One morning during the summer of my nineteenth year, I woke with laryngitis; it was psychosomatic. Unable to perform my hated political canvassing gig, I settled in for a day off. From bed, I watched the sunlight slide along the wall and considered other jobs I might apply for. Around its zenith, the sun illuminated a hair.
Curious, I reached for it. Felt a scalp twinge; it was attached. I rolled it between forefinger and thumb. Blonde, fine. Wait–maybe not so fine. Because there was—a flaw. What the…?
My hair had a mangled end. Badly mangled, as though someone stuck it in a wood chipper.
Apart from its inability to hold a curl, my hair is largely problem-free, naturally blonde. Looks sweet in a ponytail. My hair genes are solid.
I plucked the shattered end. Let it settle into the bedding. Then, I decided to look around. I found another. This one had split more tastefully, into two neat halves. I pulled it apart. Gone, I thought, satisfied.
Are there more? I wondered.
And as the sun moved, I kept pace with it, rearranging myself in the pillows, locating new horrors. By the time the sun set, I had it between my fingertips: the worst hair ever. Ragged at the end, frayed along its length, I felt bathed in dopamine as I moved to exterminate.
Then, my roommate walked in. I dropped it.
I’ll never find that one again!
“What did you do today?” she asked, eying my hair-flecked pajama top.
“Nothing,” I croaked.
That night in the shower my gaze drifted to the bottles along the tub edge. What about conditioner? Who hadn’t seen the commercials? The conditioner that seals up splits, welds shredded hairs into silk. What’s that brand? I hadn’t been paying attention. Until now, I didn’t know I needed it.
I picked up my roommate’s conditioner. Is this it? I squeezed out a handful, hoping she wouldn’t smell it on me.
As I rinsed, the water sluicing over my mane transformed it into a smooth curtain. I reached up, touched it.
That was the first day of the rest of my life. On the second day I bought $15 conditioner. Weeks spent monitoring the results revealed no change in split status. I began trying other “elixirs” for “extremely stressed ends” in need of “deeply penetrating nutritional support.” In the meantime, I learned to use my front teeth to sever the chaff.
Mom noticed my new bad habit immediately.
She caught me with an end in my mouth.
Up until then Mom, who lopped off her hair in the mid-70s, had offered me only two beauty tips: Eye shadow should highlight the God-given color of your lids. And, removing it with toilet paper is like rubbing a tree on your face.
To these she added: Don’t pick your hair. It’ll just make it worse.
So it has a name: hair picking.
“Think of how dirty your hands are,” she added.
I reddened. After that, I tried to keep the hair picking to myself. But drifts of amputated ends now decorated my shoulders like dandruff. She knew.
Fast-forward to my first post-college job. I shared an office with my boss, Maria. Both of us added and subtracted columns of numbers. Both of us had split ends. For months, Maria didn’t know about mine.
At work, the sun sparkled through the window, warming spreadsheets—or split ends, depending on my focus. Meanwhile, Maria took calls from her boyfriend. And, phone pinned between shoulder and ear, she picked her hair: in front of me! But with elegance.
As I strained to keep my hands on the calculator, the pencil, the eraser, I felt sorry for her. Maria’s hair was uneven, the over-picked side ragged. Does my hair look like that? I wondered. Impossible. I had self-control.
Although I did not touch my hair at work, I began to fixate on the mounting split backlog. Unmanageable.
Finally, temptation engulfed me. That day, I took up a hair. I ate the end off. Maria never looked up. I shuffled some paper: the sound of productivity. I found another, worse, hair. Inhaling the end, I chomped it.
The relief was so overwhelming I was able to leave my hair alone until lunch. Flush with endorphins, I switched on my calculator and picked up a pencil. Time to add and subtract.
From that day forward I integrated modest picking into my routine, releasing a hair to retrieve a file. Setting aside mail to go after strands with complicated multi-part damage. Soon, the habit of angling my head for split spotting led to neck cramps. Cramps begat migraines. Which allowed me to stay home and pick my hair. All day.
Perhaps as a result of my brave self-exposure, Maria and I began to groom together in the office. Work fanned across our desks; we shredded our ends. When the mail cart came our hands dropped to our laps: our secret pact.
Eventually I was fired. True, I was now unemployed, but the real adjustment was the sudden loss of my bad-habit buddy, someone who didn’t judge. Someone with way worse ends than me.
I never forgot the things I learned from Maria. Thanks to her, I began to pick both sides: for symmetry.
Taking a hair between my teeth, rolling it over my tongue, amputating the split; it makes me feel productive. Tames my mania for order. There is nothing like scrubbing out the bathroom sink or knocking off a few ratty ends to make me calmer. More ready to get back to the work of living. Hair biting has a Valium-like effect on my anxiety. I didn’t realize this at first. Instead, I worried:
Is it safe?
From a waiting room magazine I learned about trichotillomania—accent on the mania—or hair pulling. The urge to pick and yank leads sufferers rip hair out at the roots. Thank God I only eat the ends, I think, studying the photos; women with bars over their eyes. Ruined, mangy scalps. Bald spots.
Could picking lead to trichotillomania? Suddenly faint, I allowed my hand to snake into the right-side tangle. Then, while the rest of the waiting room flipped through Redbook, I selected a hair. And for a moment, all was right with the world.
This was an emergency. Normally I would not touch my hair in public. At home with my boyfriend Zach, however, I will put the spoon down and take a strand into my mouth.
“Your hair is beautiful,” he will say.
Yeah, I think, from across the table. As he talks, I pick. I can pick and listen at the same time.
“What are you worried about?” he asks.
“You’re playing with your hair.” He calls it playing with your hair. Cute.
“It makes me nervous.”
“You only do it when you’re worried.”
Am I worried? All I know is my life runs more smoothly when I’m down a split end. If only Zach would stay out of it.
“You’re playing with your hair,” he says. He would never accuse me of eating it. Or tell telling me to stop, like Mom did. So I feel comfortable keeping it at home, between us. This is not the same as having a bad-habit buddy. But if I wanted one, there’s Asu.
My friend Asu can talk and eat and pick all while maintaining polite eye contact. Perhaps due to this skill, she has taken her vice out of the office and into restaurants.
One night at dinner, a bouquet of ends sprouting from her fist, Asu addresses her hair. “What a nightmare,” she says. “I can’t stand this.”
Across the bread basket from us, Asu’s husband Joe and Zach talk action movies, Zen Buddhism. I hear the word “Haiku” and then “He-Man.”
Asu plucks at a hair. “…and before I forget, I’m going to recommend this hair oil. It’s expensive…”
She’s nervous, I think. Maybe bored.
“…so I’m not sure you’ll be interested but smell.” Asu hands me a hank of hair.
“Nice,” I say.
“It’s 100-percent organic. And look!” She ruffles the ends with her free hand. “It’s been years since I grew my hair so long….Oh no.” She squints and assesses. “This is a bad one.” She plucks.
God, I think, watching her ransack the bouquet; that looks terrible. I try to picture Asu and me, discussing the haiku of Basho, while shredding our hairdos. In unison. In a restaurant. I’m not even tempted.
Just as I begin to wonder whether I’m morally superior to Asu, Zach leaves the man-huddle.
“I hate it when Kirsten does that,” he says.
Asu drops her hair. Then, she gawps at me.
I glare at Zach. It’s my bad habit, after all.
“But you’re blonde,” Asu says. “You can’t even see your split ends. Look,” she extracts one of hers. “They’re white.”
My flaws are no less visible: to me.
As a flush blooms from my collarbone, I feel like I did the day Mom caught me with hair in my mouth: shamed.
Joe seems bored. I hope the topic will die. It doesn’t.
“Why don’t you like it when Kirsten chews her hair?” Asu asks, placing chin in hand.
“It makes me nervous.”
“I mean, it’s like she’s stressed out. Or unhappy.”
“…..Zach….oh, Z-a-a-a-ch…”Asu sings. “Look. I’m playing with my hair. Does this make you nervous?” She leans over the salad, brandishing a bad end. “How about this? Ha-ha-ha.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Zach mumbles, glancing at me. “It’s worse when she does it.”
Asu continues to giggle, as Joe forks up his remaining salad. Unlike my boyfriend, Joe doesn’t comment. Joe is Buddhist. Is it a detachment thing?
“Are we going to order fish?” Zach asks, changing the subject.
Zach is right, of course. Suboptimal mental states fuel my compulsive hair shredding. However, grooming my ends has allowed me to ditch other, more death-sentence-type vices. What’s more, I can control this one. After all, I wouldn’t do it in a restaurant.