“Don’t be nervous,” Jenean Eberhardt, the black-haired, tattoed co-owner of Rock’s Bar and Hair Shop, tells me from across the bar as I anxiously sip a Sweetwater pale ale. 

I am nervous. I clench my jaw, hyperaware of the emptiness in my mouth, swallowing the static and running my fingers through the wisps of hair along my temples. 

This will be my first haircut in five years. The last was shortly before college graduation, when my thick brown hair fell below my shoulders. At some points in my life, I’ve had long, curly hair, at others, a frizzy Jew ’fro, at others, a pixie cut, at others, I’ve been bald. Today, an inch and a half sticks out, curled in all directions, usually hidden under a pink wrap or baseball cap. 

For trans people, a haircut can be as empowering as it is transformational, the equally tattooed manager Sterling Bentley adds. Lopping off his waist-length brown hair was “one of the first things I did that made me feel gender euphoria.” Indeed, Rock’s used to call itself a “barbershop,” but it’s changed its signage to “masculine-focused grooming, a nod to queer-inclusivity. The handwritten sign behind the bar invites patrons to “tell us your pronouns.”

Everything is designed to put me at ease, to tell me that this is a safe space. 

But I’m not trans. My secret—my reason for being here, for being so anxious about being here, for gulping down the free beer that comes with the haircut in a failed effort to calm my pulsating nerves—is different. 

I have a condition called trichotillomania. It’s a fancy Greek word that translates to “hair-pulling madness” and means, more or less, that I pull my hair out when I’m anxious or bored. It’s grouped with obsessive-compulsive disorder in the DSM-V, but recent research suggests it doesn’t necessarily belong there (though people with OCD are more likely to have it). Instead, trichotillomania is a body-focused repetitive disorder, not unlike biting your nails, just a lot more noticeable. I think of it like grooming on the fritz. 

Between 0.5 percent and 2 percent of the population have it, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry. Few ever talk about it. 

I haven’t, at least for most of my life. 

For me, it’s been a source of shame that I’ve hidden from the world under wigs and hats. I bought clippers so I could shave my head. I then let my hair grow like a haphazard Chia Pet until it was long enough to grab, then I shaved it again. Repeat ad infinitum. 

Nothing fills me with dread like the thought of getting a haircut, of having a stranger see, touch, judge my hair—my secret, my shame. 

I’m here as an experiment in discomfort—a challenge to go outside of my comfort zone. For some people, such an exercise might involve public speaking or chatting up strangers. I have no problem with either of those things. 

But a haircut? That terrifies me. 

With a squeak, the metal chair swings to greet me, and stylist Erika Herter holds out a white smock. I sit back and adjust my feet—I’m too short to reach the foot bar—and she swings me around. 

The worst part of a haircut is looking yourself in the eye.

I cringe as I feel the clippers touch the back of my neck and flash a nervous smile as I feel its vibration. I break out in goosebumps. The buzz changes frequency as it moves across my nape. It’s going to be too short, boyish, maybe too boyish, I think. 

But could it possibly be any worse than the mess I have now?

Herter’s had other clients like me, she says, at least twenty. They found getting a haircut empowering. To let go of what they cannot control. To let go of their shame and let someone see them.

I breathe and try to let go as the scissors snip near my ears. Violent little chirps, and the tiny shards of brown litter my apron, and then the floor. My hair is the “unruly” kind, she tells me, the kind that doesn’t like to be told what to do. 

Don’t I know it.

Curly, kinky, and now a few grays. 

Herter uses a comb to brush out my sides and trims them down with the clippers, creating a fade. She moves quickly, on autopilot. Soon comes the hush of the hairdryer, the soft heat on my neck and ear. A baby powdered towel gently sweeps my neck. She rubs the pomade between her hands and fluffs the front of my hair. 

I start to relax. 

I’m not happy with the way I look—I never am—but at least the fear is gone. 

Is that empowerment? It’s OK. 

“It looks great,” Bentley says, beaming at me as I approach the register. 

I walk out into the pouring rain, which instantly washes away the pomade.

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at ltauss@indyweek.com.

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