The 5 Stages of Lice

by Ashley Fuchs
Originally Published: 

You bought glue sticks, composition notebooks, No. 2s, and new shoes. Freedom is just around the corner. Your kids bound home each day with a tree’s worth of paper in their backpack: emergency contact forms, PTA calendars, assignments. You have more homework than they do the first week. Soon they will fall into a routine, and you can get your life back.

But one day, The Letter shows up in their folder. Or worse. You get The Phone Call.


Those of you who have been through a lice infestation before just felt your stomach lurch as your hand rose, immediately, to start scratching your head. There, there. It’s OK. I just said the word lice – they aren’t really there. Unless you actually have lice right now, in which case, go over to the liquor cabinet and pour a shot of tequila. Now drink it and stop crying.

I’m now going to familiarize you with the 5 Stages of Lice:

1. Denial and Isolation. The first reaction to learning that your child has lice is to deny the reality of the situation. “I’m sorry, Nurse, it sounded like you said I have to pick up Paisley from school, because she has lice. That’s impossible, because I wash her and she isn’t a street urchin.” It is perfectly normal to rationalize your panic. It’s a defense mechanism that we use to handle the shock. After you collect your lousy kid, and panic-buy a nit removal kit on the way home, you pour a glass of wine, log off of Facebook, draw the blinds, and cry. No one is going to see you for the rest of the day. Maybe the rest of the week.

2. Acceptance. Unlike the Stages of Grief, Acceptance is the second stage of a lice outbreak. Well into your first glass of wine, you have just applied the strongest over-the-counter treatment money can buy, plus any natural remedy you found online, while you waited the 10 minutes for the little a-holes to die. Now your kitchen counter is part pharmacy, part organic salad dressing recipe. Your kid is happily playing Minecraft on the iPad…you’ve got this! The timer goes off, you throw her in the shower, pour warm vinegar on her head for good measure (it is supposed to dissolve the nit glue), pick up the weird comb-thing and begin.

(11 hours later…)

3. Anger. This is when the third stage really kicks in. You now come to grips with the magnitude of the job ahead of you. Dinner won’t be made. You will bark at your spouse to bring something, anything, home. If you have other kids, well, you don’t today. Hopefully they have learned how to fend for themselves before now. At around hour five my son figured out I could not do a damn thing for him, and he stopped asking. My anger seethed. The wine buzz wore off, and it made me tired and cranky. But, still I combed. And those bleeping nits didn’t budge (warm vinegar my ass…) I felt guilty for being angry, and it made me angrier.

I eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion, and then I had to get up the next day and comb again and again over the next few days. It.never.stopped. And, it turns out they won the battle. When the smoke cleared, the nits were still standing…I think the person who said “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” was actually talking about MY lice strain.

4. Depression. If you are like me, and your whole family has OTC treatment-resistant lice, then you won’t complete any personal care other than nit removal for days and weeks. All care will be nit care. You will do nothing but comb. My daughter’s hair went to the middle of her back, and if I had cut any of it, she would have never forgiven me. My son and husband both refused to get buzz cuts…really? Your gender holds the golden ticket out of this Hell and you refuse? My own curled coif was a broken, frizzy mess. I was due for hair color, and I couldn’t go to the salon for a month while we dealt with this horror. Night time with my husband consisted of nit-picking in front of the TV (not the usual kind, the literal kind). He rifled through my hair once and I asked him if he saw any nits, to which he replied, “no, but I see a lot of gray hair!”

Yes, he is still alive.

I turned down play dates, outings with friends, cancelled appointments. I am a social person – it was depressing. It felt like we would never crawl out from under this rock.

5. Bargaining. The final stage is, in fact, bargaining. Perhaps in the beginning of this, uh, experience, you will try to hold on to your values and act accordingly. “I’m going to treat this naturally…I hear mayonnaise works wonders! Whole Foods has a lice shampoo made with essential oils. I hear there are professionals who will come to your house, but they must be expensive – I can DIY this. How hard can it be?”

Hear me now: by the end of this horror show, you will throw your money at whatever you can possibly think of that might even suggest that it will work. We spent so much on take-out food, hair accessories to protect our pillows, nit removal kits, medicine, office copays, I might as well have gone with the professional service from day one. I am usually a very natural person: I treat ear infections with warm onions. I never give my kids antibiotics for a cold. But by week three, sobbing in my Nurse practitioners office, I told her I would dip our heads in kerosene if I thought it would work. And that’s just what she gave me: malathion. It says online there is no evidence of risk in humans…just don’t breathe in while applying it. I had to hog tie my inner-hippie, duct tape her mouth, and throw her in the corner in order to use this stuff. But it worked. I won the War.

For those of you who feel superior enough to think that you have magically warded off lice by something you have done, or just by being special, I’ve got news for you: lice are like mosquitoes. They like warm heads and human blood. If you come in contact with them in just the right way, they like you.

Clean hair, dirty hair, essential oil remedies – there is a lot of speculation out there on the web, but no scientific evidence backing up any of the claims. If you have never had lice, like I hadn’t for 41 years, then count yourself lucky. If your child (and subsequently your family) does happen to get them, you are not a bad/dirty/irresponsible person. Don’t hide in shame, like I did. Phone a friend, and ask for help. And if you are that friend, try not to cringe or lean back too much when that poor person confides in you. Lice do not jump (but save the sympathy hugs for later.)

There is life after lice. You will learn to groom again. And when ignorant people either treat you like a leper for having it or subject you to the laundry list of ways in which they have prevented “multiple outbreaks” in their own precious angels, try to resist the urge to “accidentally” switch hats with their kids.

I know lice isn’t the end of the world. There are certainly worse things… but those of us who have lived the nightmare wouldn’t wish this on our worst frenemies.

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