Updated: Jun 25
| This is the 519th story of Our Life Logs |
I released my hands as I realized I had been squeezing them tight around the barber’s chair. The best I could do to occupy my mind was count the black and white tile floors of the shop. There was no turning back now. This was no ordinary haircut. While the other patrons of the barber shop entertained themselves with sports or men’s wellness magazines, my mind was taking me through a reel of memories that had led me up to this point. In my head, it was not the sound of the scissors gliding against my hair that I heard but instead the equally rhythmic tapping of my pencil against my desk in my sixth-grade classroom—all the times I felt shame for who I was. Well, no more. As I sat in that barber chair, I knew things were about to change.
Growing up in the early 2000s in Chicago, Illinois, my early childhood was filled with imaginative play and running around outside with my sisters and the neighborhood kids. I was the middle child and loved trailing behind my sisters as we made up games in our backyard.
Those simple and fun times began to fade as I went further in elementary school. I had an incredibly creative mind, but I could not focus in class. While other kids could easily follow instructions from the teacher, I found myself lost and overwhelmed. I wondered if something was wrong with me. For any sort of disturbance, I would be punished. For my doodles that covered “Peter” on my name card, I would be punished. For the sticks I picked up during recess in imaginative play, I would be punished. Before long, I spent long stretches of the day isolated in a room, forced to sit with my behavior and soon following, my own shame.
After countless conversations between my parents and teachers, my parents sent me for rounds of testing which only reinforced my concern that something was definitely wrong with me. The results showed that I had a severe case of ADHD. While it was an explanation for my challenges, it did not change my struggles.
In the middle of fourth grade, my family dropped a bomb that we were moving to Vermont. On the one hand, it was daunting to think that everything I had come to know would suddenly change. On the other hand, maybe it was a chance for a new start. Unfortunately, the same issues persisted, so after fifth grade, my parents decided to send me to a private school in hopes it would get me the proper help to focus and do well. But my time there ended as abruptly as when we moved, and without choice. At a school where hippie parents sent their children to be read stories to before heading out to the farm to tend to the lambs, my outbursts were not tolerated, and I was eventually expelled.
I was home schooled for a few weeks before I could begin at my new school and so for the first time, I had no school to go to. It felt as if I truly did not belong anywhere. I could not bear the shame over my parents’ reaction and the turmoil it would inevitably escalate within our family. On top of everything, conflict circled around my parents for reasons I did not know back then. They were on the precipice of a divorce that would soon take shape and take more than half a decade and thousands of dollars in court to resolve.
The guilt and shame began to weigh down on me. I found myself getting in fights with my family every evening. My two sisters covered their ears at the dinner table and stared on with fearful eyes as I screamed with the frustration of a child that felt desperately insecure and overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed not only with the shame of what I “had done,” but eventually, of who I was.
All these mental demons channeled themselves into more aggressive behavioral issues while my ADHD grew more severe, and the fights I couldn’t seem to stay away from at home were given a label: oppositional defiance disorder. The thought that I was a “bad kid” was crushing my tender identity I had nearly begun to form. From all the stress I was experiencing at school and at home, I found myself involuntarily shaking my head or shoulder, a nervous tic.
When seventh grade began, I found myself in the same rotten situations. As a new kid, it was impossible to just blend in. My peers began to scrutinize everything about me to try to tear me down. My hair, which I had begun to grow out in an unconscious attempt to hide myself from the world, became a subject of teasing. I was bullied even more for the nervous tics I had developed. I ended each day with a soreness in my muscles from the twitching I could not control and an even more bruised spirit that middle school beat down a little bit further every day. With no conscious decision, I began to put on weight and my hair grew longer. It was as if I had gotten the message that I was not wanted in this world and therefore, I should slowly disappear.
I continued down this path until high school, where a series of experiences began a shift inside of me. With my parents still battling through a messy divorce, I joined the school’s debate team to keep myself busy from all the negativity around me. I will never forget the feeling that washed over me when I discovered that the same passion for argument that had gotten me in trouble so many times growing up could be an advantage in debates. My talent for winning debates eventually got me to a leadership position on the team. When I was with the debate team, I forgot all the trauma of my past and difficulties at home. Even more so, my appearance did not matter to them. What they cared about was if I could help get the win.
My confidence grew as the traits that had been my downfall as a child were valued as a winning formula now. For once, I didn’t feel like the “bad kid” anymore. And for the first time, I found myself in a circle of friends that saw me. As my confidence grew, so did my self-worth.
Yet, I was still reluctant to change my appearance. I met every plea by my family to finally get that haircut with an insistent denial there was anything wrong with my hair. The story I told on the outside to anyone who inquired was—no, I did not think there was anything wrong with the way I looked. Yet, internally, I lived every day with discomfort over my appearance and the shame that I could not shake. I had grown, but I was still fighting my past. To me, to make an external change would be an admission that I cared, and there was nothing more terrifying than that. Each time I’d cared in my youth, I’d been scolded for it.
I kept up this stubbornness about my appearance through all of high school. Then, in December of my senior year of high school, something shifted in me. As I walked through the streets of Chicago with my older sister, we started ducking into stores on Michigan Avenue. Most were places we couldn’t afford a thing, but they offered a shelter from the bitter cold of the day.
As I became more comfortable with myself, I found the courage that day to show my sister a part of myself I had suppressed—an interest in fashion. With only my sister as my witness, I began to try on items and see a glimpse of what it would be like if the way I presented myself on the outside actually matched the growing confidence I was nurturing on the inside. Still, the thought of changing myself before my high school peers was a fear that won out. The clothes remained on the rack, and I stayed the same, not quite ready to make such a change.
Then came college. I was presented an opportunity offered to many freshmen—the chance to start over in a new place, to be whomever I wanted to be. I decided to take my chance and run with it, not just to a new city but a new country. Unlike the small rural town my high school was located in, I chose a college in the city of Montreal, Quebec.
Being in this new place, I found myself making the final shift into embracing the confident person I had delicately cultivated in high school. I started speaking up, socializing, and smiling at people. I was far from the boy who hid behind a curtain of hair. It was a liberation. I could finally release the messages that there was something wrong with me or that I did not fit in; I no longer had to carry this anymore. I could be this new person, this new happier me.
This newfound permission to no longer hide hit me like an alarm bell on a January morning. I woke up in my freshman dorm room with a fresh feeling of purpose. I picked up the phone and called the local barber’s shop before I had a chance to give it a second thought.
As the phone rang, I started to question my decision. Tension wracked my body as the barber answered. Half of me hoped that they wouldn’t have any appointments available on such short notice. But they did have an opening. In just two hours. I was extremely nervous, but I knew I had to do this. I had to embrace this change if I was ever going to become the person I aimed to be.
I told no one, and slushed through the snow-filled streets, unbothered by the harsh winds I had become accustomed to in the city I had grown to love.
The barber positioned me so that I could not watch what he was doing to my hair. I had a brief moment where I wondered, should I have read more reviews of the barber before I had made my appointment? Should I even do this at all? But before I could speak up, I found myself treading through the realization that the sweeping length of hair I had hid behind for nearly a decade was disappearing with each self-assured snip of the man’s glossy scissors.
A mere few hours later, I held my breath as the barber exclaimed, “Alright, time to look,” swiveling the chair. I saw myself in the mirror and I smiled, more an automatic, socially-programmed reaction to please the barber than anything else. I myself would need a moment to take in one of the biggest changes of my life. For it was not the hair, or now the loss of hair, that mattered. It was a much braver choice than that, the choice to step into who I had become. The face in the mirror was not unrecognizable like I expected it to be. Instead, I saw myself for the first time. I was perfectly recognizable.
Later that night, I attended a meeting in my dorm, my first event that would reveal the change to others.
“Peter! You look awesome,” remarked my roommate, in the casual manner of boys commenting on other’s appearances. But I saw the sincerity of his smile, and man, it felt good. Several of my other friends said they could barely recognize me but they liked the look.
As I caught a glance of my reflection in the window, I internally agreed. I did look good. And I felt even better. For the first time in my life, I experienced feeling good about my own appearance, or maybe rather, felt good about myself.
Making this final change took a lot of bravery but even more vulnerability. For a long time, I was terrified that if people saw me care about my appearance, it would be admitting weakness. It was one of the many ways I ran from vulnerability. I experienced firsthand how the way one presents himself on the outside often reflects how they feel on the inside. Once I had learned to accept and love myself, I was ready for my appearance to demonstrate that proudly, but had to take that brave step toward the vulnerability of showing the world who I had come to be.
I walked home from the barber shop that day with so much more than a haircut. When I go out, I now notice the bitter winds of Montreal winter across the back of my neck, bare for the first time, but I do not mind. I smile because they are a reminder of how far I have come.
This is the story of Peter Trombley
Peter is a rising junior at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he studies Political Science. Growing up with severe ADHD, Peter developed a lot of self-hate and anger from being treated as a bad kid for being himself. He put on weight and grew out his hair which served as a curtain to hide from the world that didn’t want him. It wasn’t until he joined the high school debate team that he discovered his “bad” traits were not bad everywhere, and this helped him develop better self-confidence. In college, he finally got the courage to cut off the hair he used to hide himself. Peter is a member of McGill University’s debate team with whom he travels around North America to debate. This follows his successful career in high school debate, in which he competed at the National Championships his senior year, as well as served as the Team Captain. Peter lives in Montreal but frequently visits his family, who still live just over the border in Vermont. Page Break
This story first touched our hearts on April 1, 2020.
| Writer: Abby Trombley | Editor: Kristen Petronio |