When I discovered my daughter had lice in early December, I took it a little too lightly. Which is not to say that I wasn’t mortified and gravely inconvenienced by the discovery, but my response was a bit lax: a hurried Google search, followed by a speedy trip to Walgreens, where I bought the lice shampoo Nix. I washed my daughter’s clothes, changed her sheets, and with the school nurse’s approval, she was back in class the next day.
And one week later, she was banished again. I hadn’t put the hammer down, and I suffered the consequences: lice drama all through the holidays, including my very own case of pediculosis capitis for Christmas.
According to the experts — and until you’ve experienced a lice infestation firsthand you cannot conceive of how many experts are out there and how contradictory their expert advice — I was supposed to launder my daughter’s sheets and pajamas every day. I was supposed to vacuum every rug, scrap of upholstery, even my car interior, and throw away the vacuum bag. I was supposed to quarantine stuffed animals in plastic bags for three weeks.
I was supposed to use over-the-counter remedies like Nix or Rid not once but twice, because that’s the only thing that works. Or I wasn’t supposed to use them at all, because they’re toxic. I was supposed to soak my daughter’s head in olive oil, or Vaseline, or two parts neem oil to three parts tea tree. I was supposed to slather her head in mayonnaise and make her sleep in a shower cap, though she might end up with salmonella. I was supposed to use coconut conditioner (because lice hate coconut!) or mint shampoo (because lice hate mint!) and then painstakingly comb out the nits, strand by strand, with a special comb, dipped in vinegar and rinsed with alcohol.
Although lice have been harassing us for millennia, little headway has been made in the war against them. Perhaps great scientific minds have been too busy trying to find cures for cancer, which is understandable, because lice may be a damned nuisance, but they’re not life-threatening. A head louse’s saliva causes some intense itching but nothing near as bad as when a chigger cozies up to your bra strap. Lice don’t carry diseases like mosquitoes or ticks. They don’t make your flesh rot like certain spider bites. Bedbugs wreak far more damage, not to mention termites. And how about those microscopic mites that live in everyone’s eyelashes? They can’t be up to any good.
Nevertheless, a diagnosis of lice can feel like a death sentence. A person with delicate sensibilities might be crushed by the social stigma that still clings to lice, even though everyone will tell you that being infested does not make you a bad person. Or dirty. Some say that lice actually prefer clean, shiny hair. In other words, you should be flattered that they chose to infest you; it is a testament to your impeccable hygiene.
You read a lot of crazy things like that on the internet, alone, late at night, when your kid is crying because she doesn’t want to sleep with a head full of Hellmann’s. You also open a window onto a dark world populated by desperate women who wash their kids’ hair in Listerine, in dog shampoo, in hydrogen peroxide chased with Dawn dishwashing liquid. They launder their clothes in lice shampoo — then wash their hair with Tide and fabric softener. A triumphant mother trumpets her success with nail-polish remover, another extols the virtues of lamp oil. I imagine these all to be Pyrrhic victories — they may no longer have lice, but they can’t possibly have any hair, either.
I was never driven to such extremes (though I did buy a $30 louse-zapping device called the Robi Comb), but I feel kinship with these Lady Macbeths. I’ve allegedly been lice-free for weeks, yet even as I write this my scalp twitches. Like an amputee who still feels his leg, I can feel phantom footsteps skittering through my hair. Why? Because the worst thing about lice is not what they do to your skin; it’s what they do to your mind. You are battling a foe that can be confused with a mote of dust, a fleck of schmutz. You start to see and feel things that aren’t there, to doubt your sanity; in short, you become Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, but instead of being tricked by a devious Charles Boyer, it’s an insect the size of a sesame seed that’s messing with your head.
I suspect it will be a long time before I trust my own eyes again. I can only say that the next time you see a twitchy, squirrelly-eyed woman haunting the lice section at Walgreens, have pity. You could be next. •