when a haircut isn’t just a haircut

I had an experience yesterday that I’m still stewing over, and while the occurrence itself was problematic, there are some larger issues at work, too. What better way to process than through a blog post, I guess?

Burnout is a very real thing, and I’ve apparently been in varying states of autistic burnout for long years now. Possibly even a couple of decades. This kind of burnout can show up in a variety of ways, including feeling more emotionally raw and vulnerable to new stimuli and situations. Any kind of new stress can and does exacerbate burnout.

Yesterday, I was feeling out of sorts and wanted to practice some constructive self-care. My hair had gotten unmanageably long and uncomfortable. It was constantly getting in the way and irritating me, even when pulled back and put up. I’d also been wanting to try a new place for a haircut, so I made a same morning appointment and drove over.

The appointment was uncomfortable from the start. It’s easy now to look back and to chastise myself for not bailing pretty much immediately, but that kind of criticism doesn’t help.

After complaining about people not showing up to their appointments—though I had arrived early and had never been there before—Lynne (not her real name) made fun of me for feeling cold. I’d wanted to keep on my zip-up hoodie, which she insisted that I cast off for the haircut, then proceeded to go on about how “it’s only for a few minutes” and “I’m here all day, and I don’t get cold, so think about that.”

Yeah, it was a bad start.

She then tried to remove my mask while combing out my hair. I grabbed it and put it back on. Needless to say, she wasn’t masked. I’m still flabbergasted that she made that attempt. Even if we weren’t still in pandemic conditions—and with several other respiratory illnesses running rampant—someone who is not a medical professional has no business taking such an action.

The second problematic core of this visit came when she started arguing with me about the simple cut I wanted. She’d misunderstood my length request—”just above the shoulders”—and got huffy with me when I asked if she would take off another inch from the below-the-shoulder cut she’d given me. She insisted I’d told her something different, that I’d misled her, and that I was “confusing” her. She complained, loudly, that I should have asked for what I wanted. I muttered that I had, at which point she started teasing me, saying I was “too scared” to ask for a shorter haircut—which honestly makes no sense, because I normally have shorter hair.

“Hair grows back, you know,” Lynne said, with her bullying smile reflected back to me in the mirror.

At that point, I didn’t care if she shaved my head or left me with bald patches. I just wanted to get out of that chair and out of that salon as quickly as possible. I balled my hands into fists under the barber cape to keep myself from crying—like I said, I’d already been feeling pretty raw when I walked in. I kept telling myself I could reach out to my friend Heidi to decompress as soon as I got home.

The haircut continued. Lynne asked me to remove my mask—instead of trying to remove it herself again, which I guess was progress?—and I refused. She cut my hair too short, but it’s not a bad a cut, though I had to fix some stray strands later. I paid for the service and would have run out of the shop if not for that fact that I’m still using a cane to get around.

On the other end of a Google Chat, Heidi was a compassionate problem-solver. She suggested I try to find someone in the area who is experienced with autistic people—even if it’s haircuts for autistic children instead of adults. More importantly, she validated my deep upset over this unfortunate experience, because I’d had that unhelpful voice in my head telling me I was being “ridiculous” and “too sensitive,” that I was silly to get upset over something as trivial as a haircut.

But it wasn’t the haircut. It was the fact that I’d tried to do something nice for myself, and ended up deeply upset. It was the way I’d been treated, and how I’d been bullied. Other than my cane, I don’t present as a disabled person—or as what the media has conditioned us to think that a disabled person looks like. I don’t believe Lynne was being mean because I’m autistic, or because of my chronic illness or pain—or that she wasn’t doing this consciously. Maybe she was having a bad day and used the opportunity to take it out on someone else. I don’t know, and I don’t want to spend more of my time trying to justify her behavior—which included trying to remove a customer’s mask *twice* during a pandemic.

Honestly, I don’t know how to deal with people like this in the moment. Yes, I can return to the safe space of my home office and process my experience by writing about it. That’s an important and necessary step. But insisting that I had told Lynne what I wanted when she claimed otherwise didn’t do any good, and I doubt she was open to feedback about her behavior.

When this kind of thing happens, I usually end up retreating. Though it may appear cowardly, that is a vital action of self preservation. Obviously, I won’t be going back there again, but I don’t know that I’ve learned anything new about how to deal with awful people out in the world. I don’t think able-bodied, neurotypical people understand, on a fundamental level, how difficult, unpleasant, and even frightening a little thing like “getting a haircut” can be, and how pandemic conditions make this worse.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral.

One Comment

  1. I can’t tell if this posted, the robot-tester refused me so many times. Let me try again this time on desktop:

    That behavior by the stylist seems plain rude and wrong to me, and the reach she made for your mask, at least, would have bent me quite out of shape. I don’t know if I have any techniques for such situations, but I do think how I experience them varies widely per the spoon theory, or per the strength of my self regard. Even if I do glide through them by way of some or other maneuver, I’m not sure whether I could employ them at will. Or maybe it’s just that they don’t occur to me at vulnerable times. One thing i can remember as being adaptive, if not noble, is that while communicating my needs, I sometimes privately delight in expressing the needs in a way that makes them seem boring and natural as can be, and in doing so manifesting such politeness and patience as I would to someone with a cognitive disability. To me, that’s sticking it to them while also modeling good behavior. Incidentally, I think I may get and owe this in part from Lucia in Benson’s books…which I suppose you might just appreciate too, in case you don’t know them

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