This post was originally published on February 4, 2016.
When I quit drinking, my hair turned white. Not like in urban legends where the sudden shock made me wake up one morning with a full head of white or one of those cool lightning bolt stripes. It was more like I woke up one day and decided to stop coloring the gray I had been covering religiously for decades. Being sober had the unexpected benefit of making me want to live in my own skin and hair, even though I was scared of looking and feeling older.
I got my first gray hair at 14. My mom was French braiding my hair at the beach and said “ooh, look what I found” like it was a pretty shell or treasure. At the time, I thought one white strand was pretty neat, a sign of uniqueness and not just quirky genes. By the time I got to college, the temporary hair dye I was using for fun doubled as camouflage. My roommate had even more gray than me and we joked that it must be something in the water. Or maybe it was the beer, which I was drinking by then at an alarming rate.
For the next twenty years, I dyed and styled my hair in hopes that a carefully orchestrated appearance would make my feelings less chaotic—it did not. When my drinking was at its worst, I started going to a salon for highlights and honestly was never more in love with my hair. So why on earth did I decide to stop coloring and embrace my natural gray? First off, we prefer to say silver, unless it’s more charcoal or slate. Much of my new hair is snow white, a family trait like our big noses and tendency to worry. I have learned to embrace all of these things in sobriety. These things are all me.
The first couple years of sobriety were about learning to do everything without alcohol. I learned how to go out and enjoy a meal without ordering at least three beers. I learned how to watch a movie on the couch with only a cup of tea. I learned how to not only tolerate Friday nights but get excited about them again. All of these things took a lot longer than I would like to admit. Somewhere around my third year of sobriety, I realized I would need to learn how to live with myself if I wanted to stay sober. I have my share of character defects and instead of thinking of them as flaws, it helps to consider the flip side. Just like shyness makes me a good listener and observer, being a little lazy and impatient makes me the perfect candidate for self-acceptance. It definitely helped me decide I was sick and tired of dyeing my hair every three weeks.
I colored my hair for about as long as I drank and logged hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. It was messy and fumy. Once I somehow flicked specks of hair dye all over a wall my husband had literally just painted. That might have been my bottom. I only got two weeks out of a touch up before the white started poking through like the opposite of crocuses poking through snow. It is one thing to learn to love yourself, but fortunately I had the full support of those close to me. My husband has a fair bit of gray as well. The next time you find yourself in a room with a bunch of forty-somethings, note the ratio of gray to color in men and women. In general, a lot more men accept their natural hair color, and so we are accustomed to this as a society. It is not that they necessarily wear it better, we are just more used to seeing it.
Just because I stopped coloring my hair doesn’t mean I think all women should. To color or not is right up there with religion and politics. It is a very personal decision. I am happy to discuss it, but will never try to sway another. For the record, I never leave the house without makeup unless I’m going to the gym or grocery store before 9 am. The decision not to color anymore had more to do with resignation and a little laziness than a bold statement about growing old gracefully.
About that, the other day a checkout clerk said to me “I’m guessing you don’t get the senior discount?” I smiled and said, “No, just the hair.” I am 42 years old. He must have realized the slight and added “I didn’t think so. You have a young face and that hair color really works on you.” I felt simultaneously insulted and flattered and made a mental note to find a new grocery store. Or stop leaving the house for another 20 years, which is when I’ll technically be old enough for a senior discount.
It is not easy looking older, even when you do it on purpose. I know a few women who went gray early and are mistaken for the mothers of their sisters or grandmothers of their children. But by getting sober, I have already done something much harder than brace for hurtful comments from oblivious strangers. Sobriety has already taught me to have a thicker skin. I learned this once I realized the world did not revolve around me and opinions people have about me actually have more to do with them.
The process of going gray has been oddly liberating. It’s not the couple extra free hours each month or all the money I thought I would save but haven’t. I spend it trying to find the perfect shampoo and styling products, because it turns out I will never be completely satisfied with my hair. I think this has been the most liberating truth of all. The past year of growing out my natural color has been a painful process of giving up yet another bottle. Sometimes I look in the mirror and think whoa. The white is still such a surprise and does not match how young I feel. I hope to always feel about 12 years old in my heart, but with the wisdom of at least a 42-year-old. Sometimes this gets reversed, but that too is life.