The Zen of Learning to Love the Buzz Cut — An Example of Post-Traumatic Growth

 

Last February, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two weeks later, it was removed by an incredibly skilled surgical team at UCSF. They did the surgery Friday afternoon and I walked out (slowly) Sunday morning. 

The surgery was the easy part. The months of dealing with steroids, radiation and chemotherapy were miserable. (My hat is off to those before me who’ve gone through this; to those who come after, I wish you a speedy recovery and a good sense of humor.) Thank goodness I have great friends for support and assistance, and an incredible team at ACEs Connection who kept things going for the two weeks I was out and were so very patient as I had to cut back my normal workaholic hours. The work I love — working with you good people of ACEs Connection and the ACEs movement — took my mind off the misery. 

But that’s not all I want to address in this post.  

What I want to address is the moment, when I was brushing my hair, that a chunk of it flew across the bathroom, as well these months after that. Even though I’d been expecting it, until you actually start down that road that you’re not particularly looking forward to traveling, you can put the experience in the tomorrow box. Like all other things we put in the tomorrow box, such as exercising or losing weight or real self-care, it’s pretend-real: You can imagine it so completely that it seems real, but you don’t have to actually DO anything.  

In my case, the hair-loss transition was more of a stop-and-start affair instead of a sudden immersion. My radiation oncologist, bless him, said that a colleague had come up with a way of focusing the radiation to minimize hair loss because they knew that (mostly) women were upset about going bald. Only the hair across the part of the scalp that was actually under the radiation beams would fall out. 

I’m not sure that retaining some hair actually helped. I ended up with a modified mohawk: no hair on one side and across a big swath of the top back of my head, with some remaining on the back and on one side. At first, I attempted to keep the mohawk, which I had my stylist cut to about an inch long, and had her make some designs in the areas that had some hair. What a joke. 

Through this process, though, I realized just how attached I was to my hair, even though it was only three to four inches long (it’s been years since it flowed down my back in thick tresses). For decades, I spent oodles of money and time tending that mop. I arranged my life around hair appointments, and booked them out two or three months in advance to make sure my stylist was always available.  

I wasn’t conscious about how I had let my hair define me: as a girl, as a woman, or as a particular type of woman (conservative combed-down hair, messy hair, unkempt hair, pixie hair, long-tresses-tossed-in-the-wind hair). 

Sick of the mohawk and my futile attempt at being cool (it’s probably not a word that a 70-year-old woman need worry about aspiring to), I took the plunge and strode into a local barbershop. Well, I walked back and forth in front of it a couple of times to screw up the courage to stride in. The barber’s  surprise was pretty well masked — a paying customer is a paying customer, after all. 

“What would you like me to do?” he asked.

“Take it off so that it’s all close to my scalp,” I answered.

“A ‘one,’ a ‘two’?” 

What the hell is a “one”? Or a “two”, for that matter? He saw the look on my face and said, “How about I start with a “one-and-a-half”?” 

The mohawk came off. The few patches of hair came off. I had a buzz cut. 

It took a few days to get used to it. Friends told me that it looked good. They said I was lucky to have a round head with no dents. It looked like a normal buzz cut from the front. The back was still a bald streak from the radiation, with the surgical scar in the center, but I didn’t have to look at it. Because when you have a buzz cut, you don’t have to do a damn thing to your hair. You never have to look at it, comb it, bend forward at the waist and shake it out to plump it up during the day, worry about getting rained on or  about the wind messing it up.  

You just get up, shower, get dressed. That’s it. You don’t even have to use shampoo. No conditioner. When you’re traveling, you can even use the little shampoo bottles in the hotel rooms. There’s no such thing as frizzy hair with a buzz cut. 

Two visits later, I had him take it down to a “one.” 

This was a kind of freedom I had no idea existed. Many women already know this, but it was all new to me. I could stride into any barbershop and say, “Give me a ‘one’,” and they’d know what I meant. No appointment necessary. The barbers I’ve been to have always been great, complimented me on my nice-shaped head (as they do anyone who’s done this, I’m sure). The barber in Gualala, CA., where I went on vacation, has been living with pancreatic cancer for 14 years. “They can’t figure out why I’m alive,” he says. As he finished clipping a "one" across my head, he said, “No charge.” His policy was free haircuts for anyone who’s dealing with cancer. And it was my birthday, no less. 

The biggest surprise of the buzz cut was how it unexpectedly pushed me into what people call post-traumatic growth. Because of my ACEs, standing out or being noticed has been a trigger — my amygdala screams that it’s a dangerous place to be. When I was a child, being noticed resulted in physical, emotional and sexual abuse. I preferred being that fly on the wall (a perfect position for a print reporter). 

But now my head broadcast where I was in life and what I was dealing with. I couldn’t hide my disease from the world. I could never wear a wig or a scarf, because the radiation made my head so hot that wearing anything except a mesh baseball cap to ward off the sun would practically give me heat stroke. 

People notice and remember me. The barber always waves at me when I walk past the shop. The checker at the supermarket yells out a hearty, "Hello!" even when I'm not in his line (he has a buzz cut, too). Yesterday, a waitress at a place I go to from time to time said to me, “You like the booth, right?” She never said that when I had my previous hairstyle. 

But this experience has shown me that people empathize, they care, they’re not out to get me, and that my buzz cut is a great conversation starter. Remarkably, it’s loosened the binds of distrust to help me experience that most strangers, or people of brief acquaintance, are kind, want to chat and like to help, like another checker at the supermarket who told me about a new brand of cereal made with turmeric. Although I knew all this in theory, until I had the buzz cut, I didn’t let myself open to the experience or to trust the experience — and the people — when it happened.  

At this point, most of my head has grown hair. My “one” is probably a “two” now. I’m due for another visit to the barbershop. I may grow it to a "three", but I’m keeping the buzz cut. I like the extra time, the freedom from having to think about hair, the cost savings. 

And I also like this: #IamNOTmyhair

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Jane,

So happy to read this piece and your funny, hope-filled update after many months. I've been keeping you in my thoughts since you told me of your illness in February. Even if the reason for writing the piece just plain sucks, this is still a fantastic piece of writing. Thanks for sharing it here and for letting us all know how you are doing. "Here" wouldn't even exist if it weren't for you!

--Laura

 

Ellen Smith posted:

Also, there appears to be a typo- there seems no way that you are 70! 55-60 maybe.  Thank you so much for sharing your story, for your work and for being you! Ellen

Yeah, I'm not buying 70 either.

Jane,

I had no idea you were going through this. I'm sorry for the diagnosis and pain you've experienced, and deeply respectful of your courage and process in dealing with everything.

I'm sending you healing energy. 

Best,

Kathy

Dear Jane I just finished reading the beautiful story you've so generously and courageously shared and the comments people have written in response to you sharing of yourself and I thank you. Thank you for reminding me that healing occurs in community. And that through our stories we connect with each others hearts and in doing so arrive at the essence of our humanity, love. 

Know that this community that you have created is a place of solace for many. Thank you again for sharing your gifts with us. Blessings to you my friend and to the many who love you. 

 

You took the wind from me as I started to read. My heart sank and a tear came to my eye. I took in a deep breath and read on. 

    We are a group of people that work towards the healing of others. We give and give even more. When we experience the civility of others, I believe we can be caught off guard. Our shields are down and we discover the beauty of being cared for. 

    Now that you have a little extra cash, make sure you wear great shoes.

Love you always,

Peter

You have been in my thoughts and prayers.  Nothing like an experience like this to put everything in perspective.  Your story gives me a moment to reflect on my own journey for the past five years.  Five years ago I was diagnoses with Multiple Myloma, cancer in the blood plasma.  I had to stop everything and regroup.  Out of this adversity I wrote my trauma curriculum, Mind Matters: Overcoming Adversity and Building Resilience.  When I look at this now, it is as if my life was always pointed in this direction.

For me, after 5 years, I was tired of not having hair.  I went and bought some.  The feedback has been amazing.  People wondered how come I looked so young and healthy.  Whatever,  Life is good, and we are blessed to be working together to reduce ACES and the impact of ACEs on ourselves and our community.  Carolyn

Jane, from the moment I saw you on the Zoom screen with your buzz, I thought of the beautiful head of Emma González. Her recent New York Times opinion piece,  “A Young Activist’s Advice: Vote, Shave Your Head and Cry Whenever You Need To” mirrors the liberation you described in shedding a lifelong and outsized attachment to hair:

"In the midst of all this, I try to take good care of myself. I shaved my head a week or two before senior year. People used to ask me why, and the main reason is that having hair felt terrible. It was heavy, it made me overheated, and every time I put it up in a ponytail (and I looked terrible in a ponytail) it gave me a headache. And, it sounds stupid, but it made me insecure; I was always worried that it looked frizzy or tangled. What’s the best thing to do with an insecurity? Get rid of it. It’s liberating to shave my head every week."

I’m inspired by your description of how the small gestures and kindnesses really do make a difference when you are suffering—and reminded that suffering and its cause are not always visible.

How perfect that you’ve posted this on World Mental Health Day! 

Okay. I said for you not to expect ACEs staff to make that solidarity move of getting the buzz cuts too, but you’ve almost sold me on it, Jane. Maybe we all roll into a barbershop together in SF next week and, well, it’s a thought! 

Truly, when you shared news of your cancer, child-like human that I can be, I internalized the news it as in:

DAMN. I love this person and what she stands for. I have dreamed of working with her for FIVE years, and now I am, and now she is sick! I cannot take another loss. Not to ACEs. Too many friends have died too young because of ACEs. Okay. I am doubling down on this work. She is hanging in. She has brain cancer and it is being cut out. I have a chronic trauma depression that I am getting help with so I can heal and keep doing this amazing work. Damn. I have done so much work and now there is more to do? AND WOW. She left the hospital less than two days after brain surgery? This is about learning, not comparing her brain healing to mine. She is telling us the truth about what is happening. She is moving forward. She is taking care of herself. She is still working. She is still leading us. She is laughing and focused and bald and sick sometimes and kicking butt most of the rest of the time.  She is showing us how to grow through adversity. Maybe I can do that too. She is living. She is SO alive. I am not gonna let a new round of trauma realizations take me out either. Yep. I’m speaking up. Talking about my fears. She is getting better and so am I. Could her cancer be the result of trauma? I know my depression and that not wanting to be alive for a while is. Trauma IS the Mother of mental and physical illness. We’re both working on our brains. Meditation. Nutrition. Exercise. Self-care. Community. All those action steps to post traumatic growth from Jane McGonigal we talked about, and Resilience we learned about from Donna Jackson Nakazawa and the trauma psychiatrists who tell us the body wants to heal, the brain is plastic, life can get better when we care for our brains, our bodies, our souls, and release the trauma. Nurture ourselves.

So you walked your walk and did your physical healing on the West Coast while I kept building communities and did neurofeedback, trauma yoga, more exercise, trauma therapy and more recovery meetings from my corner in the SE.  And we both kept after building this ACEs community, you as our leader, suiting up and showing up and talking through nausea and sleeplessness, and staying who you are: FEARLESS and funny. Kind and compassionate. Focused and honest. Prepared and willing to try something new to feel better and keep rolling. And you kept rolling. And leading and inspiring. And I am so grateful.



That was kind of how my internalization has gone about your illness, remarkable recovery, fearless and tireless leadership, honesty about needing to take care of yourself, and taking care of yourself.

There has not been a moment that you weren’t leading this movement and inspiring me. Even if I hadn’t yet caught up with your vision, I have been thrilled and honored to be on the path to seeing where it is going, and to helping it get there.

Thanks for writing this piece and oh so many more, Jane. It will be great to see you live and in person in SF, doing what you do: creating and building this ACEs Connection community with authenticity, compassion, professionalism, dedication to truth and science, your good humor and humility. 

Peace.

C. 

Thank you so much for sharing. You have shown me what I do regarding reaching out to those with obvious needs, but also shined a light and given me a reminder  of the fact that I don’t do this for “everyone”. 

Also, there appears to be a typo- there seems no way that you are 70! 55-60 maybe.  Thank you so much for sharing your story, for your work and for being you! Ellen

Oh Jane! Trust you to turn your suffering into a paean to human kindness. Post-traumatic growth indeed, but as is your wont, something to uplift and encourage us all. Ever grateful to you and to your honesty, passion, empathy and single-minded determination in creating this community. Glad that these qualities are also showing up in your recovery!

Sooner or later we all experience the shock of realizing that the outer forms with which we have identified our self and our worth are transitory and unreliable.  The opportunity - as traumatic as it is to enter, and as grueling as it is to move through - is the realization that we can be happy and at peace, and more authentically so than ever, unconditionally.  This is true liberation.  I tip my hat to you, brave and sparkling soul (underneath where my balding buzz cut sits).  I'm also delighted to report that the 7 Mindsets SEL curriculum prepares kids with the grit and understanding needed for facing and thriving through radical shifts and traumatic disillusionments, in elementary, middle and high schools around the nation.  We've prepared over 500,000 students to face and overcome challenge with bravery, compassion and good sense.  Check out 7mindsets.com to learn how children are learning authentic self empowerment.  Thank you for sharing your vulnerability with this community.

Jane, first of all, I'm so sorry you've had to deal with a brain tumor!  That must feel scary...I hope you are recovering nicely and don't have to deal with anything remotely scary again.  I know Gualala well (my husband's parents own a place at Sea Ranch).  I hope you had a happy birthday and a wonderful vacation.  Your piece about finding comfort in a world that was made uncomfortable for you as a child resonates.  I'm happy you've found that.  Be well my friend.

Jane....

Your introspection is inspiring. You do such wonderful work. With hair, without hair....who cares.  It's you we love.  The person you are, the life task that you are accomplishing, the words you bring forward from your heart, the inspiration you engender.  Best wishes.  Stay strong.  Continue  your march.  We believe in you.

Jane, you are one gutsy lady. Love your courage and attitude in the face of this challenge.

Reminded me of the time when my mother lost her hair due to chemo and that was very traumatic. I was only 10 but I remember how she would always cover her head when someone came to see her. It was painful to watch her cope with her loss of what was then considered to be an intrinsic part of being a woman.  

Sending prayers, love, and hugs your way. You are an inspiration to all of us.

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