I lost my hair in the three-bedroom apartment. It was night time, after my nannying job. I was combing out my hair before going to bed, and a fistful came off in the teeth of the comb. It wasn’t a clump, properly speaking, and it didn’t source from one section of scalp, but it was more hair than I’d ever shed at one time before, and I was worried.
I had been losing hair for several months, and I was told it was nothing out of the ordinary – the heat thins your hair, just like it thins the blood. But this wasn’t an extra several strands in the shower drain.
The hair itself seemed to have a different texture, drier and coarser – and the color seemed rusty. Then again, hair off your head is always less glossy – and a clump of hair is always more snarled.
It was a lot, though, so I dialed back my use of the shampoos. A few months later, I saw a British physician at the expat clinic, and she explained about combing. I went through a series of combs until, finally, a friend living in Phnom Penh had his Laotian girlfriend bring a bamboo comb back from Vientiane, and the lice receded. I wasn’t officially louse-free until a few weeks after my year in Cambodia was over.
The hair loss stopped eventually – at least, I didn’t notice any more. I blamed it on the lice and moved on into Argentina.
It turns out that it might have been a symptom of something else.
When I was in Argentina, I had a series of terrible teaching engagements. The teaching market there is classically precarious: plenty of work, but no jobs. I earned six or seven dollars per teaching hour, and I was scheduled to teach thirty-plus hours every week at office buildings all over the capital. Many of those hours would fall out of my schedule – students would go on business trips on short notice, or simply cancel, or they would stop their lessons. All teachers were laid off in the summer, when most students scheduled long vacations or worked abbreviated hours.
My second summer, I found a salaried editing job that turned out to be as meagre and dull as teaching. (It did offer an air-conditioned office and free coffee.) I determined to leave the job, but I decided to get a checkup first – one of the other things it offered was health insurance. The doctor felt a swelling on my throat; he insisted I get an ultrasound; the ultrasound technician found that both sides of my thyroid were enlarged; the radiologist noted that I had no signs of cancer; the blood test showed that my thyroid hormone levels were within normal range. I had a benign goiter, and my thyroid was perfectly healthy.
I had felt terrible for several months, and continued to feel terrible for several months after that, but I assumed that it was just stress: stress tearing out my hair, stress weighting the soles of my feet, stress plucking numbers and times out of my head.
This was a plausible theory. There had been so many terrible jobs and so many temporary homes. It made sense that I would lose track of time zones – I had covered three continents and two hemispheres in three years.
Then I returned to the United States, and the immediate stressors went away, but the exhaustion persisted, along with the memory problems, and so I thought it must be me. I decided that I must have a personality disorder. I didn’t define this in a clinical sense – I concluded that I was fucked up in some intrinsic way, disordered on the level of personality. I believed that I was simply incapable of normal adulthood, and that I would need a pharmaceutical leash for the rest of my life. I thought my healed personality, such as it was, would represent the tension and slack on that leash.
I wasn’t too badly off, honestly. I had trouble remembering the current time on the West Coast, or which day I had an early-morning class; I was tired a great deal of the time; I wrote less frequently and the quality of my writing was worse. But every minor symptom became the symptom of an intrinsic deficiency, a sign that I was incompetent at life. I noticed that my libido had dropped: I must be incapable of loving another human being. I noticed myself crying a bit more: I must be imbalanced. I noticed that I was tired: I must not be able to finish anything.