When I was a youth, a terrible person I once knew gave me a piece of advice that made no sense at the time, and, at this writing, still seems ridiculous. The advice was this: One becomes an adult when one realizes that there are terrible people in the world. (Did I not say this advice was ridiculous?) I don’t remember if the youthful me said anything in response to this terrible person and their uncultivated truism, but I can guar-an-damn-tee you that I would have inwardly rolled my eyes, even in my youth.
I rolled my eyes because I knew better: Truly terrible people are rare in this world. What is more true is that ordinary people are capable of doing terrible things, and the everyday miracle is that we decide not to do them. And what is more true than those mythical terrible people or the mythical terrible things we do not do, is that terrible and random events (illness, disease, disaster) take place in the world all the time just as often as wonderful events do, and you, human being, are not immune to said terrible and random events.
But this isn’t a story about terrible events, plural— it’s a story about a single terrible and dumb event. And it all begins with an unframed image of me sitting on my bathroom floor in my underwear at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning. In this picture, I am holding a nit comb in one hand and what remains of my crumpled dignity in the other. Examine the light— I am paused between the threshold of one day and the next. Then the picture changes as my breath deepens and swings while my mind attempts to distract itself from itself. Hence, we too will move on with our thoughts.
Sometime in the last two to three weeks I contracted an infestation of head lice. I have no idea how this happened because I don’t get out all that much, especially in the summer. But I have always associated infestations of head lice with heavy interaction with very small school age children and/or the trying on of strange hats in department stores. Since I had done neither of these things in the last two to three weeks, I could not imagine how I could have contracted something as disgusting as head lice.
Yet here I sat, on the floor at five a.m. on a Sunday, which was scooting ever forward to six a.m., wearing a scalp full of toxic chemicals and the newly acquired knowledge that one gets lice almost exclusively from human contact, not hats, nor exclusively school-age children, and that it is entirely possible to have lice and not know it right away because I had lice promulgating their louse-y cause in my hair for over a week, maybe two weeks, possibly more, and I did not suspect there was anything in my hair but my hair.
While I sat and combed and cursed out out loud, I thought about how I got from there to here. On Saturday afternoon my scalp started to crawl on its own, which scalps do not do. Plus, it felt as though some tiny arsonist was setting a series of small fires across the top and back of my head. Because my scalp does not normally move on its own, and because my head typically is not on fire, I ran to the computer and looked up “head lice,” while disdainfully believing the entire time that there was no way I could possibly have head lice. (Hats! Small children!) Still dubious, I followed the CDC’s instructions to check for head lice— I scraped a comb across my scalp and peered at the tines of that comb in good light. And what do you think I found? Lying on its side between two tines was a single wriggling off-white louse larvae. I nearly jumped. I almost yelled. In the end, I stood there in the bathroom with the comb held far away from my body with my eyes closed, shivering.
After an epoch of shivering at what I found on that comb, I went back into my office and sat down gingerly on my office chair to finish reading the American CDC’s instructions for obliterating head lice. The Husband was dispatched to the store with a specific list. (He did not have head lice, by the way, but doused himself just in case, like the CDC recommends.) While I waited, I ate my dinner alone in my office, preparing myself for the beginning of a long, long night. Even though I knew I had them, I still couldn’t quite believe that I had contracted head lice. Who really contracts head lice? How? Why?
Well, let’s think about that for a minute.
All illnesses and conditions are subject to a baroque set of human beliefs. Many ordinary and kind people unconsciously believe that most forms of cancer are in part caused by thinking bad thoughts (and how stupid does that sound out loud?) These same good people also believe that mental health conditions arise when someone doesn’t have enough willpower to “be in a good mood.” These are sometimes the same people who additionally believe that it is entirely possible to “will oneself” to not catch a cold or a virus because one has “a powerful character.” And often, but not always, these are the same folks who also believe that head lice are caused exclusively by interaction with small school-age children and/or the trying on of strange hats in department stores; or by poverty; by uncleanliness; by stupidity. These are people. People like you, like me, who believe that if one tries hard enough, is smart enough, is rich enough, death will not come to the door, and who think, at a subsonic level, that if one is pretty, is charming, is lucky, is witty, is strong—one can outrun Death himself, indefinitely.
Because all of these retardataire archetypes come from the same root—the death-fear, and because the human mind cannot fully contemplate its own final absence without looping back on itself awkwardly, and because we are human, after all, it is understandable that we humans have such strange ideas about our own bodies and the bodies of others. It is possible to learn compassion. But compassion isn’t enough; I believe you cannot know yourself to be an adult until you can self-create empathy for other people’s experiences outside of your own limited schematics, a trick which requires that you admit to yourself that you (yes, you!) are not invincible. That things can happen that you will not be able to control with your mind.
To be human (and not invincible) is to know that your great fortune to be free of most illnesses or diseases or ordinary evils has little to do with any conscious thing you’ve chosen to be or to do. That neither your thoughts, nor your charms, nor your finances, nor your strength of character could will the unknowable from happening. To be at home with humanity’s most uncomfortable truth, is to be a true adult. And, well, that’s how one becomes at home with adult empathy— because to know that one thing is to know there are many things, forces, outside of everyone’s control and that someday you too can and will be confronted with the results of those unknowable forces: the terrible event. And if you know this to be true, you can turn to your fellow human being experiencing something horrible, and say, with conviction, “I am so sorry this is happening to you.” —and really mean it without somehow relating it back to your own experience.
Know also that even if you can admit your mortality and do understand your absence of choice on the terrible days that have come, or gone, you will still bash up against your magical thinking from time to time when confronted with one of the thousand-thousand archetypes laced into our collective human memory.
Please note that I bashed and smashed into my own magical thoughts about infestation and disease all the way from Saturday afternoon with that single louse larva on the tines of my comb into Sunday morning as I scraped my head vigorously for hours trying to remove all remnants of larvae that might remain, now dead, after two chemical treatments designed to kill head lice and their eggs. (Shudder.) Know that my hair is close to waist-length right now, which means after we applied the kill ‘em all chemical lice rinse, and I applied the kill them eggs lice larvae gel, I had to section off my hair, and comb, root to tip, hanks of hair no thicker than 1/8th of an inch so that I might pull the lice eggs that cling to the roots of one’s hair, even in death. (Shudder.) (Shudder!) (SHUDDER!)
Now, please follow me back to that original image from the third paragraph of this story.
There I was, sitting on paper towels in my underpants on the bathroom floor. My mind kept touching back to several images, each random, and tender, made more than a little bizarre by my exhaustion— a graphic-illustrated story I once read about a photographer who disappeared off the earth. Ten years later, the same man walked out of a South American jungle naked and wide-eyed— “and he was a new man”; an old Dilbert cartoon I read earlier in the week in which the Pointy-Haired Boss tells Alice to “work like a frightened idiot.” To which she responds, eyes rolled skyward, “Catchy!”; a topographical map of the dead matter that makes up an average sample of household dust; the life-cycle of a head louse as illustrated by the American Center for Disease Control; that single telling phrase from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”— “And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming”; the solitary word shame swinging round and round like a beacon over the roiling dark and rocky waters of my subconscious.
In my exhaustion, and my sadness, and my humiliation on Sunday morning, I wondered whether this would be a story that I would tell you or not. So strong is my own negative association with head lice in adults* I wasn’t sure if I could tell you this story. My fear was that you might think you could get infested with head lice just from reading any story I wrote about them.
And then my mind turned again to cite that it was after six a.m. I took a breath. I picked up the lice comb and began, again, the tedious process of dragging it from root to shaft and checking it for tiny nits (larvae), wiping whatever was found onto a Kleenex, depositing that Kleenex into a sealable plastic bag, then rinsing the comb in near-boiling water from the bathtub tap, only to start again.
While I raked my hair at six-oh-five a.m. on Sunday morning, my shaggy thoughts narrowed to a single strand that I followed all the way out, examined, wiped, and boiled, over and over until the light crept over the windowsill and puddled in my lap:
I am human. I am mortal. I am fallible. I am alive. (Deep breath.) I am human. I am mortal. I am fallible. I am alive. (Deep breath.) I am human. I am mortal. I am fallible. I am alive. (Deep breath.)
I am alive. (Deep breath.)
I am alive. (Silence.)
*An archetypal association with lice I did not know I had, but I did. (More feelings of shame!)
A FEW NOTES ON HEAD LICE: Because this is a story and subject to the rules of narrative structure, I left out some details about head lice infestation that might be helpful to you, dear reader.
If you think you or a loved one might have head lice, please check the public health department website in the country where you reside and follow whatever directions and rules you find there.
If you do not find local directions for head lice treatment online, please call your country’s public health department and ask an available clerk for head lice information. When it comes to head lice, it is important to separate fact from fiction. Head lice are common, unpleasant, and fairly random, but they are also easily treatable once you are armed with good information.
Here are some interesting facts (and tips!) I learned from reading the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) useful and readable writings on head lice. The places where I have added editorial comments are clearly marked. Please do not use what I have written here as a set of guidelines for the treatment of a head lice infestation. For that, you will need to go to the public health department website for your resident country. (I cannot stress this enough.)
Okay, enjoy (well, relatively speaking) these head lice facts, some useful tips, and a few editorial comments:
1) The reason that head lice is almost exclusively passed by physical human contact is that an adult head louse cannot survive away from the steady 98.6 degree temperature and nourishment provided by the human scalp. If the louse is exposed to variable temperatures away from the scalp, the louse immediately begins to die. Ergo, it is quite difficult to contract head lice from clothing.
2) That said, the eggs from head lice can survive for seven days after being removed from the scalp. While it is rare to re-contract head lice from the dying eggs, the CDC recommends that you wash all things worn or used by the infested person two days prior to treatment with detergent and hot water exceeding 130 degrees Fahrenheit (near boiling). While some people bag up and seal all items of clothing for two weeks or more after treatment for head lice infestation, the CDC sees this as primarily unnecessary for the reasons listed above— unless the infected person was wearing dry clean only garments during that two day period, in which case bag what was worn for two weeks.
3) A female louse lays up to six eggs a day, says the CDC. (So, if you want to know how fast these boogers proliferate on your scalp, keep multiplying by six for each louse and each day that you think you were infested.)
4) Household pets cannot carry human head lice whatsoever. Period.
5) Other members of your household who are not infested may be treated with a standard head lice chemical solution in order to avoid the possibility of personal infestation— most notably useful if any set of householders share a bed.
6) Because I did go nuts and boil and bleach everything I used in the last month (and those were the items I didn’t seal up and throw in the garbage, such was my freaked-out-it-tude), please know that while it is helpful to bag up recently worn clothes and boil/launder them in hot water, that does not mean, according to the CDC, that you need to boil anything you’ve ever worn or will wear someday in the unspecified future. (Emphasis is mine here.) Vacuuming the house is highly recommended, as is soaking combs and brushes in water that is more than 130 degree Fahrenheit for ten minutes.
7) Finally, the perceived relationship between poverty and head lice is a misnomer— extreme poverty comes into play only in the potential for an infestation of body lice, an utterly separate type of lice that thrives in conditions where a person cannot bathe properly or wash their clothes in hot soapy water. The good thing is that body lice can be treated by proper bathing and machine washing soiled clothing on the “hot” setting of an average washing machine. The bad thing is that in cases of extreme poverty in the U.S., access to that easy hot water, soap and a washing machine is limited by a lack of ready cash and the frequent refusal of services by laundry establishments with coin-operated machines. (The editorializing at the end here is mine alone, and does not reflect the opinions of the U.S. Government.)