I shave my head from the neck up once a week using clippers at a zero setting. I have been doing this for years, ever since I realized that getting a “high and tight” for duty was getting more difficult as my hairline was higher and tighter than a hair cut could accomplish. I had decided years ago, after seeing my grandfather’s 10-inch hair fwip blowing in the wind like a proud flag on a warship, that I would bald gracefully. At first I would pay someone to shave my head, but they would take forever and I realized that I could miss as many hairs as they did for a lot less money if I just did it myself. Ever since, it has become my weekly routine.
Here is the funny thing about shaving my own head, though, no matter how many times I cover the same territory, no matter how many passes or how hard I dig, I also miss about 17 hairs. I shave, I shower, I scrutinize all the hair areas that I shaved and still find them, but I only find them when I am standing in the wind. It is frustrating.
I like the wind; I enjoy the peaceful, easy feeling that comes with the wind blowing across me. It is the hair on our bodies that helps us feel the wind and gives us that feeling like so many caresses. Although I always wear a helmet when I am riding a motorcycle, I still get the feel for it on my face and arms, when I am walking I get it on every bit of my exposed skin. It is a very calming feeling for me. But when I have just shaved my head and neck, all I feel are those 17 blasted hairs I missed.
Today was head shaving day. I shaved my head, scrutinized, showered and then took my kids to the pool. While at the pool I had a discussion about past trauma with a friend. The wind picked up and as I felt it cross my body I felt, at the same time, the relaxing sense of peace that it usually brings with it and the 17 hairs I missed this morning. Those 17 hairs became everything. I stopped feeling the wind, and only felt the failure of my shave. It then got to the point where it was distracting. Every time the wind picked up I would grind my teeth at the obnoxious feeling of 17 hairs that stand out against the millions of other hairs.
It struck me that trauma in our lives is much like that. And I feel it is a good explanation of PTSD. Traumatic events, especially the kind that lead to PTSD, are like those 17 hairs. We have millions of good experiences that should bring us peace when they are considered in total, but then these 17 hairs flare up to show the failure of our attempts to only feel the millions. The 17 hairs are insignificant when considered against the whole of the millions of others, but they are very significant when something that could otherwise bring joy instead inflames those 17 outliers.
I am a perfectionist, and I don’t like being distracted. I am sure there is some psychological something or other that I could define myself by that would explain it, but it is my nature to focus on things being the way I want them to be, to match with my expectations. I am very aware of what I am experiencing, what I am sensing, at pretty much every given moment. So when those 17 hairs start screaming that they are standing tall and proud against all the others, it is very distracting and almost irritating for me. I feel the same way about the memories and flashbacks I have from whatever trauma I have suffered in my past. I have had millions of good and mediocre experiences, but the bad ones are the ones that are most easily triggered by good or mediocre experiences. I have flashbacks and anxiety attacks that I rarely let on, I rarely talk about, that people are typically unaware of. There is just a very slight, noticeable shift in my countenance, slight enough that most people don’t recognize it, and only those who know me exceptionally well may notice.
I handle the flashbacks, prejudices, and anxiety attacks much the same way I handle the 17 hairs: I acknowledge it, then work to make it not the focus but, instead, part of the overall experience. I can’t ever completely disassociate myself from those 17 hairs, just like I can’t disassociate from the memories. I don’t ignore them, I will never be able to fully do that, instead, I set them to the side as if it were Picture-In-Picture (PIP) video. They are still present, but minimized in the context of the whole of what is going on now. If it is a flashback, I watch it in my mind, give it the legitimate acknowledgement required, PIP it, and continue on. If it is a prejudicial (not racial, but experiences that I have had with some people that I had found in others that caused harm in my life, resulting in my immediate distrust), I make a note of the observation and then wait to see if it is a trend, an aberration or something similar but acceptable in this instance. If it is an anxiety attack, I breathe, refocus on where I am, and try to understand what triggered it. I have a plan of action for everything. Sometimes it is more difficult than others, like when I suddenly realize that two conflicting feelings I have had were connected by one experience of trauma.
It doesn’t heal me, but it helps me cope. Unfortunately, while I can come home eventually and cut the 17 hairs down at some point, I won’t be able to trim the memories. Instead, I just make sure that the trauma doesn’t color all my other experiences. I don’t let the 17 hairs ruin the day at the pool for me; I recognize them, compartmentalize the stimuli, and get back to enjoying the wind on the rest of the hair. I don’t allow the trauma caused by the treatment of other people jade my view of all people. I make note of similarities and give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t avoid situations that bring on the flashbacks or anxiety attacks, I work through minimizing the impact that the flashbacks and anxiety attacks have on my current experiences.
Like all those with PTSD, or those who have suffered trauma that may not rise to the level of PTSD, I don’t want life to be about 17 hairs; I want life to be about the peaceful, easy feeling of the wind.