Up until I grew out the chemicals, my only run-in with my natural hair was what I considered my troublesome new growth's waterwaves peering out from my crunchy straight hair, signaling it was time again for a touchup.
At twenty-six, I didn't know what my real hair looked like. My tightly curly hair had been permed since childhood. And the only time I thought I'd experienced it was as a Frankenhair mixture of a Jheri curl over a straightener over my natural curls, giving me the fabled Mushroom Head that grew larger and larger like a swollen sponge over the summer I had it.
After this experience with my hair, and the sinking feeling I got as a young, easily mortified teen when looking at the photos of my giant balloon head, I wasn't too eager to go through that again. I really hated the relaxers and how they made my hair break apart, but I felt that my own hair would erupt as it grew out, exploding open in slow motion frizz until I couldn't get through doorways anymore. Basically, I felt I had no choice. So I spent most of my life looking for wonder products to undo the damage the chemicals did. But the reality is there is nothing but scissors that can take away the fatally damaged hair once the chemicals have been used.
My mom, who is African-American, could grow her permed hair down her back when she was younger. So I thought I just had to find what she had done, and I, too, could have long, straight hair. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember how her mom (who took care of my mom's hair because it was such a procedure to wash and care for it) got it to grow so long. What I didn't realize is that my mom has individually thicker strands of hair that can better withstand the brutal chemicals than mine. I, on the other hand, have spiderweb thin individual strands of hair. So they literally partially dissolved when I put on the chemicals.
The thing that changed it for me was finding the book Good Hair: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Weaves When the Chemicals Became too Ruff by Lonnice Brittenum Bonner. Here was a woman with hair curlier than mine, and she grew out her chemicals (luckily, I didn't notice at the time her mentioning she still used a texturizer in her hair). I figured if she could do it, so could I.
In Good Hair, Bonner cut off all her permed hair and started fresh. Definitely the recommended way to go. But I didn't want to have such short hair. Hair was (is) a big part of my identity, and I didn't want almost no hair. So I chose to grow it out. How hard could it be? I thought cavalierly to myself. I'd been dealing with the chemical hair all along. That was a known quantity. This process would just introduce a new kind of hair in addition to the familiar hair. That didn't seem so bad.
I washed, combed, and set my hair every week in about twenty or so two-strand twists. I'd let them dry, sleep in them overnight, and untwist them in the morning for a headful of spirals the rest of the week. At night I'd pull my hair back in a bun—not too tight—for fear of smashing the spirals.
And this was fine for the first few months.
Then The Mat arrived.
When I combed my hair, the comb halted at my scalp and wouldn't budge. Every week it got thicker and stronger, as if it were calling in reinforcements. It grew ferocious and puffy at the back of my head. When I prodded it back there, it seemed like something had decided to build an insulated nest, especially packed at the top, back of my head. Now it took me three hours to get through my barely shoulder-length hair, and put it in twists. Every week was a painful session to work my way through the mat, slowly, toes clenched from the pain of having to comb out something so tightly tangled, so close to my scalp. What if this was my natural hair? If it was this bad at two inches of new growth, what would six inches bring?
I'd heard that there can be severe breakage where the two textures meet when growing out a relaxer. Maybe this was another consequence of having two extremely different hair types joined? I tried to pull the hair in the back more firmly down into my bun at night to prevent it getting so riled up, and determinedly hoped for the best.
The mat was tenacious, but so was I. And a few months later I noticed a change. My Denman would glide for a brief moment through the hair closest to my scalp, and then halt abruptly as it landed into the mat. That meant the mat was slowly inching it's way down my hair. The new hair coming in above the mat was slippery and glossy. Now I was interested. I began touching it all the time to feel it. I had no idea something so soft and smooth could grow out of my head.
At about nine months, I pulled open my hair, and looked at the hair growing behind my ear. And there I saw it. A curl pattern instead of chaos. An S shape instead of fuzz. I saw my real hair, strong and sure, coming in over the confused noise of the chemical hair.
From that moment on I was hooked. I took a pair of scissors, and cut off the chemical junk hair (saving two pieces to tape into the Good Hair book—see Curlocide for a photo of them).
I loved my new hair. I still had a way to go towards figuring out how to keep if from growing horizontally rather than vertically, but this was my hair, and we were finally a team.