Stigma-Busting (or How I Dealt With Lice)

As my children and I boarded the plane at SFO bound for Lake Michigan, the pilot invited the kids into the cockpit for a look. One by one they sat in the pilot’s seat while I took photos with my phone-cam. It was cramped but jolly, and then Matty informed the pilot, “I have lice.” Although I knew I shouldn’t, I felt a wave of embarrassment and shame. I snapped my last photo, thanked the pilot, and hustled the kids to our seats.

Lice carries a stigma of poor hygiene, poverty, bad grooming, and disease (all of which are unrelated to lice infestation).  And on top of that, people are afraid of catching it. Mention lice and watch people take a step back, and within seconds begin scratching their heads. Even our school’s well-intentioned policy that keeps the names of children with lice confidential while revealing the existence of the lice in the classroom, conveys the impression that having lice is shameful.

But I was determined that my children (all of whom, along with me, were infested) should not feel shame. So I told all the moms I met on the beach, brazened it out on my Facebook page, and asked for advice on a parents’ listserve. And instead of being shunned, I was showered with sympathy — and with advice from many friends who had been through this most inconvenient blight. Granted, the support was often in hushed tones (“My daughter would be mortified if she knew I was telling you that she had lice,” said one mom, when in fact her daughter has already told me) But many more families in my orbit had been through it than I ever would have known if I had kept our lice a secret. Thanks to all of you!

It was a good reminder for me that like many things that are a source of shame or private pain, there is a world out there of people who have been there, done that. And when you connect with them, they can be a great resource.

I remember finding such a community after I suffered a miscarriage nine years ago. Up until that time, I had only heard of one or two, always in whispers. But once I told my story, I found that nearly half of the women in my acquaintance had miscarried as well. I took comfort from their stories and listened to their advice and felt less isolated and alone.

The world of families who have experienced suicide is also a source of comfort to me, even thirty years since my own brother took his life. Despite our growing understanding of mental illness, there is still shame attached to suicide, and I am grateful to know that my family is not alone.

I don’t mean to equate the nuisance of lice with the pain of miscarriage or the profound loss of suicide. Rather I want simply to remind us all that keeping our troubles secret fosters the belief that there is something shameful about the truth. If instead we share, we find another way of connecting to one another and to our shared human condition — bugs and all.

FYI: If you are facing lice, I recommend this video by my  and science writer Beth Weise.

Now, back to my combing …..