There are things you don’t talk about in good company. There are subjects that are not discussed at the table. Take bodily vermin, for example. A few months ago, I couldn’t have imagined myself sipping a cup of postprandial coffee and Sambuca at a friend’s house, chatting about the effectiveness of various techniques for ridding your home of lice and their ignoble offspring, the nits, the latter almost as invisible as they are invincible. But as part of the ever-growing group of Austin parents who know more about this subject than they ever imagined possible or necessary, that’s exactly what I was doing. And to think that I happened to think that nitpicking was just a word with an amusing etymology.
My Sambuca sipping friends and I have been dealing with this lice problem for some time now. Long enough that, like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her study of death and bereavement, we were able to identify several distinct phases that a person typically goes through to come to terms with this experience. Kubler-Ross has five phases; we found ten. But after all, head lice are so much more complex than death.
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Stage 1: Disbelief. You get a call from your child’s school or daycare center or perhaps a friend’s parent advising you, in an apologetic tone, that your little one might have head lice. You need to check for nits. You pay absolutely no attention to the description of the procedure to follow, because you know that it is simply not possible. No one in your family history has ever had head lice. No one you know has ever had head lice. Maybe the people who live on the streets of Bombay, the poor, but not your child.
Stage 2: Humiliation. Shortly after this phone call, you observe the aforementioned child scratching his head. The first time you think it’s the rinse cream you’re using or too much chlorine in the pool. However, as the scratching becomes more frequent and vigorous, you can no longer deny the truth. He has lice. Unbelievable. How did they say you had to check? Didn’t they mention a special shampoo? Oh my God, the mortification at the pharmacy. Not to mention the school and the neighbors and everyone who came to that slumber party. What about those parents who so kindly babysat your children for the night so you could go to Antone’s last weekend? Do we really have to call them too? From now on, everyone will think that your family has questionable hygiene practices and eats canned meat.
Phase 3: Acceptance. Once you know how to check for nits – you look for a tiny whitish bubble stuck to the hair shaft an inch or two from the scalp, usually behind the ears or on the back of the neck – you learn the extent of the horror . The day of the louse has dawned. You have lice, your spouse has lice, all of God’s chilluns have lice. If you’re lucky, not so many have hatched that you’re treated to the sight of dozens of gross brown bugs crawling over your loved one’s head.
Stage 4: Trust. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not just your family. They are your children’s friends and your friends’ parents, and you are all in this together. You will know what to do, you will do it, and soon it will all be a distant memory. Following the instructions on the package of the head lice kit you buy at the grocery store, you wash all the bedding in your home with hot water and bleach. You spray couches and pillows with the handy tin. You have everyone for a grooming party to scrub their hair with the shampoo and then comb it with the plastic nit comb. See, everything is better. The children are playing in the garden, the adults are inside drinking wine and making reassuring jokes – we are not neglectful parents after all! — clean sheets are back on the beds, and all is well.
Stage 5: Disbelief. A few days later, you have a bit of itching. That horrible head lice shampoo probably dried out your scalp. Then you notice all those kids sitting in front of your TV watching Animaniacs are scratching themselves too. The beginnings of a frown appear on your face as you call one of them, lower your head, and submit him to the watch of lice. Your frown deepens as you skim through the strands of hair one by one, finding piles of tiny bubbles, and not like Lawrence Welk either. Welcome to Nit City! You grab the phone. Someone is itchy in your house, ask your friend trying to stay calm. Uh, I’m not sure, he replies hesitantly. Well, start checking, you say grimly. They are back.
Stage 6. Rage. OK, now you’re enraged. You’re not just mad, you’re serious. You are not only serious, you are determined. You’re on the doctor’s horn. Isn’t there a horribly poisonous prescription venom you can get to end this plague? Why yes, there are. His name is Kwell, generic name Lindane. It comes with two pages of six-point warnings about the dire consequences of letting a single drop of poison get on your skin, eyes, kitchen utensils, or the foundations of your home, with dire implications for its application. more than once every ten days, with manufacturer disclaimers of the effects of even the slightest misstep in observing these detailed precautions. You, who have carefully purchased pesticide-free fruits and vegetables for your precious babies since birth, clench your jaws, put on your rubber gloves and pour the ugly goop straight onto their sweet little heads. Then you head straight to the nearest hair salon, biting your lip as the curls fall to the floor. On the way back, you have the inside of the car steam cleaned. Then you sterilize everything in the linen closet, pretend the couch is Vietnam and that bug spray is Agent Orange, and surreptitiously take their favorite baseball caps to the trash. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been fun, but you prevailed.
Stage 7: Blame. Nope! NOPE! NOPE!!!!! It’s gone too far. You have done everything. EVERYTHING! And they are back. More Mr. Nice Guy. No more namby-pamby-I’m-sorry-but. This time it’s not your fault. So who is to blame ? What about those friends of yours? Have they really made their bed? Did they do the nit thing after the shampoo? Maybe it’s the cat. Yes, it must be that. You are ready to take the family pet to the pound when you learn that the animals do not carry lice. Well, it must be daycare or school or summer camp. They don’t really wash those nap pillows after all. However, you wash your sheets for the fiftieth time in three weeks and SOMEBODY HAS TO PAY. Everyone is suspect: your closest relatives, your boob buddies, your neighbors, your doctors, your public institutions, your childminders, everyone.
Stage 8: Madness. While one friend makes jokes about kids growing up to play in bands with names like the Scratching Heads and Itchy Scalp, another decides to move to Alaska or Vermont. Is there a list in the almanac of head lice per capita per state? A divorced couple come up with a plan that she keeps the kids for 10 days while he delous her house, then he keeps them for 10 days while she delous hers. No adult can share their bed with anyone else during the 20-day quarantine. The purpose of this, like so many deals forged between divorcees, only seems to be to torture each other. Meanwhile, someone sprays Lysol’s phone.
Phase 9: Testimony. Now you can detect and dispatch a new generation of lice with no more horror than slamming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich together. You carry a high-tech forged aluminum nit comb with a 5x magnifying glass in your back pocket at all times and are not ashamed to pull it out when you observe characteristic scratching behavior, even among casual acquaintances or strangers. You can disinfect your home and family in less than two hours. You have 20 refills on your Kwell prescription. When considering a slumber party at another group of vermin victims, the only question is: have you ever washed the bedding? Because otherwise, I won’t bother with the shampoo until tomorrow. Lice, big problem. It could be worse.
Stage 10: Worse. Friend A’s housekeeper finds maggots in her driveway. Friend B pulls her 3-year-old child out of preschool after receiving notice of a giardia outbreak. On your side, you receive a call from the school nurse informing you that your two children have a contagious form of pink eyes and that they are immediately sent home. Unfortunately, you can’t get them back, because you locked the car keys in the trunk. What is the Old Testament? Are there kits at the pharmacy for grasshoppers, frogs and boils? At least you have the teenage years to look forward to, when you’ll be dealing with familiar issues like unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease, and drug addiction.
If you’re scratching your head at this point, rest assured everyone else is too.
Originally published on consumer.healthday.com, as part of TownNews Content Exchange.