Twice a year, I go to San Francisco to see Jay, my stylist. I never feel guilty about spending a couple hundred dollars because afterwards, eyeing my new ‘do in the sleek storefronts. I am not a wife or mother or teacher. I am not anxious or fretful. I’m the same girl who’s been doing this since I was a grad student dating the wrong guy. When I get my hair done, I stop worrying about my student evals or my limp libido.
Jay works at the trés chic Di Pietro Todd salon, where I can expect cucumber water and head massages, elaborate sectioning and sculpting, the royal blow-out. I go in with half a year’s grown-out hair stuffed into a bun on top of my head and come out looking like a new, refreshed me. I usually fall in love with the cut while it’s still wet.
Until Jay, I hated my frizzy brown hair. As a seventh grader who worried way too much, about things of little consequence (like imperfectly addressed letters or my perfume wearing off), my hair became another fulcrum of obsession. No amount of Sun-In or Finesse conditioner could ever transform it into the straight silky hay-colored locks I coveted. I don’t know where I got my hair from, but I inherited my OCD from my mom, who always understood my quest for perfection. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been anxious. Lately, my worries have blossomed from letters and perfume (which, thanks to some good therapists, I can now confidently mail and wear) to death by earthquake or cancer.
Last January I was completely undone when a routine dental x-ray unveiled a calcification in my neck. One ultra-sound and blood test an excruciating week later, I learned it was likely a salivary stone. No biggie. But I’ve since been haunted by worst-case scenarios, wincing at sirens, victimized by my own mortality. I’ve become tormented by The Big One, imminently expected to shake California apart. Anxiety propels me forward, away from the Now. My mind trips over the future. I sometimes Google salivary stones and cancer and get hot with fear (unlikely, but it seems possible).
Anything is possible, people say cheerily. But for me it’s the very unpredictability of life that has become unbearable. When my mom sent me a newspaper clipping about David Adam’s new book, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, I immediately checked it out of the library. For longtime OCD sufferer Adam, it was the possibility that he could contract HIV in absurdly unlikely ways, like scraping his heel on a step that could have been tainted with infected blood. As he writes, “OCD dissolves perspective. It magnifies small risks, warps probabilities and takes statistical chance as a prediction, not a sign of how unlikely things are.”
Jay and I were both 25 when we met, starting our careers, newbies in the fields of hair artistry and teaching. I’ll never forget my first appointment, when he gasped appreciatively at my natural waves. I’m sure I said something along the lines of “Ugh, I hate all that body,” to which he responded, “You just haven’t learned how to embrace your curl. You gotta love what you got, girl.” When I walked out over an hour later, I actually did.
Two days before my wedding five Septembers ago I managed to sneak in on a cancellation, desperate to have Jay trim up my dried-out summered ends. He’d just gotten back from Massachusetts where he’d wed his long-time partner Patrick. We couldn’t believe the coincidence. Two weeks before my due date, blissed out on baby, I tottered into the salon. “You could literally pop at any moment,” Jay said as soon as he saw my watermelon belly. It’d been so long since my last cut he didn’t even know I was pregnant. He marveled at my thickened hair and told me to bring the baby in next time. “You can nurse right here in the chair if you need to,” he offered.
We’ve come so far. I teach writing to college kids, and he schools the apprentices on technique. He makes the music choices (“Don’t get me wrong, I love Whitney—RIP—but we’ve already heard ‘I Will Always Love You’ once today”) and has an assistant fetch him a kale salad for lunch.
I love watching him work my hair, all that pinning and snipping. Every now and then he lapses into silent concentration, gives his glasses a gentle push up his nose, as he expertly contemplates a chunk. I’m vulnerable in the swivel chair in the giant mirror, but I’m also relaxed. I surrender my control; he’s making the decisions, and I’m just along for the ride. I have to trust in the okay-ness of it all.
On this most recent trip I was especially unsettled, abuzz with anxiety. When I’d admitted to my husband that our upcoming vacation (our first ever without our three-year-old daughter) to Panama had me gripped with fear, he’d suggested I talk to my doctor about trying medication. I was resistant.
But I had to face facts: my mind had become my worst enemy, adamantly spinning narratives of disaster and heartache, dissolving perspective at every turn. As soon as I approached the Golden Gate, I imagined an earthquake striking just then, collapsing the bridge and dashing the cars into the sea. Once safely across, I noticed a plane in the sky and saw us crashing on the way back from Panama—I took a deep breath to steady my quickening heart, but still a flash of our panicked, screaming faces— and my own mom delivering the news to my daughter that her mama was gone. Or what if she had to watch me wither away, ashy-skinned and sunken-eyed, from cancer? Another awful flash: me in bed, can’t even lift my head to look at my little girl.
She would miss me most at bedtime, I thought. She would cry for me to sing “Tomorrow.”
What a relief to make it to the salon chair! I calm down. So much remains reassuringly intact. It smells like product, buzzes with conversation, is at once intimate and public. More gray flecks in each heap of downy hair, yes, but when I bring up coloring, Jay says, “We don’t need to have that conversation yet. Look at my gray,” he says, “I like it.”
This time I want something really different. Even shorter than my usual warm-weather cut. Jay nods, excited. “Something piece-y and textured,” he says. “Maybe even cut some side-swept bangs. Really bring your face out for summer.”
If I’ve learned anything: it’s all about the cut. And if I can go from long layered locks to messy hip bob, why not a more profound transformation? Maybe if I accept that my brain chemistry sets me up to have intrusive thoughts, that for whatever reason (parenthood, reaching my late-30s) my OCD seems to be flaring up again, then I can seek real change. Maybe doing more yoga and reading Thomas Merton aren’t enough; maybe I should give Zoloft a try, just to see if it does, as my mom promises, take the edge off. Maybe acceptance is what makes true transformation possible.
In that chair I exhale and watch the hair accumulate around me. Jay spritzes water and measures my ends. A fresh intern with two-toned hair gushes over my emerging new cut, and then sweeps all that old hair away.
Jessica Dur Taylor’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, Mutha Magazine, Superstition Review, Brain, Child online, Mothering, Traveler’s Tales, and elsewhere. She teaches college English and raises her two little girls in Sonoma County, California. You can find her at http://www.jessicadurtaylor.com.