Lice; just the word makes me squirm with discomfort.
The first time our family encountered lice, I was driving my eldest daughter home from a week-long softball camp. We were stopped by road construction along the way, and I happened to notice, out of the corner of my eye, that she could not stop scratching her head.
I remember asking her when the last time was she had showered, and how long her head had been itching. But most of all, I remember the dread (and being extremely thankful for that pause along our drive because without it I likely would not have noticed a thing).
Once we got home, I took her around to the back of our house and had her sit on the porch; I wouldn’t let her go inside. I confirmed the inevitable; despite not actually knowing what I was looking for, having never encountered lice before, it took me less than thirty seconds to spot the offensive critters.
I promptly broke out in a full panic. So much so that she burst into tears; I could barely console her, because I was a bit beside myself.
I called her doctor. I Googled everything. I called my husband, who was traveling. I called my mother, who sent my father out for the chemical treatments. I burned her blankets, her pillow, her hats and the towels she had brought to camp. I threw away everything that might have come in contact with her head – her hairbrushes, comb, hair-ties. I wrapped everything else in garbage bags and threw them in our garage.
I’m pretty sure I even wrapped up her softball bat.
I doused her head with olive oil and wrapped it in plastic wrap, as the nurse on call at our pediatrician’s office suggested, left her on the back porch in a plastic lawn chair with a book and took the hottest shower I believe I have ever taken.
Somewhere in the middle of that shower, it occurred to me that I had to tell people.
The second worst thing after discovering that your child has lice is that you then have to communicate that your child has lice with other people. I had to reach out to the camp director, and to the parents of the girls with whom my daughter had shared a room. I sent an email and a group text message after bolstering my courage with a glass of wine. Maybe it was two. Then, and only then, did I commence a comb-through that lasted several hours.
We spent the next week treating; typically, I choose products that are as free of dangerous chemicals as possible for my children, but a time of such emergency while living in a small, rural Vermont community where the local drugstore is thirty minutes away is not the time to be choosy. We proceeded with lice treatment, lice shampoo, combing, combing and more combing, another round of lice treatment, and more combing. Although she hadn’t been inside our home for over a week, and didn’t step foot inside until I had treated her, we treated everyone in the family. I will tell you something about marriage; you will discover how strong your love is when you’re combing through each other’s heads like monkeys, looking for bugs.
I barely slept for a week after this episode. I had nightmares. I was itchy all of the time, and I convinced myself I had lice many times. It turned out that it hadn’t spread to anyone else, but it was still a constant, tangible fear.
After waiting longer than the recommended incubation period – you know, just in case – I unwrapped all of her things that I hadn’t burned. For good measure, I put everything that could go into the dryer in, and regardless of manufacturer’s recommendations, it went in at the highest temperature possible, complete with an overly generous amount of tea tree oil spray.
And then, about a month later, we discovered that her sister had lice. I received THAT call from the school nurse. My first reaction was that I wanted to sink into the floor. My second reaction was that I wanted to shave everyone’s heads. I have three daughters, and we all have a lot of hair.
This time, lice had entered our home. I was overcome with fear that it had gotten into our beds, our blankets, our furniture. I wanted to burn everything. My husband talked me off that ledge. Barely.
I stripped the beds, bagged every stuffed animal and pillow we owned, vacuumed and sprayed the couches and the mattresses and the rugs. I threw away the practically new hair brushes and hair-ties. I washed every stitch of clothing and fabric that we owned. I dried everything on the highest heat level the dryer was outfitted with. We treated everyone, again.
Lice might be the single most exhausting plague to besiege a household.
This summer, when I sent my daughter off to that same camp, we were prepared. I sprayed the well-used plastic mattress and camp room down with tea tree oil. I armed her with Fairy Tales shampoo and conditioner, and tea tree oil. She brought her own softball helmet, and she made sure she wasn’t rolling around on other girls’ pillows and beds. When she got home, I went through everything she brought with her with extreme care, washing and spraying and sterilizing.
Regardless, somehow, we came into contact with lice again; not through camp, but through my middle daughter.
I’m not sure how she got it; perhaps the single most frustrating thing about lice is the inability to name a root cause or source. This time, though, I approached the infestation with a little less alarm; the same cannot be said for my eldest daughter, who still has PTSD from her first encounter. I followed all of the protocols, but I wasn’t nearly as traumatized as I was on our first go-round. The shame, however, was still prevalent; we had to cancel a multiple-family barbeque we were hosting, and we had to explain why.
Here’s what I have learned about lice: they’re gross, they’re indiscriminate, you’re entitled to your reaction of anxiety, terror, and repulsion, and other people are as well, like when you are forced to tell people that your family has had an encounter with them.
You don’t, however, have to burn your child’s belongings.
You will probably want to get rid of them once you’ve spent entirely too much money on entirely too-small bottles of treatment, become intimately familiar with every single family member’s scalp, each and every hair follicle they have, and after working your washer and dryer for seventeen hours straight for days on end.
You likely won’t forget the trauma lice caused, and you will be ever-vigilant about seemingly innocuous things like sleep-overs, summer camps, and sports helmets.
If your family encounters lice, the following sources can guide your frenzy so that you are most productive in your new lice elimination lifestyle: