When I was 6 years old, I got a case of head lice from my older sister. I still remember the thin stainless steel comb my mother raked through my thick corkscrew curls. I remember being told to sit still while the treatment stretched on for what seemed like hours, and the paralyzing fear that ran through me when someone joked that my house would be visited by some of the other biblical plagues. But more than the discomfort and terror I experienced, I vividly remember the shame. When I came back to school, a letter went home with every child in my classroom letting parents know that “someone” in the class had lice. Even at that age, I knew that I didn’t want anyone to know it was me. Lice was something people didn’t talk about, and it certainly wasn’t something people wanted to be known for. 30 years later, I’m still battling the same two persistent nuisances: lice and shame.
It started a month ago when my trip to Trader Joe’s was interrupted by a call from my daughter’s preschool telling me my 3-year-old had lice. I panicked. I knew there are professionals you can pay to remove your child’s lice, but I didn’t know where to find them. And how was I going to research lice treatments, buy my groceries, pick up my kid, and most importantly, keep this from my social circle all at the same time?
When I got to school, my daughter’s teachers handed me a piece of paper with a tiny bug taped to it, and the words “found in Jesse’s hair” scrawled above. We’ve gotten some pretty bad artwork sent home from school, but this was probably the worst souvenir of our nursery school experience. The teachers assured me lice happens all the time, but despite their kind words, I was dying on the inside. I knew an email was about to go out to the other families in our class, and it wouldn’t be long before someone figured out we were the ones to bring this scourge into the classroom. So, I made an appointment at a professional “lice salon” for later that day, and furiously cleaned my house. I told no one but my husband.
Things only got worse that afternoon when we confirmed that not only did Jesse have lice, but my older daughter and I had it too. At this point, my absolute disgust at the situation was only outweighed by the all consuming shame I was experiencing. Maybe I could explain away one case of lice, but three of us? Everything I felt at 6 years old was coming back to me. What would people think of me? Was I dirty? Would anyone come over to my house again? Was everyone already talking about me?
Lice isn’t just about shame. The whole experience is terribly alienating. I didn’t know how to tackle this problem by myself and I didn’t know anyone who could help me through it. I was frustrated that I had to outsource, at considerable expense, something my mother was able to do for me. I didn’t want anyone to know I had lice, but I needed people to know because I desperately needed support.
A friend once told me that when a child in her daughter’s class had lice, the parents emailed everyone and outed their daughter as “patient zero.” They offered information about how to get rid of lice and encouraged everyone to share information about it when it happens. With one email they confidently called out lice for what it really is: something that can happen to anybody and nothing to be embarrassed about. I decided to do the same.
I took a deep breath, exhaled, and then told the whole class that Jesse had lice. It doesn’t really matter who gave it to whom I wrote, just that we all handle it responsibly to prevent the cycle from spreading again. And just like that, it was out there. I even took my #endliceshame mission to social media and posted a photo of Jesse in her shower cap during a lice treatment.
I thought the best thing about sending that email would be getting it off my chest. I’ve read that putting a spotlight on shame is really the only way to get rid of it. As it turns out, the best thing about sending the email were the positive responses I got from the families in Jesse’s class. People weren’t judging me—they were thanking me for bringing this out into the open. It relaxed the pressure on everyone to keep quiet and reminded us all that, like everything else that festers below the surface of what we’re comfortable talking about, some things only get worse when we remain silent. You don’t get lice because you’re dirty, and thankfully, it’s not a virus that makes our kids sick. It’s just a bothersome part of growing up, and we can all make it easier on each other by refusing to keep it a secret…and investing in a lice comb.