I was recently getting a haircut when the women asked me “Does your scalp ever feel itchy?”
In less than a second I went through intense feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment and resentment before squeaking out “No” as though it was a lie (even though it wasn’t).
She said “I’m just noticing a little dandruff. No big deal, probably just need a new shampoo.” I was so relieved I started to cry. She asked what was wrong.
“Sorry, I had lice for 10 years and got scared I had them again.”
I don’t know how I got them, but I do remember a lot of people having them. There were local news stories about the new uber-lice that didn’t respond to lice poison. Our school sent a woman in to do lice checks. I was not the only one. But somehow, everyone else’s got cured.
My mother did try her hardest, at the beginning. Vinegar, mayonnaise, shorter and shorter haircuts. She even hired a knit-picker to come over and go through each and every individual strand of my hair.
What my mother couldn’t do anything about was the fact that we were living in Shangri-louse. All of our furniture was torn-up hand-me-downs, and my dad never said no to a new ratty loveseat or broken recliner.
Our carpet was tearing on the seams, exposing droppings from some of the exotic fauna that set up shop in our full-to-bursting garage. Our appliances were old and rusty, our clothes were moldy and musty, and our fixtures were broken and dusty.
Yes, my father is a hoarder.
I, of course, didn’t know this at nine. I just knew that my friend Ida’s house was shaped like ours but seemed like it had a lot more space. I knew that if we threw stuff away while my dad was at work, he would ask where it went. I knew that if I wanted to have a birthday party, we’d have it at my cousin’s house.
I also didn’t know at nine how to tell the difference between my mom being upset with a situation directly involving me and my body and her being upset at me. And I didn’t want her to be upset at me. So I lied, a bunch.
“Yup, they’re gone!” “I don’t need a haircut, I’m growing my hair long.” “I’ll do my own hair for the ballet recital, Mom.” “I’m fine.”
The worse side-effect of lice wasn’t the itching and bleeding, it was that I learned it was easier to lie and to ignore my own feelings. I’d rather go to ballet class and casually flick bugs out of my hair while the other girls are dancing then have everyone ask “Who smells like salad dressing?” after another attempted DIY remedy.
In many ways, my dad being a hoarder lead directly to my needs not being met. I have a vivid memory of working for hours on my dinner only to have a rat start feasting on it before I could even grab a plate.
My dad spent years and years impressing on me and my brother that we could not afford college only to come home one day with two or three pianos he’d bought in an auction.
But I was fine. Fine was my code. Fine was my shield. Fine was my mantra. It was all fine. I was fine. I was going to school without lunch money but it was fine.
My dad didn’t take me to the doctor when I broke my finger but it was fine. I couldn’t get from my room to the bathroom at night because there were precarious stacks of speakers blocking my way, but it was fine.
My parents didn’t let friends come over, but I finally had a friend who I dropped the “fine” lie to. His name was Brantley and he started coming over after school.
Once we were hanging out and what sounded like a hoard of angry rodents stampeded across the ceiling. I quickly told him “Oh you see that tree out there? Yeah it scrapes against the side of the house and makes that noise.”
He might have believed me for a second until my dad chimed in from the other room “Boy-ee did you hear those rats?”
What I hope is my final lice story of my life happened when I was in eighth grade. My mom had sent me with my big brother’s girlfriend to the mall with $20 to buy a sweater to go over my dress for the eighth grade dance. It was miserable.
If it fit me, it wasn’t cute. If it was cute, it was too expensive. If it was in my price range, it didn’t fit. I kept my poker face.
Outside of a Toni & Guy a woman pulled me aside and said “I’m learning to cut hair and your length is perfect, can I give you a free haircut?”
“Sure, fine.” I spent the entire cut in agony until the woman wordlessly stepped away and her manager came over and whispered in my ear
“Ooookay sweetheart it looks like you got some little buggies, but don’t worry they sell stuff at the store that gets right rid of them.”
“Really? Because I’ve been using that stuff for 10 years,” my brain screamed while my mouth said “Oh I do? Oh no. Thank you for telling me.”
I got up, my brother’s girlfriend said “Man, doesn’t look like they cut much off” and I promptly went to a toy store and spent the money on a Red Fraggle stuffed doll (that I still have, thank you very much).
I didn’t know the word "hoarder" until the TV show started. I heard the name and a light went off. I decided it was for the best that I never ever ever watched even a second of the show.
I didn’t tell anybody about my dad until I was an adult in an improv class. We were telling true stories to inspire scenes and I realized in the middle of my story “Oh, this will sound made-up unless I tell them that my dad was a hoarder.”
After class, my teacher pulled me aside and asked if I needed anything.
Of course, if you lie to yourself for 20 years it becomes true. I was fine! Sure I was drinking more than I was eating (or doing just about anything else), I was having panic attacks every few days, crying in the bathroom at work, and in a constant state of overdraft, but that’s what “fine” had grown to mean for me.
Today, I am fine. For real fine. Because when people ask how I’m doing instead of using the f-word I say “I’m actually really overwhelmed” and they ask how they can help.
When the doctor asks how I’m doing, instead of throwing an f-bomb I tell her “My stomach has been upset more than usual lately.”
When I’m carrying big bags of food through the doors at my office instead of telling the security guard “I’m fine,” I ask “Could you give me a hand?”
If and when I have kids, and if and when they get lice, I know exactly what I’ll do. I’ll call my friends and say “I’m stressed out, my kids have lice.”
I’ll tell my kids “I had lice when I was your age and was very embarrassed and afraid to tell my mom, so I want you to be honest with me with how you’re feeling.”
And I’ll never once use the word “fine.”