Two bits about a shave and a haircut

Well, this should be interesting. I’m getting a haircut today, but not just any haircut.

I’ve made no secret that I color my mustache and hair. It’s not to do with disliking the gray so much as disliking that it grew in highly asymmetrical. On the mustache the gray came in from the bottom right while the opposite side was still pure black. It was as if the General of the Gray Army decided to concentrate all his forces in one sneak attack along the jawbone and then rush the right corner of my mouth in an all-out assault.

When from a distance it started to look like I trimmed my mustache into a question mark, I started to color it. I just couldn’t deal with that lopsided face looking back from the mirror and I wasn’t about to give up the mustache. Now and then I let it go natural to see if it’s evened up.  As of a month ago the gray is up creeping up both sides, but it is still lopsided. From a distance it now looks like my mouth droops left by about 15%. OK. Experiment complete. It’s no longer natural.

When the top started going gray it was like it competed with the mustache for weirdest look. Gray temple on the right. Amorphous white blob off to one side above it. You’ve got to be kidding me. So I started taking the leftover mustache color and applying it to the gray patch and temples. That worked until it started getting an all-over salt and pepper sprinkle and then it turned into a reverse asymmetrical dark spot on that side. Eventually that drove me to do something I ‘d vowed my whole life to never do, and now a few times a year I color whole thing and use the mustache color as touch-up in between.


Well that was a few years ago and if the mustache is any indication the gray up top must have spread.  But is it everywhere?  Is it at least symmetrical?  Only one way to know for sure.  It has now been a couple months since I applied any color at all above the temples, and 6 weeks since the last haircut. Hopefully the roots are now longer than the length of the close cut I plan to get today and I won’t have to wait another few weeks to see the real me. Parting the hair I can already see a big patch from the top center and off to the right. I expect from a distance it will in its natural state look like a cannonball took a semicircular divot out of the top right side my head.

None of which would be really noteworthy except for the anxiety ramping up over the last couple days. This morning it’s palpable. All the classic symptoms of a panic attack – racing heart, flight response, urge to go color my hair.

The odd thing is after years of running the rules engine, it’s like there’s two of me. The one you see and the one on the inside who intercepts my natural responses, editing or replacing the socially unacceptable ones to varying degrees of success. The calm, rational, interior me is able to sit down and write about this from the perspective of an objective observer, but is utterly unable to modify the physical responses or quell the panic attack.  That itself is a bit freaky. Normally those functions are so well integrated that I experience myself as one entity, and being able to watch as they bifurcate to such a degree is at once as fascinating as it is disconcerting, and that’s also contributing to the problem.

The rational interior me is thinking “Wow, I can see how this could create a feedback loop that spirals up into a psychotic break,” to which the external me replies “OH SHIT WE’RE HAVING A PSYCHOTIC BREAK!” and jacks up the heart rate and blood pressure. (As confirmed by Omron.  HR now 87, BP sufficient to drive the hydraulic parts of a small backhoe.)

My theory about the anxiety relates to a couple of incidents in my past. The first of these goes back decades when my wife, then my fiancee, cut her hair several inches and it was just enough that I didn’t recognize her when she came by the store where I was working to show me. As a kid of 19 we both assumed my severe reaction was all about my preference for long hair. Years later in the context of autism and face blindness the degree of impact this had on me was better explained by the shock of being engaged to marry and spend the remainder of my life with someone I did not recognize on sight.

The more recent incident was the occasion of my losing almost 200 lbs.  Even at my heaviest weight I was comfortable with how I presented to the world.  It’s not as if you can hide a couple hundred pounds, after all. So I never felt as if I was deceiving people, least of all myself, about who I was.  But after losing that much weight I had a lot of hanging skin that I had to figure out how to hide. At one point I was wearing short sleeves to work and a client was unable to stop staring at the “bat wings” hanging out from the sleeves.  I think we were both a bit traumatized by that and I determined to never let it happen again.

The skin folds under my chest, waist, and thighs were even worse. As was the discomfort when friends who, believing they were being supportive and celebratory, would inquire as to my “beach bod” or similar references to now being free to dress for warm weather activities. In fact, it was the opposite. Fat people may meet with some revulsion for wearing revealing clothing but you still see them everywhere in swimsuits or big guys going shirtless. Though I never went shirtless and rarely wore shorts, at my top weight I  would at least have been on the outer edges of normal shirtless at the beach. At my skinny weight it would have looked like I was wearing a hula skirt made of human skin.

Even as friends were congratulating me for losing all the weight, I was freaking out because for the first time in my life I felt that I had to hide my true self from the world. I was sure that the same people so enthusiastically congratulating me on my looks would actually be revulsed at what I really looked like if they only knew. So my wardrobe choices became all about making sure nobody ever knew. Except me. Every day in the mirror a hideous guy I didn’t recognize stared back at me with a look of mixed horror and disbelief.

For purposes of insurance, skin fold removal is considered cosmetic so it wasn’t covered. I wasn’t able to afford it out of pocket so I decided to live with it and save up for the surgery. But the body dysmorphia took a constant toll and in time I became profoundly depressed. My marriage foundered. My work, which has been more of a calling than a career, lost all meaning.  After a couple of years I started thinking I’d done all I was going to with my life and maybe it was time to check out. My wife had already called dibs on dying first though, and I take my promises seriously, so I tried to hold on even as I continued to spiral down. Eventually out of total desperation I decided to see if I could at least get rid of the body dysmorphia and I put half the weight back on.

That actually worked and I’m back to my old self again, in more ways than one. My marriage is better than ever and my work has purpose again. It also provides a plausible theory for the amount of anxiety I’m feeling this morning. My hair is very thick so even though there’s an inch or so of white roots, none of that is visible.  This afternoon I expect to walk into the salon with hair that’s uniformly black all over and walk out with hair that’s mostly salt and pepper with at least one giant glob of solid white that’s too big and too asymmetrical to ignore. Having dealt with severe dysmorphia I think maybe I’m a bit afraid of severe mirror shock.  Having already had my marriage rocked to the core by a haircut isn’t helping.

So in my best “feel the fear and do it anyway” tradition, I’m doing my best to make it to my noon appointment without freaking out.  And hopefully also make it out of the salon in the same condition.  But there’s a box of Just For Men – Real Black on the counter in the bathroom with my head’s name on it, just in case.

Update: Gotta admit, I’m really struggling to get used to this.  Been avoiding mirrors like a vampire!

The most unexpected thing is the dark streak on the left. It’s so uniformly dark that my stylist was convinced I’d colored it, but of course seeing the natural hair was the whole point and I hadn’t put anything on it. So basically, the sides are both salt-and-pepper and the top is half dark and half light. The saving grace is that it has far less contrast than I’d expected.

Upshot though is that this bugs the crap outta me. As Kristine mentions in the comments, there’s a certain aesthetic quality to natural asymmetry that we tend to admire. It’s the essence of what we find beautiful about driftwood, after all. Maybe if I start to think of my head as a piece of driftwood I can learn to appreciate it. Credit where it’s due, my wife says she’s always considered me a blockhead and it’s helped her adjust her expectations over the years. She’s always way ahead of me on stuff like this.

So I’m going to do my best to get used to this but the shelf life on that bottle of color may turn out to be awfully short.


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3 Responses to Two bits about a shave and a haircut

  1. Kristine Arai says:

    Thank you for posting such a personal experience. Although you struggle with your differences, you really do have a lot in common with us neurotypicals.

    I colored my hair for years until I just got sick of trying to keep up with the roots. There was a day of reckoning that culminated in a very short cut. Very, very short. My good friend laughed and said we looked alike (with the short greying hair) so I laughed and put on a plaid flannel shirt to match him. We now have several photos of us posing as “twins.” In my natural state I noticed a particularly white shock starting at my hairline, but only on the right side. So I changed the way I styled my hair so it emphasized the asymmetry. It’s interesting. If you think about it, perfection gets sort of boring. It’s imperfections that make us individuals, and thus, interesting.

    I’d like to leave you with this thought: the two best haircuts of my life were ones that were much shorter than I expected, and it was hard not to leave the shop bawling. However, as I got used to the “not me” changes, I came to enjoy them and embrace them. I’ve spent several decades now trying to get the same cut as that first shocking one. This taught me an important lesson about facing, embracing, and owning change. With that in mind, I’ve discovered many things about myself I never would have known. I’ve had wonderful experiences I would not have chosen.

    Courage, T. Rob! I wish you well and hope you can come to like and embrace this “new” part of you that was there all along. Do keep us posted; we’re rooting for you.

    • Morag says:

      “We’re rooting for you” !!! Boom boom!

    • T.Rob says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Kristine! I appreciate your comments about asymmetry (see update in the post above) and it may be easier for me to take on top than in my mustache. when I let the mustache go natural I looked like the :-/ emoji. There was a LOT more contrast, too.

      Comments along the lines of “you really do have a lot in common with us neurotypicals” tend to show up a lot on my posts and it’s a sentiment with which I agree. The way I like to think of it is that we each have our own reality whose structure is like a net. What we think of as our shared reality is those points on the net that are in register with the same point for most other people. Those parts that are out of register tend to stand out but what we often don’t appreciate is that they also pull on the fabric of the net. Even though they might not pull another point completely out of register, they always impart a certain bias to it. In some cases they pull a point into register that would otherwise not be so.

      In my case the incident in which I was engaged to a person who I did not recognize on sight was so upsetting that it continues to tug on the net to this day, more than 3 decades later. Some NTs would have had an anxiety attack under the same conditions, and for some of those it might have been just as severe. I’m not suggesting otherwise. That’s something I would have in common with those people. What I am saying though is that my autism, of which the prosopagnosia is an element, was a contributing factor to the severity of the anxiety attack that I had. The hair anxiety is a point at which our realities are in register. My autism tugs on the web around that registration point to influence my perception of it. When I explain the autistic impact on some incident it’s never my intent to claim autistic exclusivity. Rather it’s the opposite. I want to highlight the commonality but also reveal the autistic texture visible in the brush strokes. If I do my job well, both NTs and autistic folks will recognize something of themselves in the essays. When I get comments telling me it sounds very NT then I know I’ve accomplished at least part of that goal.

      Thanks for the read and the comments!

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