Say ‘Yes’ to the Tress.
All formal and informal information on the subject says that hair loss starts exactly two weeks after the first session of chemotherapy, and it’s correct. On that day I was sitting in a secret upstairs room in a hair salon, talking about wigs.
As the stylist combed my hair back into a stockinette cap, ready to try on some artificial Barnet, she commented; ‘Yes, I think it’s starting’. She had a few suitable wigs in stock so the fun began.
The galling thing is, all the wigs looked better than my own hair, which I’d allowed to get grey and straggly.
Well, what’s the point in paying for a cut and colour when you know it’s all going to fall out?
Eventually I settled on the first one we tried, bundled it into a bag, paid €700 and sheepishly scurried out of the salon.
Was this a rip-off? Yes, probably.
An online search revealed that similar wigs can be bought ‘sight unseen’ for about €250, but nobody is going to feel confident enough to do that when they’ve never bought one before, aren’t sure how to measure their heads, and need reassuring that they don’t look like Michael Fabricant.
However, I phoned my medical insurers and they assured me they would cover it, so I just got on with it, knowing that I needed to take one home on the day because the hair loss was starting right now.
I had already started washing my hair very gingerly, and patting it dry.
But four days later I sat at my dressing table and found that a large mat of hair had formed on top of my head that I could barely get my brush through it, and when I did, a huge chunk of hair came away all at once.
That night, I got my husband to charge up the hair clippers he’d bought during lockdown so I could cut his hair, and he set to work on mine, taking it down to about 2cm all over. It took a bit of getting used to.
What they don’t tell you is that hair loss hurts.
My scalp got a bit pink and tender while these 2cm strands kept on falling.
At night, trying to get to sleep, it felt like my pillow had been replaced by a bristly old doormat. A friend gave me a silk pillowcase, which helped quite a lot.
The other thing they don’t tell you is that you don’t actually lose your hair, as in, go completely bald.
It grows back, but fine and blonde, like a baby’s hair, so you end up looking like a new-born barn owl chick on a Spring watch nest cam.
The wig, christened Brenda, was now deployed on a daily basis.
I got a letter from my insurance company, or rather, an eight-page form.
They wanted to know whether the HSE had agreed to pay a contribution for my wig.
This is another new NHS-style thing in the Irish system, but for me, it didn’t apply, because in order to get this benefit, you have to be paying the Irish equivalent of National Insurance; PRSI, or Pay-Related Social Insurance, and I haven’t, because I’m not working, and I can’t rely on my husband’s PRSI either, because he’s been paying it for less than five years.
So that is what I told the insurance company.
It’s complicated, and bureaucratic, and this is exactly what you need when you’re worried and ill, and not feeling especially well-motivated for bureaucracy.
I tried hats and scarves, but in the end, Brenda feels more like ‘me’.
People tell me that they couldn’t tell she’s not real.
She’s not even human hair – those are ridiculously expensive wigs, hard to style and to keep new-looking, and they get brittle with repeated washing.
Brenda is synthetic, and although she looks quite convincing, she feels a bit like Barbie hair, and I resent her. I still have to wash her once a week.
Bath time For Brenda
‘The thing about you, Brenda Wiggins,’ I say, as I hold her lifeless body under the bathroom tap, ‘is that you think you’re so smart. Well, look at you now. Not quite so gorgeous any more, are you?’
I catch her giving me a filthy look from underneath her sodden fringe.
I dunk her in the bathroom sink, squeeze out a dollop of her special shampoo and work it gently into those sleek locks, temporarily reduced to rats’ tails by the water.
‘See how I look after you,’ I tell her. ‘I don’t trust you to stick with me, especially on windy days, but I’m giving you the best care I can.’
There’s conditioner next, and a final rinse, and her roadkill body can be patted dry between two layers of a fluffy towel.
She is limp and unresponsive. I continue to harangue her with what’s on my mind.
‘What I hate about you most, Brenda, is you look like I have been trying to get my hair to look since 1995.
Not a flake of dandruff, or a grey hair, or a single split end anywhere. I think it’s that, rather than your nylon fakery, that annoys me the most.’
Between her synthetic strands, Brenda bares her mesh scalp at me.
I know she’s planning to humiliate me as soon as she gets the chance.
I give her a vicious shake and drop her back on to her plastic stand to dry overnight.
I can sense her watching me warily.
‘If you didn’t look so perfect,’ I tell her, as she drips sporadically on to the windowsill, ‘maybe you’d look less fake’.
Typically, the Manic Pixie Girl’s World says nothing.
I consider pulling out one of her brunette hairs to lay it on my shoulder, for added realism.
But I don’t think Brenda would stand for much of that sort of treatment. And so we go on, wishing we didn’t need to have anything to do with each other at all.
To be continued.