I Never Meant for My Hair to Be the Way Back to the Lighthouse

just a heads up: this essay includes some discussion of self-harm and attempting suicide

i.

In the beginning, there was my mother’s strong thighs, a wide tooth comb, a paddle brush, and a large tub of Johnson’s UltraSheen. As a little girl, every Sunday night, my sister and I would take turns sitting on my mother’s bed or floor, as she combed through our hair, greased our scalps, and plaited our hair. My sister took pigtails and Mom would swoop my hair up into a ponytail up top and one in the back. It never occurred to me to ask for something different, something more me. I didn’t even know who I was yet, and with everything happening, it didn’t seem to matter anyways.

When I think of my plaits I think of this:

First grade. During mid-morning break, we were walking down the hall to the girls’ bathroom. The stalls were painted a soft green that was illuminated by the wide window on one side of the room high above the stalls. My best friend was standing by the sink. I remembered, suddenly, what you do when you love someone. So, I kissed her on the cheek. Another girl ran to the teacher and told on me. I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong, but I knew when Ms. Mourning called me to talk, that I wasn’t right. I cried so hard at the thought of her telling my grandparents, my parents, anybody, that that’s all I have left of that day. Me, standing in my uniform, with one ponytail, crying my eyes out because the first thing I tried to do with my body (that was already under the control of someone else (maybe more)), I didn’t know what to do with this body and the only thing I understood, that I tried to do, just wasn’t right.

You don’t shake that off easily, if ever.

Whenever friends and family ask me, “Remember when…?” my answer is usually, “No.” Like a broken VHS tape that’s been rewound too many times, I can remember in waves and flashes. I can’t access most of my memories because my brain is trying to protect me. When most of the body is composed of trauma, your memories get locked deep in a closet you never want to open and whenever any of those bastards sneak out, my mind plays whack-a-mole to shove them back in. I try to remember one thing but memories don’t come lonely, they’ve got all kinds of friends attached to them. So while I’m looking for the memory of my first spelling bee, the sting of my worst spanking comes along with it, clutching its ankles. When I don’t know what I’m going to get when I work through that closet, I tend to keep the damn door locked. A few memories that’ve been safe enough through the years are enough to keep a semblance of identity for me.

But when trying to be a whole person, semblance isn’t enough. Ariel Gore writes in The End of Eve, “Trauma[…] by its very definition, can’t be fully experienced in the moment. Due to the suddenness or the enormity of the traumatic event, we just can’t take it in. So we have to go back to it at some point — either literally or symbolically — to integrate whatever happened. We can do that consciously, in some safe way, or we’re destined to revisit the trauma over and over again as the violence of life.” I’ve got to go deeper into the closet and brave what comes out. The important thing is that I need an anchor to do so. That’s what they always tell me in therapy; I’ve got to ground myself.

As I’ve been working through my shit, my greatest anchor has been my hair. Going through each hairstyle has shown me how I’ve gone from basically the black girl version of Cole from The Sixth Sense:

to Alike in the last five minutes of Pariah.

ii.

In third grade, I was in the girls’ bathroom when one of the girls in my class told me my hair was sticking up. I tried to push it back down, but it wouldn’t stay. She cupped water from the sink and poured it over my plaits. The coolness seeped into my scalp as my hair turned sponge. She frowned, “Oh, that’s weird. That usually works for me.” I got braids shortly after.

I played saxophone and drums, but I could barely read the notes on my music stand. I missed cues from the band director because I was too busy focusing on the floor. School wasn’t a problem because all I had to do was look at the paper on my desk. Sure, the teachers talked sometimes, but I didn’t have to look up to listen.

I only pulled my hair back because my mom was tired of not being able to see my face. But when I did, in sixth grade, someone made fun of the cyst on my eye and I came home crying. My mom scheduled a surgery I’d been avoiding since I knew what a scalpel looked like and I cried even more.

The boy apologized and I went into the procedure without anesthesia and cried so hard my sister heard me screaming from the waiting room. But when it was over, there wasn’t really any reason to keep my hair in my face anymore.

iii.

I watched Love and Basketball for the first time and decided this was what I needed. My cousin had left this sports encyclopedia at my grandparents’ house and for years, I went through all the pages trying to imagine myself as those athletes. But no matter how many times I tried to envision myself somewhere different, I always turned back to the beginning: Basketball. I tried out for the team in middle school with no idea how to do a lay-up, what a pick was, or why practices had to be that damn long. But I stayed because, between you and me, I knew that’s where all the lesbians were. No one said it to me, but I knew. Just like I couldn’t envision myself playing anything other than basketball, I couldn’t see any of those women basketball players (Go Mystics!) with men. I tried to get my hair like Monica Wright because in the beginning she looked like I did when I was little:

So, the logical thing middle school me believed was I could take a note from her book and look like her:

I know she’s straight but honestly there should’ve been at least five lesbian remakes with her in the first one, because how in the world do you explain this heterosexually?

Picture of Sanaa Lathan doing heterosexual really unconvincingly
You can’t. That’s that good gay shit.

Monica gave me a model I could follow. As an untreated, unmedicated mentally ill kid, obsession should’ve been my first, last and middle name as well as the name of the street I lived on. I didn’t just love orange juice, I drank it every day three times a day for years until my stomach gave up on me and told me to call it quits. I didn’t watch The Lion King once, I watched it every Saturday morning for years in my Simba chair and came to school spirit day like this:

So I didn’t go into basketball lightly. It’s all I asked for when my birthday and Christmas came around. I’d beg my grandfather to take me to the courts when we visited. I would talk only about basketball day in and day out. My mother and sister couldn’t stand me.

You ain’t never met someone who does the most like me

I figured, you focus on one thing long enough, everything else fades away. I was pretty good at dissociating (still am) but I still knew there were plenty of everything else’s I needed to be the hell away from if I was going to survive. God knows I needed that. So, I kept my hair plaited back and went outside and dribbled and ran laps and practiced defense until they called me to come in cause it was way too dark for me to be out by myself.

iv.

I settled on an all-girls Catholic school for high school because I had fleeting annoying thoughts about girls and I thought immersion therapy would make all that go away. I don’t want to give spoilers but…

I wanted to go to the WNBA, but this dream was crushed when I got to the high school gym. We were supposed to play against freshmen on THE VARSITY TEAM MEANING THEY’VE BEEN SCOUTED SINCE AT LEAST SEVENTH GRADE and I knew my love of basketball wasn’t going to make me Chamique Holdsclaw nor make my legs run any faster so I just walked my tail to the theatre instead. I can’t sing a lick, but I can do almost everything else — or at least pretend to, and isn’t that what theatre is all about? Around this time, I got weave.

I wanted to be someone new, someone different from the geeky girl who daydreamed too much. I figured being me was what got me in trouble in the first place, so I studied my surroundings so I could fit in better. Chameleon this shit. All the girls at school had straight hair, or at least hair that didn’t look like mine. They were also really damn pretty. I couldn’t do much about the latter but I could copy the former. My cousin relaxed and straightened my hair and glued in tracks (I had them sewn in during the summer) taking inspiration from Rihanna during her Umbrella phase and Beyoncé circa the B’Day album.

I think I could’ve blended in all four years except, well, I heard her sing. I thought theatre was a place where you could mask, where you could make a home in something you never could be. I wanted to be straight and sane and the safest kind of black (even if it doesn’t exist) and I thought theatre would let me do that. But it turns out theatre is for unearthing truth, not burying it, and that paired with me and obsession? Shit, buddy, was I ever in trouble.

I started to do theatre really seriously because the girl I had a crush on was in everything and it took a lot of guesswork out of trying to be my own person. I signed up for things I had no business being in. I started off slow with theatrical design and stage craft. Since one theatre class was required, my ass should’ve stopped right there. But I signed up to do sound for the fall musical and then tech for the spring musical. Again the next year. I added Improvisation to my schedule and tried to back out but my counselor wouldn’t let me. After I got comfortable with that, I did shows and went to every musical, if I wasn’t tech-ing and performed in the tech parody of the musical. Then I signed up for Acting, which everyone laughed at. Then Honors Acting and by this time, tech for the last show because even though we’d had a falling out, she said, “But you have to! This is the last show we’ll have together!” So I climbed my ass up to the spot loft even though I’m terrified of heights, and shone a light on her for three months straight. I had no idea what the inside of my chest was doing, but I wanted it to keep happening. Being as close to the stage as I could made that happen. I went to braids,

microbraids,

a brief stint where I wore a wig for dance concerts (we did disco),

and twists.

v.

My granddad died sophomore year. That along with a crush I had no idea what to do with, I turned to self harm. I skipped class cause I couldn’t keep still and I saw him in the hallways and I felt like the walls were closing in on me whenever the clock moved closer to three.

We had a ceremony where everyone had to come back to the school dressed up, with parents in the audience. I wore pants and a white shirt and got crankier the longer I saw everyone. She was in a dress and makeup that made me want to punch walls out of want. The only way I saw out was telling her, so, I texted her because I couldn’t look her in the eye.

She was really good about it. She probably would’ve been great about it. I wouldn’t know because literally as soon as I got we should talk about this in person. text, I ran. I didn’t look back.

I told my mom. I remember crying but I’ve blocked out most of everything else. It wasn’t a story I wanted to keep.

My psychosis got worse. I cut deeper and more often. My moods were out of control, going from dancing on cloud nine to a pocket knife within minutes. Looking through my journals, I talked about suicide a lot.

We had retreats every year as a class, like mini group therapy sessions. They’d each give me enough hope to keep going. Catholics believe that homosexuality is a sin, but suicide is unforgivable. I didn’t really see a way I could move in between those two impossibilities but the retreats gave me belief I could try.

I fought with my friends. I wrote them letters about how much I loved them. I forgot to keep the light off while getting dressed one morning and my mom caught me with scars on my legs. Everyone talked about college and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I wrote her a letter explaining that I wasn’t gay, I was just sad about my granddad and she made me smile. I went to prom with a boy and everyone told me how beautiful I looked.

I lied a lot and hoped I wouldn’t get caught.

vi.

Senior year, I went blonde.

I kept skipping class until I got caught and served Saturday detention. I quit Improv even though people said I was good and I enjoyed doing it. One day, I thought I was getting better; the next I believed I would always be fucked. I drank. I cut. Then, I took a Creative Writing class second semester and didn’t realize until I was halfway through reading my first story that I was coming out.

It went well. Everyone’s notes were helpful and the ground didn’t open up and swallow me whole. I walked to lunch feeling lighter than I’d ever felt. I held my friend’s hand while I told stories during lunch.

A younger girl, a freshman, came up to me and said, Hi, I have a crush on you. I froze. I could feel the entire lunch table staring. I let go of my friend’s hand. The girl ran back to her friends before I could do anything. One of my friends who was in the same writing class as me, pointed across the cafeteria to girls who were laughing. My friends told me to talk to the freshman, to make sure she was alright.

I had Improv next and all I could think as I walked to the classroom above the theatre was Why is everyone telling me to worry about that girl when I feel like shit too? Can’t I take a minute to feel like shit instead of ignoring it and deal with it later (if ever)? Then, guilt would come back and remind me that I wasn’t allowed to feel anything, much less anger. The shitty feelings doubled up on top of the shame I already carried. Walking into the classroom, one of the girls from the cafeteria laughed, You should’ve seen your face! I’m not sure what my face did then, but it must’ve been right because she kept on laughing until I heard myself laughing with her. When I thought of how I stayed quiet instead of going after that girl to see if she was alright, I thought I deserved this much. I went to Improv class and one of the girls from the cafeteria laughed, You should’ve seen your face! I didn’t think I had a choice but to laugh along with her.

Second semester continued to spiral. I stopped talking to my best friend because good things don’t last and I wanted a say in how something ended this time. I failed Calculus because I was too busy cutting in class and ignoring the teacher because she made me mad and grudges are the only thing I can hold too well. My friends started getting college acceptances and I was anxious, thinking I’d get left behind. I went to the first college that said yes.

I went to prom with the same boy.

Smiled whenever a phone was pointed at me.

We took graduation pictures and I counted down the day til I could get the fuck out of there.

vii.

By the grace of God, I graduated. My family bundled up all my stuff in cars and trucks and we drove down to North Carolina. My parents, sister, and I had been a couple months before for an orientation and my gut told me this wasn’t right. But I’d ignored it this long, I thought it was best to keep going. I remember sitting in the bathroom with a razor reminding myself, It’s just four more years. You can do four more years. You’ve made it this far, what’s a little more?

But this time, I couldn’t do it. The first night there, the school threw a welcome luau for the freshmen. I stayed in my dorm room, sitting on my bed, IM-ing one of my friends. I was one of the first to go off to school and telling them how anxious and terrified I was, they told me I just needed to get used to it. But I kept imagining my family driving back home, leaving me stranded, without one person who gave a fuck about whether I stayed here or not. This didn’t feel like something I could get used to. In the middle of the night, I texted and called every family member I could, telling them if they didn’t get me right now, I was going to empty out the family-size Advil bottle sitting on my dresser. I don’t remember much after that, except my cousin being the first to answer and someone getting me. Coming back to the hotel room, and my sister pulling back the cover without hesitation telling me, You can always come home. My grandmother, the next day, holding my hand and saying, It’s okay, baby. It’s okay.

We came back. I thought North Carolina was a fluke. I called my second choice and they told me I could still come, that I’d still get scholarship. This time it was just me and my parents. I remember telling my cousin, I’m going to miss you so much. and he told me, Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow. I told him I was going to college and he said, Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.

We drove up to New York and I tried to imagine myself in the mountains with the snow and dial-up Internet and groups that already didn’t laugh at my jokes. My dad said, I’m sure going to miss you, kid. I loved going on car rides with you and hanging out. It won’t be the same without you. I didn’t even make it to my dorm room after that. A therapist was called. I cried so hard into the hotel comforter, I thought the mattress would forever be tear stained. We came back home that morning and my cousin jumped down the steps, Hey, Exi! I told you I’d see you! How was college?

I looked for schools, swearing I wouldn’t fall behind my former classmates. I tried online but would give up on the last assignment and stop answering phone calls to sign up for next semester. I was accepted into a school closer to home and had to keep my back turned whenever the metro train approached. After a week, I resigned. I couldn’t stop seeing myself hanging from the ceiling.

My parents let me stay home. My sister went to school and I rode with my dad to take my cousin to and from school. I read a lot online and tried to catch up on everything I missed while closeted (I ended up watching Imagine Me & You a lot) and I stayed in the basement and paced for hours. I wrote plays and essays and poems that weren’t very good. I came out (again) hoping that would solve everything. I got a mohawk. Getting out of bed any day was nothing short of a miracle.

For at least a year, I was season three Quinn Fabray. But after cutting my hair, instead of getting a tattoo and trying to steal my baby back from Rachel’s mom, I talked to hallucinations and made plans to go back to high school and give myself a do-over. I thought changing something on the outside would change the wrecked ruin of me on the inside. I thought somehow the inside would get a memo from my outside and get into shape. Just like Quinn, the cut didn’t save me. It just made me look different — closer to myself, yes, but not all the way there yet.

Though it had been suggested once or twice, this is when I really started therapy. The first person didn’t fit, but I tried to make her. Every week, I’d sit in her rocking chair (the sole reason I gave her the okay) and would talk about my plans to get back into college. I left when my paranoia told me this wasn’t going to work out and I saw how much my parents were paying for me to pretend to get better. The second person, I felt more comfortable around. She was gay, at least. I mostly looked out her top-floor window, the sky was usually so much bluer. A couple of sessions in, she said something about my grandfather. I kept looking out the window. At one point, she brought up abuse. I kept looking out the window, but I wasn’t there anymore.

It was slow and hard work chipping at me to get to any kind of truth. She knew I wrote and told me about this contest one of her friends was hosting. Teens and young adults who would write a piece about growing up that could be included in a book. My submission was a letter to my parents about that day in the cafeteria. I never felt like I could tell them what happened or why it still hurts so much. I hoped this would be some kind of healing. It was accepted and I still felt like shit. There was a reading hosted for all the contributors. I came and thought my sister would only come in but my dad did too. I didn’t want him to hear me talk about being gay again so when the editors asked me to speak, I just smiled and said, No thank you. I got angrier every time they asked and ended up sulking in the corner. One of the publishers asked me about writing a book and gave me her card. I told my mom about what may have happened with my grandfather. I didn’t want to talk anymore in therapy. A couple of weeks later, my therapist and I talked about checking me into the hospital.

After talking with my family and freaking out after reading a book called Suicide Notes, we decided to try outpatient instead. I applied for and got into an intensive outpatient program. From the intake meeting, I felt better. Not cured, but better. The therapist was kind and easier to talk to about the hard stuff. I had orientation and decided if the art therapist could stomach my creepy picture without making me feel like shit, I’d tell the truth, I’d do my best here. When she smiled after my explanation of my piece, it felt like a light went on inside me.

I took the metro to and from the place almost every day. Some days I couldn’t make it myself and my dad would pick me up and we’d get my cousin and they’d distract me for a while. I had group and workout and art and DBT skills and individual sessions and no one yelled at me when I showed up too early, sitting on the three steps that lead to the front door. No one shooed me away when I paced outside the doors during lunch, letting the laughter from the conference room comfort me into knowing they were still there, they hadn’t disappeared yet. No one made me feel the worst kind of invisible, the kind that doesn’t see reason to stick around. They believed me when I didn’t want to even know myself and every day I wrote little notes to remind myself that this was real, that this was happening to me, that I could hold this a little longer.

But they couldn’t stop the mood swings.

iix.

My mom would plait my hair into cornrows every Sunday night and it was something I took comfort in, let me revel in childhood without staying too long for it to become dangerous again. I mostly just kept my sweatshirt hoodie up and let it be.

But one day, I made her upset and she didn’t plait my hair. I remember barely getting any sleep that night. Feeling like I was too small in my skin, too big in the world, too everything and not enough. I played my music really loud as I walked into the group room, upset and trying to hide it. I came in with really tore up looking hair, but I knew I deserved it.

The people in group listened to me mumble about my weekend and I tried to rush the ending on my hair. It was quiet for a moment and then they said very gently: “That must be really tough. I’m so sorry.” I tried to brush it off, it’s not a big deal it’s not like anyone’s looking at me anyway. I tried to make myself smaller, but they wouldn’t let me.

I think I was supposed to feel better but that kind of understanding couldn’t fit in me right just yet. I obsessed over it and I manic-ed and angered at my audacity to feel anything other than thankful and vowed to get my own clippers because family is too much to deal with anyways and I don’t need the world to so easily see that I am unloved and this isn’t something I should have to worry about. I thought about my head and decided to try on the love other people gave me. I asked my dad to take me to the barbershop. I didn’t get clippers. I got a binder instead.

It was another step towards becoming myself. I kept going to therapy and figured out it may not have been my grandfather, it may have been him, it was probably some other people too. My best friend and I made up and try out talking to each other with love because we’re hoping practice makes permanent. I applied for jobs and schools and got frustrated at just the thought of being confined again. A man followed me from the street to the metro and I turned around to come back to the safe place. I hid under chairs in the waiting room and saw my grandfather even though he shouldn’t be breathing. I relapsed and got rejected from jobs and walked the other way when a girl even smiled in my direction. A man on the train told me I looked like I kiss good and held his junk while staring at me. I flashbacked so hard, I don’t remember how I got home. I got my first job and one of the managers harassed me and other workers and nothing could stop him. Another coworker made pedophilic jokes around me. I didn’t see a way out and I cut and cut and prayed and finally, I wrote. After I wrote, I went back to treatment and spoke.

I started to pay for my own treatment. I made plans with my therapists on how to talk to people above the manager and my coworkers. They didn’t like it, but I kept a pocketknife on me and felt safe. The manager was moved to another location. Other coworkers told me stories to remind me I wasn’t alone. Over the summer, I did a paid internship at a nonprofit and learned to manage my anxiety better. I applied for a women and nonbinary people of color writer’s retreat and got in.

I travelled for the first time by myself and stayed in a place I never knew existed. Surrounded by people who had no reason to like, much less trust and love me, created a home for me as soon as I stepped out the car. I told the truth as much as I could and fell in love with so many people in just four days. With my knees knocking and my hands shaking, I performed my poetry and everyone listened to me like church. I was held, in more ways than one. I learned about found family in high school, but that one dissolved as soon as we hit the graduation steps. This family I love (and they still love me) stayed and still stay even years later.

I came back home and relapsed. I came back and tried to build myself again into a person who couldn’t wait to keep living.

Working again, I picked up drinking. Cried because I was out but still didn’t think people I loved still liked me. I cut off my mohawk and got a fade. Volunteered with literary organizations and helped out with an abuse resource blog. I let my hair go back to black. I advised in workshops and worked and felt like it wasn’t enough. I kept showing up to group and individual and tried to sit in the same room with my emotions for hours at a time. I applied for all kinds of residencies and submitted to journals and signed up for all kinds of classes in bursts of manic energy. I cancelled classes and ignored plans and I got into LAMBDA’s Literary Retreat for Emerging Writers.

I spent a week at college with people who made me excited to learn everyday. I didn’t have to censor myself when I talked about whose face I liked best. I looked forward to hanging outside my room and ate healthy and enough. I smoked and flew by myself for the first time. I got drunk the first night. I went to my first gay club. I read my work at West Hollywood Library. I came home feeling touch my head to the floor grateful and super vulnerable and fucking invincible. I wrote this status:

ix.

Things aren’t magically better but they are different. A different I’m learning to love and handle better everyday. Now, I go to the barber shop and after I get my fade, I run my hands through the back of your head and the buzz warms my fingertips. I can look at myself in the mirror longer. My arms and legs aren’t clear but they’re not as blood-drip heavy. I don’t let healing become linear but I haven’t made recovery impossible. I still go to therapy and I talk and I write and I think about endings less. My body feels more home than ever. Hair has memoried me and made me and continues to pull me forward even when I can’t get out.

I never meant for my hair to be the way back to the lighthouse. I never knew that each step in my hair journey would be one of the few things that would anchor my memories, allow me to tell myself in the truest way I can. Hair is extension of myself and so I thought it was just for making my parents, my family, my abusers, my friends, and strangers happy. I thought it would keep me safe. Or at least, invisible. I thought it would be the last thing to help me figure out my identity, that it would just be an afterthought, like I always was. But, it’s become so much more than that. My hair is the first way I was able to gain autonomy over my body, to learn to navigate my identity through what I did with my curls, how I kept my kitchen, the color I used to express myself. Now when I need to ground myself, I don’t have to wait for anyone to help me. I don’t need to depend on everyone else. I can just reach up.


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Alexis Smithers (Lex Lee) is a black nonbinary person creating on the East Coast. They help out with 365daysoflesbians, Winter Tangerine, and Voicemail Poems. A 2015 Pink Door Fellow & 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer, you can find more of their work on their website and listen to them scream about poetry & other interests on Twitter.

Alexis has written 6 articles for us.

53 Comments

  1. Beautiful and powerful. Thank you.

    I’m also a survivor and I kept nodding as I read this. Our stories and backgrounds are different, but I relate to your story so much. Especially the non-linear healing. (One good days I think it’s not meant to be linear – it’s supposed to be a spiral).

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • I really love the idea of the spiral now, I used to think of it as that web from Coraline, you know right before the Other Mother gets her but she escapes? It used to feel like that, but now, or at least, more often it feels like those drills you used to see on the cartoons digging into the center of the earth, and I’m hoping that it turns out to be that kind of spiral where you dig to the truest part of you, and get that back. Does that make sense?

      Anyways, thank you so much for reading. And from one survivor to another: Thank you so much for staying. I hope you’re doing okay.

  2. Some of these sentences hit like bullets

    “I remembered, suddenly, what you do when you love someone.”

    “I started to do theatre really seriously because the girl I had a crush on was in everything and it took a lot of guesswork out of trying to be my own person.”

    And most of all(as one of the kids who *did* buy the clippers)

    “I obsessed over it and I manic-ed and angered at my audacity to feel anything other than thankful and vowed to get my own clippers because family is too much to deal with anyways and I don’t need the world to so easily see that I am unloved and this isn’t something I should have to worry about.”

    Thank you for this

  3. “I try to remember one thing but memories don’t come lonely”

    alexis this line has annihilated me. the whole piece is so great, so much, but this one line found me all the way out in the trees 30 years ago. thank you.

  4. Alexis, this was incredibly touching and a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. I wish you continued happiness and progress, and plan to check out your website. Gotta keep up with your future hair styles and writing! Love and Hugs, Suzette

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