It’s just hair.
That’s all I can think of as I watch my blonde strands flow down the shower drain, sticking mercifully to the edges, remnants of my situation to be pulled out later.
It wasn’t always this way. For most of the 25 years of my existence, I had had long, tumbling locks of hair. Sure, I did a pixie cut in college, but that was a rebellious phase. For the most part, my hair was long, curly, and blonde.
And then I got very sick. Sick to the point where I was in the hospital for the better part of a year. Over a dozen surgeries, on and off a ventilator, struggling to regain my life in any way I could. I wasn’t convinced that I would ever be normal again.
There were drains and wires and tubes and only God knows what else. I ended up clinically malnourished and on TPN, which is vitamins in an IV bag. It’s hard on your liver, heart and renal system. But of course, so is being malnourished. No matter what angle I took, I was going to have damage. TPN was the best option in a lot of other shitty options.
About seven months after the chaos of my failing health began, after I had lost 40 lbs, but gotten off the TPN, I decided it was time. My hair was gross and patchy, losing its color and it’s strength. I looked liked I had been on chemo for years. With all the resolve I could muster, which wasn’t a lot because of how weak I was, I went to a walk in hair place and had them cut it off. All off. The hair that was past my shoulders was now less than half an inch all over my scalp. My original plan, to just shave it all off, I was talked out of because I do not have a head that looks good bald. It’s lumpy and scarred over, from IVs I had in my head as an infant.
I would have cried over it, but I didn’t have working tear ducts, so I was a brave little soldier. Again, it was just hair, right?
Eventually, my hair came back. It wasn’t blonde anymore… At the age of 26, I turned gray. Well, beige. It wasn’t really a color that I ever thought hair could be. So I had it dyed blonde.
Over the years, I tried a couple different colors. I once went fully Johnny Cash black, but I am a pale white woman and it made me look horrid, so that didn’t last long.
Now it’s a balayage, blondes and browns. My hair maintenance budget is high, due to all the dyeing and maintaining and professional blowouts I get to keep it at its healthiest.
In March 2023, I went in for a balayage touch up and the hairdresser I trust with my most precious asset begged me to let her “at least trim it”.
For years, I had let it grow as long as possible. I didn’t want to lose it again, and in my mind, the longer my hair was, the healthier I was. I had it layered, I had it styled, but I kept it as long as I could. It was something that I had talked through in therapy years before, and was something that I knew in my head would never change. I would always equate “long hair with good health”.
But while I let it grow, in the last months of 2022 and into 2023, I let it get out of control. It was thick and bushy and had dead ends. It had gotten to a point where it didn’t matter how long it was, it was a rats nest of epic proportions unless I was very diligent. And as much as I tried to be, I was starting to fail at that task.
So I let her cut 5 inches off, give me a bit of layers, and overall shape it up. I held my breath the entire time. I did visual exercises in my head to control my heart rate. I was convinced that when I looked in the mirror, the scared woman from 11 years ago would be looking back at me.
I was wrong.
When she turned my chair and I saw what my hair looked like now, I smiled. I didn’t look like the malnourished waif of 2012. I looked like a vibrant, relatively healthy woman.
I’ve been called vain when it comes to my hair. Vain in the amount of money I spend on it, the amount of time, the amount of effort. But it isn’t vanity in the way that most people traditionally see it. I don’t actually care what I look like to other people - I care about what I look like to myself, and my hair represents my health, my happiness, and my vitality.
I’ve gone from a malnourished, tiny blip of a person with no hair to a slightly overweight by conventional standards woman with healthy, strong hair. I love who I am now. I am a survivor, and my hair story tells the tale.
*Photo credits: Emily Hendricks Jensen
Emily Hendricks Jensen is a former journalist turned medical PTSD expert, MFA student and memoirist who crochets as a form of therapy. Born and raised in Missouri with a rare condition called VACTERL, she now lives in Texas with her husband, Mathies. Follow her on Facebook.com/yarnandwords and IG at @Emily.jensen86.