I dye, therefore I am

My roots are showing.

But not quite enough to warrant a fresh application of on-the-scalp bleach, followed by a beigey toner. The process of growing, bleaching and toning has become a ritual of sorts.

OK, the word “ritual” only works on days of extreme denial; obsession is a more fitting term. My name is Sarah, and I am a junkie — a hair-color junkie.

I wish I could spill the details as easily as I’ve saturated my scalp with countless chemical concoctions, but I cannot locate the roots of my addiction: Its beginnings are as murky as the contents of an applicator bottle containing Miss Clairol 101.

Perhaps it’s my mother’s fault. I was probably conceived just after Mom had refreshed her color. She used to be a platinum blonde (platinum ice, to be exact). She probably still remembers the number on the box. If not, it’s on her old driver’s license, which she keeps for reference. Eyes: Blue (True). Height: 5’5″ (Lie). Weight: 120 (Big lie). Hair color: Miss Clairol 101 (True).

When her color was just a tad off (because of rinsing too early, which turns the hair trashy gold), she’d just call it a day — a wig day. She had wigs in every hue within the blond spectrum tucked neatly in her scarf drawer. (The scarf serves to stabilize the wig, which is worn slightly off the hairline with just a touch of “natural” hair showing in the front.) For every hair trauma, Mom had a dual solution — wig and scarf. And it worked, except for that one time when her wig popped off in a crowded parking lot.

A case of Tab was to blame for that faux pas. After stowing the fizzy stuff safely in the deep trunk of her Mercury Grand Marquis, she stood up too quickly and bumped her head on the hatch. Somehow, the wig dislodged from her “natural” hair; despite the scarf and bobby pins, it flew off her head and landed on the dirty asphalt. I watched carefully as Mom unabashedly retrieved her synthetic fall, shook it out in front of a couple of gawkers, and nestled it back in place — perfectly — with only her chrome bumper for a mirror.

I’m OK, your roots are showing

This formative experience, so deeply embedded in the rapid-fire synapses of my brain that even years of breathing noxious chemicals hasn’t erased it, has permanently freed me from the constraints of acceptable public behavior.

I’m fine with parading my fresh tint down the aisles of the local health-food store, ignoring the disapproving glances from virgin-haired shoppers. And while I understand the joy of cooking with organic ingredients, I cannot imagine being satisfied by a box of henna. Henna is just not for junkies. First of all, the change would be subtle — a word no one, anywhere, has ever used in reference to me. And then there’s the sheer bliss of inhalation that any strong color concoction promises. (Hint: Small bathrooms make the best application chambers.) In that area, henna misses the point completely. Unlike Mom (who is terminally blond), I am not confined by shade — only process.

In simple terms, the process goes something like this: 1) See roots containing natural hair color; 2) Wait for at least an inch of re-growth (professional term); 3) Dye. For the most part, my process involves bleach. But on rare occasions — a career change, say, or a relationship catastrophe — I will change shades completely. When I went through my second divorce, for instance (precipitated, perhaps, by my hair-color obsession), I doused my short, spiky platinum ‘do a vibrant red. I mean, I wouldn’t even consider changing my name without changing my hair color too.

As a freshly invented redhead, I led a terribly exciting life for about three months. But the drama wore off around the same time the color’s vibrancy did. In a futile attempt to bring back the sass, I even tried a tinted shampoo, but nothing worked for more than a day.

So, trying to match my life to my faded color, I took a boring job: I became a staff reporter for a small-town newspaper. And since even tired red proved too racy for my new position, I opted for a chestnut brown. The depth (a term used by hair professionals and discriminating junkies) evoked an unprecedented hint of solemnity; people seemed to take me seriously. I asked poignant questions and dotted my speech with unnatural pauses, as if thinking deeply. I also wore a pair of black, wire-rimmed glasses to accessorize my newly acquired shade.

Then all hell broke loose.

It had been an excruciating week at the paper. I had slammed out stories like “Poodle Accidentally Spayed” and “Shootout in Trailer Park.” I was exhausted. Something had to change — quick. I came to at a 24-hour drugstore desperately clutching a box of Miss Clairol. I mean, the seashell-blond model on the box looked so absolutely satisfied (then again, she hadn’t spent her week pounding out journalistic sludge).

“If my hair was right, I’d be writing for Vanity Fair,” I thought. It seemed to follow that the precious box of color would also somehow slash the accumulating interest on my deferred school loans — and all for a mere $9.99!

I snatched the box of single-process color, charged it, and left the store with a handful of chemicals and a head full of dreams.

On the way home, I thought about the model on the box — her flawless color, her doubtless perfect life. Still, considering my position in the community, maybe a test strand would be the smart way to go. I flipped on the dome light in my old Subaru and scrutinized the model’s face again — utter contentment. Then I decided that test strands are for henna people. For me, it’s all or nothing.

Lighting is everything

My most recent hair trauma occurred shortly before Christmas. I found myself at Sally Beauty Supply clutching a bottle of 40-volume developer and a synthetic applicator brush. My plan: brush my dark tresses a glorious iridescent blonde to match my overly highlighted ends. I began shortly after my boyfriend left for work. (Hair-color junkies usually prefer to work in solitude, unless the process requires an extra set of hands.)

The result was unsatisfactory — orange roots and bleached ends. After downing another glass of wine, I made an executive decision: Repeat the process. And after washing and drying my double-dyed ‘do, I stood back and examined the results. Not perfect, but wearable. Or so I thought. Somehow, I’d forgotten my own motto: “Lighting is everything.” Our dim bathroom had failed to illuminate the truth — that my hair was still brassy. Or so I was told, and at a particularly delicate moment (i.e., before coffee): “Girl, you gotta weave in? Cuz your hair is orangutan orange,” my boyfriend volunteered.

It seems the morning light had stretched its unforgiving fingers across our trendy, red T-shirt sheets and landed on my head, exposing the nasty truth — the process had uncovered an undesirable shade of brass. I jumped up and ran outside with a small handheld mirror (a must-have for any self-respecting hair-color junkie) to see for myself. My stomach dropped. Last night’s fantasy color had turned into a hellish daytime horror. Hiding out in our dark, cavernous studio apartment was not an option, as Christmas loomed. In just four days, we would be departing on the first leg of our holiday, which involved visiting two sets of relatives. I began flipping through my mental Rolodex(TM) of professional color specialists at local salons. Salons, that is, from which I hadn’t yet been banned (my list of ex-hairdressers rivals my list of ex-boyfriends).

While on hold with a salon named Curl Up and Dye, I tried to come up with a corrective color solution. (Hair professionals hate it when junkies funk up their hair, ask for professional help, then direct the process. But hey, that’s addiction for you.) Anyway, a sweet, empathetic receptionist soul “slid me in” with a trained color specialist.

The way things turned out, I wish I’d been slid out instead. My color professional was tired. “I’ve worked 12-hour shifts for the last six days straight,” she complained as I nestled into her chair, seeking solace. I asked the receptionist to bring me a glass of wine — any flavor. And as my colorist attempted to run her fingers through my overprocessed “weave,” I noted her look of befuddlement. With a wrist flick, she hailed a team of other hair professionals, who huddled around my head like a little-league football team plotting a touchdown. Their plan: Break through the gold with “heavy foils.” Translation: More Bleach. Results: Still too gold, but now also extremely damaged. I left the salon $120 poorer, vowing to give my hair a break. “Condition and grow,” I chanted on my way to the drugstore to buy a bottle of “conditioning” temporary rinse.

But that was more than two months ago, and I’m getting antsy again. My roots are showing.

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