Twisted Trails

I hardly ever feel old—and I never say I’m old—but when I stop to consider the things that have been invented (or radically improved) in my lifetime, I have to admit that I’ve been on this earth for quite a while.

Take hair dryers, for instance. When I was a growing up, hair dryers were comprised of a blower/heater unit, a bonnet—usually made of either rigid plastic or soft vinyl, like a glorified shower cap—and a hose connecting the two. You had to have a good bit of time to use one of these; you’d put your wet hair into rollers then sit under the dryer for as long as it took to dry. Depending on the thickness and length of your hair, it could take a very long time. But by the late 70’s, blow dryers (which had been invented about 50 years earlier) had been made better and safer and were finding their way into American homes—just not mine yet.

I almost always wore my hair long when I was young. I’d wash it and let it air-dry, leaving the house with wet hair no matter the weather, much to my mother’s chagrin. But when I was 16, in a fit of teenaged angst, I cut my own hair, and made a real mess of it. A close friend of my family, the father of children I often baby-sat, was a hairdresser. I called him and explained what I’d done. He took pity on me and made immediate room for me in his schedule. After examining the damage, he bent down and looked at me with compassion and said, “Kathy, whatever I have to do to fix this, just remember I love you.”

I cringed.

He gave me a cute, but EXTREMELY short haircut. Then he styled it with a blow dryer, explaining what he was doing as he worked, so I could style it myself later. He asked if I had a blow dryer, and when I said I didn’t, he said he had one I could have. It was one he could no longer use at the shop because the on/off switch had broken; otherwise it worked perfectly; I’d simply have to plug it in to turn it on and unplug it to turn it off.

I loved that thing! It helped me make the most of that short haircut, and it helped me style my hair nicely as it grew out. (And my mother was happy because I almost never left the house with wet hair again.) I used that dryer for the next 15 years or so. Finally I decided it was time to give it a rest, and I bought a new one—one with a functional power switch.

But a funny thing happened: it took me months to stop unplugging the new dryer when I was ready to turn it off. Apparently a pathway had formed in my brain that continued to try to lead me to unplug instead of using the switch. Over and over again I’d absentmindedly reach for the plug. Even now, more than 20 years after replacing that first blow dryer, I still occasionally reach to unplug it instead of flipping the power switch. I can’t help but laugh when it happens, and it serves as a reminder that my brain often reaches back to another time, another reality, and that it does this with other things, too—not just with hair dryers.

I’m going through an unexpected emotional storm right now. A situation has come up that is triggering painful emotions, making me feel unreasonably hurt and angry. The situation in and of itself is not bad, but the emotions certainly are. I didn’t understand why this was happening, which was making me feel even more upset than I already was. I took a long walk on a windy beach (I do my best thinking on long walks), and all-at-once it came to me. Suddenly I could see that my brain was connecting today’s situation to a series of unpleasant memories from my childhood.

Well, there you go. Mystery solved.

I wish that sorting this out and making the upset go away would be as easy as it is to stop my hand when it reaches for the hairdryer plug, but this will take a bit more effort than that. And I think I’ll need some help.

So I made an appointment with my counselor (I haven’t seen her in a year-and-a-half, so it’s probably time for a tune-up anyway), and I know she’ll help me figure this out. We’ll examine those old memories, put a “road closed” sign on the path that leads to them, and hopefully I’ll never travel this trail again.

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