Last night was a bad one. I don’t have very many of those anymore, mostly due to the miracle of pharmaceutical drugs.
From childhood through my forties or so, insomnia ruled. Anxiety and depression are thought to be two of the root causes of insomnia and I checked both those boxes throughout my early years and well beyond.
Early in life, my family suffered a psychological blow that reverberated for decades. While the event itself didn’t directly affect me, it deeply impacted me for years and I continue to feel at least one of its side-effects even today. I’m a little fuzzy on the my exact age when it all began, but let’s call it four or five. (Any family members with the actual details, please feel free to correct me on the timelines.) Here’s the way I’ve always told it.
When my brother* was seven or eight and my father in his late twenties, within two weeks of each other and without explanation, they each lost all of their hair overnight. Today, of course, bald men are everywhere. It’s even a fashion statement in some circles. Whether the result of external factors or a razor, it’s perfectly acceptable and normal. In the 1960s, not so much. Especially, I assume, for a young father making his way up the Madison Avenue ladder at the height of the Madmen era.
Today, it’s relatively commonplace to see a bald child, whether in person or in any of the countless TV commercials that use pre-teen cancer patients as props for fundraising, or on any number of news or news magazine shows featuring those same children or others like them. In moments of genuine humanity, young, bald cancer patients are celebrated and supported by their peers and communities. Bald children are relatively visible in the 21st century.
In the 1960s, chemotherapy was still a very young science. Support and celebration was not an option for a bald child of any age. While I could never have imagined back then just how traumatizing school – and life itself – must have been for my brother, I do vividly remember being outraged by how other kids would occasionally treat him, once or twice striking out verbally in his defense.
I couldn’t imagine his trauma, but I lived my own trauma over their loss of hair and the resulting circle of pain that, to some degree, we all suffered. I shared a room with my brother throughout the early years and bedtime for me always begin by my pulling at my hair wondering if that night would be the one it would happen to me. Years of that, or some version of it. And from day one and throughout their lifetimes, neither of my parents ever once had a conversation with me about what had happened to my father and brother or ever questioned me about my feelings over it.
This, I believe, is why I slept so badly last night and why I still recoil a bit anytime I see hair in the shower drain.
As far as I know, no explanation was ever offered for the inciting incident. Alopecia happens. That, I believe, was as far as the diagnosis ever went. Adding to their trauma, and mine, were years(?) of weekly (monthly?) roadtrips into NYC from Long Island for what I can only imagine were painful and ultimately humiliating dermatology treatments that both my father and brother subjected themselves to. I was subjected to them also, as a passenger and observer. (Conspirator somehow?) The treatments consisted of tens or dozens or hundreds – I can’t remember – of scalp injections that actually worked for my brother for a time but I don’t believe ever helped my father. Each rejected the treatments after a while and who could blame them.
As it turns out, it did eventually happen to me, but in a very subtle and far less compromising way, and over many years. For twenty years or more I haven’t been able to grow a beard because twin bald spots developed on my cheeks. Similarly, more pronounced bald spots developed on the outsides of my thighs along with general hair loss on my legs. My legs are almost completely bald today. These are just facts, and nothing that I’ve ever fixated on or have been very troubled by.
The lasting and devastating symptom for me has been insomnia, compounded by other familial sources of anxiety and related bouts of depression. All of which, I’m convinced, have contributed to my lifelong ability – – my pursuit perhaps – of being genuinely content in solitude. For being so preternaturally comfortable, even joyful, here in my trailer, alone, free to roam and seek and create and enjoy my version of peace without restraint or encumbrance.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone 🙂
*written with permission from my brother
(A view from my latest digs…)