Hairbrained: Women Can Get Hurt—But Not Too Hurt

My hair was well past my shoulders in 2015, when I fell 25 feet out of a tree (I liked to climb trees and I was good at it, or so I thought). Despite its length, my hair didn’t act as a whimsical parasol as childhood stories told me it might. It didn’t wrap around a tree branch and lower me to safety a la Tangled.

It did, however, turn into a giant blood-soaked dread during my 10-day coma. Not exactly the fairy tale or beautiful, melodramatic soap opera one imagines.

Yeah, yeah, I know how ridiculous “falling out of a tree” sounds. But I think the expectations of Stan (you’ll learn about him shortly) transcended the ridiculousness of that statement. Through it all, I came to realize the only thing that really mattered was hair. Not me, just hair.

A brief history of hair

Namely, that the most important thing about hair is where and how long it grows. From a young age, we’ve been taught the importance of hair, conditioned on the beauty of Rapunzel’s long locks.

Scientists will tell you it’s natural to want a thick, well-kempt mane—it designates health, after all. That you are a viable mate. As for me, I’m firmly in the “women are socialized to have long hair” camp. C’mon—why isn’t long hair for men the norm? I think of Samson and laugh at how far we are from Biblical times—at least, in some ways.

Single, but only at the start of the coma

Speaking of soap operas and Sleeping Beauty-esque consent, I was single at the start of that coma but didn’t wake up that way. See, my ‘good’ friend (read: friend with benefits) from college told my family, friends, and medical staff he was my boyfriend. Of course, it wasn’t until much later I heard the exact details of and capacity in which Stan inserted himself into—what should have been—my recovery.

Only a few days into my coma, Stan approached my mom.

“If it isn’t looking good for Brooke, I think we should unplug her. I know her; I know what she would have wanted.”

          Photo courtesy of Brooke Knisley

I can’t remember the first few weeks post-coma so this horror story comes courtesy of friends and family. Including that of Stan’s preoccupation with my hair. See, one of the first things the doctor did post-coma was shave off my bloody mess of hair. Stan was displeased with this turn of events, asking my friend Sam if a wig might be a good option.

There aren’t any photos of me in the hospital outside of the coma picture but I ended up looking like an incarnation of Tank Girl. The grand total of my stay in the hospital: 6 weeks.

Heading home

I returned home, but I couldn’t walk without an arm crutch, a condition of my release. A paralyzed vocal cord made it nearly impossible to swallow without aspirating. I also had diplopia from trauma to my occipital lobe. I ended up having surgery to correct my double-vision, but that came months later.

I’m not after pity or sympathy by sharing this; I just want you to believe me when I say I wasn’t okay. In fact, I’d say I was very far from okay. Reading is one of the few things I find comforting and, between my diplopia and memory, I wasn’t able to do it.

See, the first book I tried to read post-coma was Don Delillo’s The Body Artist. After rereading the same two pages for the umpteenth time, I laid the book down, went into the bathroom of my parent’s house, shut the door, sat down on the floor in front of the toilet, and cried. It’s one thing for my body to fail, but the thought that my mind might never come back was too much.

Criticism at an unlikely time

Stan came over nearly every evening and these nightly visits consisted of him criticizing how I chose to structure my recovery. According to Stan, I was practicing my handwriting too much, I wasn’t doing enough squats to magnify my posterior and “help” my balance or I was too worried about being able to read instead of how to do the tasks he deemed worthy of my time (i.e., applying makeup).

On one of these occasions, we drove by the coast to watch the sunset but Dan was looking elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of really cute girls,” he began. “You have a lot of competition.” He gave me a sidelong glance, then reached out and touched my chin. “You should start by doing something about this. It’s disgusting.”

My fingertips felt the same spot he had—peach fuzz with a few un-plucked whiskers. I said nothing.

The next day I went into a walk-in salon not far from my parent’s house—I had them wax my face. When she finished, the esthetician held up a mirror to show me her handiwork. I closed one eye to see my swollen face, still red from the hot wax.

The next time I saw Stan, he told me that since I had taken care of my face, I could move on to another part of my body. Repeat ad nauseum.

I wish I could say I handled it differently—that I told him where to go and ended it—but I didn’t. For another year, he discouraged my writing, saying I shouldn’t “over-do” myself, while ignoring my doctor and therapists’ cautions against certain physical activities. He was more interested in my body than my mind, it seemed.

The breakup

We finally broke up (although it wasn’t much of a relationship at that point—I can count on one hand the number of times he slept with me during that 18-month span, but I digress) when he started working on a yacht in Florida. I thought that was the end, until he called me three months later.

I told him that I was angry—that he had used me for whatever hero-complex he needed to satisfy. When I began rehashing all of the instances he had filled me with self-doubt, self-loathing and uncertainty, he interrupted to tell me I sounded well—“really good.”

In the three months following Stan’s departure from my life, I had made more progress than I did during the year and a half he was around, literally draining my brain power. Of course I sounded “really good,” and I explained to him as such.

“I know. I didn’t treat you right—I was going through a rough time,” he responded. “I’m never going to treat anyone like that again. Please don’t hate me.”

“You make it hard for me not to.”

A $9 haircut and a lesson learned

I don’t date anymore. Not because I can’t or because I think that I’m “damaged goods;” I just don’t want to. There are too many places to go and sights to see. My friend Jean and I just got back from a trip through Southern Mexico. We got $9 haircuts in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. I think I like my hair short.

As for Stan and the other men in the world who expect women to uphold a standard of beauty at all times, even when these women struggle with health concerns, I can only hope they begin to value the interior composition of women instead of the physical vessel they pour themselves into as they disregard what’s already there—long, luscious locks or not.

Featured image by Kelly Sparks

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