Milestones and the express lane to identity!

IMG_5694I should warn you that this post doesn’t involve anything adrenaline related so if you’re looking for something that will make your hands sweat, your heart start pounding and a desire to go out and do something crazy well, this isn’t it.  There is only introspection and humour and it all stems from reaching an important five-year milestone.

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One of my all-time favourite photos. Run for the Cure with Aaron & Leah Brouwers and my incredible husband Steven.

First of all, the milestone I’m so psyched about is that I have officially reached the five-year mark of having finished all of my treatments including the one that has left its lasting mark of medical complications on me. Cancer, surgery  and 18 months of toxic cocktails was no-fun ride and sanity is achieved and maintained with milestones.   This marker was key to help me move forward in my life.  You see, each year that I am cancer free is one more fantastic year of life but it is also one more year that increases the chance that it isn’t coming back.  One of my cancer’s (if you didn’t know, I had two types which gives new meaning to ‘the more the merrier!’) was a very lively, thriving and likely to return type of cancer.  Each cancer-free year I get is another year the image of the grim reaper’s backside gets smaller as he continues to fade away in the distance.

DSCF3586Reaching this milestone has made me want to touch on a topic that made me dig deep in my thoughts and provided exposure beyond the biggest rock climb I have ever done.  The topic…HAIR!   “WTF?” you say!  Well keep reading, if you dare, and I may just change your mind on what you think about your trusty mane and all the hair in between!  After all, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s already a multi-billion dollar industry that has figured out the power of vanity in humanity and manages to successfully market hair products that apparently induce orgasmic sounds in the confines of an airplane bathroom!   I just haven’t ever seen a shower or much room for anything else in one of those bathrooms…must have missed something there…maybe in first class!

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Original creative piece (and mirror) for a friend.

With that being said, if you can, please go to the mirror and check out all the places your hair exists and I mean all the places…eyebrows, eyelashes, your big toes and even the private places.  Take a close look (get your glasses out if you need them) and even run your fingers through at least the hair on your head.  Give a quick thought to what you think you would look like without it.  Ask yourself what does it mean to you?  Who do you think you would be without it?  Why do you avoid having a uni-brow? Why is that comb-over so important even on windy days? Why is that handlebar moustache twisted to perfection? How much have you spent to clean, cut, colour, straighten, twist, tease, mousse and poof your fashionable mop? Have you ever had a bad hair day?  Do you think “Kojak” (yes, I’m dating myself) or Mr. Clean’s clean head seems easy? What have you thought of a woman who doesn’t have hair?

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Dennis Barnes Photography

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a long time.  Mainly because I gained a lot of insight from losing all the hair I have, including those itty bitty hairs on my toes and everything in between.  I may have saved a bunch of cash (it is truly incredible what can be spent in hair products) but it was astounding to see what happened to me as  an individual, as a woman, and to experience the societal view of a female devoid of hair.

Women of Climbing Calendar

Women of Climbing Calendar – Mike Landkroon Photography

So let’s go back in time.  I had some pretty awesome hair by industry standards!  My head was full of long, naturally blonde, flowing, shiny, noticeable from a distance,  highly maintained locks!  Years were spent developing this security blanket on my head and oodles of cash were spent on making sure it was as shiny and perfect as the golden fleece in the story book. It served me well at making my external appearance a little more flashy and recognizable. On its perfect days, I felt beautiful and oddly enough, invincible!

IMG_1595Funny how fast things can change.  In one chemo visit being filled with a cherry-coloured toxic cocktail, I had willingly signed an approval for release for all that I held dear to my skin to freely escape the bondages of follicles.  None of my golden strands even needed waxing like ‘Forty Year Old Virgin…Kelly Clarkson style!’  Every follicle released its prisoner and I was propelled forward into an appearance of what resembled more like a hairless cat. Sounds kinda vain…hell ya, but I’m just stating the facts!  So just think about my previous statements and I challenge many to discover how truly good you feel when you colour, curl, caress, straighten, spike, tease, flip back, pull forward, braid, make hurricane wind proof and poof your hair.  An honest analysis and you will know the power of your hair.  Then there is the ‘bad hair day’ and as some stats say, people call in sick to work because they are truly having a bad hair day.  Bad hair = sickness?  For some, absolutely. After all, it can be emotionally taxing to have one side curl up and the other side stay straight!

DSCF6806Whether you like it or not, your hair is an extension of you and a canvas of creativity to achieve uniqueness; a veil to hide insecurities and features we’re not proud of; a means to  feel sexy, professional, look younger, more hip and it is a factor which society judges us on.

I was beyond terrified of losing my incredible, unique security blanket.  After all I had spent thousands of hours since childhood,  practically knitting this endless golden blanket and thousands of dollars in hair products to keep it glistening.  Losing it meant adding insult to injury since my breasts were removed and they were my other extension of femininity.  Surviving cancer was more important but even vanity and insecurity still have their way of slithering in. The cherry-coloured toxic cocktail wasted no time in creating the fastest wax job from head to toe.  I awoke to clumps of hair resting on my pillow in the morning, no longer attached to me.  Each caress of my hand through my hair cleansed my scalp of the hangers-on golden strands and my hand clenched a web of past confidence.  My security blanket was rapidly unravelling. I had the holy sh*t realization…this sh*t is for real and there was no turning back.  Jany&Steve_0021Scrambling for some final memories of what was soon to become a thing of the past, our dear friend Dennis Barnes (Dennis Barnes Photography) came to our home and captured some final shots of Steven and I before the strands of my life became history.  The next morning, awaking to another rats nest of hair on the pillow I sort of snapped.  My lack of interest to suffer slowly had hit its limit.  Cancer took my breasts and fighting cancer was going to take my hair but I wanted my hair to go on my terms.

2008_0327bishop20053So with the help of my incredible husband and his trusty electric hair shaver we took the leap.  My heart was racing, hands trembling and the tears poured down my face as I stared in the mirror.  Taking one last look at who I was clinging onto externally, Steven turned on the cutter.  My heightened sensations made the shaver sound like a chainsaw starting up.  My chin couldn’t stop quivering as he did the first stroke of the cutter along my hypersensitive scalp. I was instantly in the express lane with no brakes to a world of insecurities.  Through my water-filled eyes, I watched my hair slowly float to the floor like feathers in the wind.  It was like the clumps were intentionally slowing down to carve a deeper scar into my soul of what once was. At the same time, it was incredible to see how easily you can cut away what has taken years to grow.

Now donning what resembled a skunk streak through the centre of my scalp, there was no going back. There are just some haircuts you can’t fix!  With each swipe of the cutter, part of myself fell to the floor.  We both cried until it was all gone.  Steven was there sharing in the step to the next chapter and it was obvious the process was truly painful for him as well.  At least with such an ordeal, it proved to be too much for his hair chainsaw and the thing officially died by the end.  With blood shot eyes, my hand moved over the fuzz left on my head, the last of my tears poured from my eyes and the next chapter of my hair life began!

DSCF9004Days after my initial buzz, the rest of my protective fuzz seem to melt away overnight and I was officially fully and truly hairless.  Standing before the mirror, naked, staring at the scars where there were once breasts and seeing every feature of every part of my face and scalp where my eyebrows, eyelashes and golden hair use to be, along with my hairless legs and arms, I had nowhere to hide.  This was me, the real me and the I did initially have the thought, ‘holy sh*t, I look like  a hairless cat!’ Nothing was left except to discover if I really felt confident on the inside.

Fun days down in Horsepens in Alabama.

Fun days down in Horsepens in Alabama.

I’m pretty out there as most of you know, so wearing a wig wasn’t an option for me.  Hats became my scalp security blanket (it’s amazing how often you smack something when it seems more exposed)!  Cuts shine like Griswold Christmas lights on a bald scalp. Bald heads also seem to be a magnet for falling snow, or at least mine was and my central heating system existed in my head.  The power of a hat in winter is like an electric heating blanket…instantaneous!  A bald, cold woman is equally as dangerous as PMS!!!!

How is all of this important?  I’ve discovered the casual mentality to the value of hair from many through losing all of mine.  If you’ve never had to face it or made to truly think about it, you still don’t see how much power there truly is in the part of our body we have the privilege to abuse and complain so much about.  If you’re thinking,  “yeh, yeh, whatever, eyebrows are just eyebrows meant to be plucked and eyelashes are just the things that fall into our eyes and blur our vision and this ‘do’ on my head is useless,” go ahead and get rid of it all.  Chances are you’ll wish you could have just taken a photo of yourself and digitally removed all those parts just to say you did.

Bishop_20080323_0228There was a feeling of incredible exposure when my veil of golden locks were gone.  Not only could I see the true shape of my scalp (it’s quite round and wee-sized), there were all my facial imperfections (aka wrinkles) that became exposed like a magnifying glass.  No whisps or curled bangs to hide my genetically-acquired wrinkled forehead and crows feet and I lost the external feature for people to recognize and admire me for…or so I thought.  Does it sound vain? Absolutely!  However, that is what hair can do…protect and enhance vanity.  Then when there are no longer any eyebrows and eyelashes to add accent to your face…WHAM!…you see the real external you and for me,  the exposure eventually gave me the Hubble view of the well-hidden, internal me.

The Motley crew…it doesn't get any better! Incredible times in Joe's Valley, Utah

The Motley crew…it doesn’t get any better! Incredible times in Joe’s Valley, Utah

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Female motley crew!

Although my internal identity process had entered the express lane and I was travelling at turbo speed with no brakes,  there was incredible support from many around me.  After all, they recognized me without my golden locks and they knew cancer was at the heart of it.  But I didn’t face my real fear or, should I say, truly realize my main fear…was I recognizable to others without my hair.  Did I leave a mark on others to remember me beyond my scalp accessory.

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Luke Laeser and his son in Tennessee

There was a ‘snap out of it’ slap in the face moment when I heard a voice calling my name in a parking lot in Tennessee.  It took an old friend Luke Laeser,  whom I hadn’t seen in years, to recognize me from a distance even though I was wearing a hat and winter coat.  He unknowingly gave me the monumental (but can seem trivial) gift of value beyond appearance.  It was clear that my hair wasn’t the only identifier of me, my laugh was too!  He only showed me happiness and indifference to my new appearance.  From that moment came incredible relief…I was memorable without my veil of vanity.

So my thoughts turned to how much weight was placed on my external appearance and should the privilege of getting my hair back occur (there is always the possibility your hair won’t grow back after chemo) there was certainty that there wouldn’t be so much importance placed on what grew on my head, face or anywhere else.  I would officially just be a ‘fan of hair,’  but there would be no such thing as a bad hair day and having hair is a privilege!

DSCF6060It wasn’t long after that revelation that another test of my will came at ramming speed! I was exposed to being within earshot of harsh judgement of strangers seeing a bald woman.  You see, most of my time was spent within the fairy-tale bubble where the world is a perfect place because I was amongst my friends.   It wasn’t until my first climbing trip alone, post chemo, I heard the comments, “butch” and “dyke” along with other comments I’ll leave out.  I had muscles and I was bald and the views by some were brutal.  “Welcome to the real world,” I told myself.  Not only did they not have any interest or forethought to understand why I was bald, they ensured their insults were heard loud and clear.  Suddenly I was on the other side of acceptable beauty.  A guy could be bald, some of them don’t have a choice but the criticism is nearly non-existent.  Be a female and you have to fit into some marketing stereotype that certainly doesn’t include muscles, baldness or both.

DSCF7785These insults helped me find the other part of myself; the part that feels good regardless of what others think about me based on my appearance.  Not that I cared that much about what people thought about me, if I did, I wouldn’t have been as loud and outspoken as I have been for many years.  However, I did rely on part of my identity being linked to appearance  because I didn’t dig deep enough to bring to the surface the purest of confidence…the honest and non-superficial confidence.

IMG_1466So the long and short of it (pun intended), try and appreciate the fact that you have hair!  As I sit here playing with my newly- acquired head of golden fleece and work on growing it to a length that helps me achieve all that I dreamt about should it ever grow back, my connection to it is different.  I love the experience of brushing the tangles out of it, letting it get dirty and feeling the wind blow it against my face.  I can’t grow a uni-brow, but if I could, it would be short-lived and I’m psyched that I would have a choice.  As for the hair in private places; well you need some and it is useful.  If I have to lose my hair again to duke it out with the grim reaper, I’m OK with that. Besides, you can’t blame the grim reaper for wanting hair too! After all, every day is a good hair day!

2008_0327bishop20058On a final note, think twice about your judgement of others and their absence of hair.  Some didn’t choose to lose their hair, they may have just been fighting for their life, and even if they did choose to be as clean as Mr. Clean, “dyke, butch” and other words I won’t mention are unwarranted.  Let’s break the behaviour that places people into some category that should never have existed in the first place.  After all, you may just be devoid of hair one day.

For those that read this all the way through, thanks.

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