevingne; there were faces we always knew, but now saw as if with fresh eyes. Instagram introduced us to many more: Mandi Line, the Pretty Little Liars costume designer, wears it gorgeously. Jillian Clark, a photographer and trich advocate became an inspiration, after I sent her a message asking for head shaving tips. She quickly replied, sending my daughter messages of support that felt like a lifeline, and even suggesting styling tips — a bold earring, playing with fashion.
I found my daughter again in all this, and then, finally, I found gratitude. The concerned looks from strangers and friends who wondered — and sometimes flat-out asked — if my daughter was undergoing chemotherapy were all a reminder that she thankfully was not. And that so many people cared for her. Trich was dwarfed, and my perspective shifted: Life could be exponentially more challenging. Having my daughter back, happy and confident, was everything.
"It’s only hair,” has become a common refrain, and baldness nothing more than a starting point. It's now a place to begin, and redefine, and grow — on her terms.
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