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Post-traumatic Haircut
By Corporal William Young
Published: 04/15/2019

A lot of us have a grave misunderstanding of what defines a traumatic event and what that experience, that trauma can do to a person. See, we assume that a person has to bear witness to or be a part of some extremely large and chaotic event such as the Boston Marathon Bombing or 9-11 to develop symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But the tragic reality of trauma is that it doesn’t have to be an extreme event or even experienced first-hand for a person to develop symptoms of PTSD.

Let’s use September 11 as an example.

We all watched in horror as airplanes collided with the World Trade towers on national television, right? Even me, here, in the middle of the country, far away from any planes or falling buildings, suffered subtle side effects because of the attacks. For example, I was walking downtown, on my way to file a death certificate when I heard an airplane flying overhead. I remember looking at the airplane and my stomach began to tighten and I became a little anxious. I remember looking up and seeing that airplane and for a split second my mind drew a straight line from the nose of that airplane to the west side of one of our high rise buildings. So see, even though I didn’t know anybody that was killed on September 11, and I don’t really have a connection to that event other than I live in America, I still experienced an emotional and a physical reaction.

Make sense? Good, because I need you to follow me down a rabbit hole.

I want to share a story with you, an experience, or a series of events rather, that may seem like incoherent rambling, and you may roll your eyes or downplay the impact that this event had on me, but that’s how trauma works.

I was sitting at home on a Tuesday night and I was watching Sons of Anarchy on AMC. I used to love that show. I was sitting there and I was watching one of the final episodes of one of the seasons, and there was this part where the wife of one of the members of the Sons was accidentally murdered by another member of the Sons. The scene was well written and it was intense, right, and at the same time that this television murder was taking place my buddy called me from work to let me know that our administration had made a decision on something that we had been waiting a long time for regarding our current job assignments.

And, at the same time, in real life, right across town, a psychotic killer pulled a mother of four out of her vehicle in the middle of the night, in the middle of an intersection, and shot her in the face with a shotgun.

So here we have three seemingly separate events forever tied together in my mind. Why? Well, because I work in a correctional facility and the psychotic killer became one of our clients.

On Saturday nights, we would take our new client to our barbershop to get a haircut and because of the nature and notoriety of his crimes, because of the publicity, because the courts wanted to make sure that this guy was kept safe until trial, and because he was housed in our Control Unit, we would have to shut down the whole facility to do so.

So, every Saturday we would place him in full restraints per our policy and we would escort him 200 yards across the building to get his haircut. He was always compliant and he would sit down in the chair and he would let the barber, another client of ours, cut his hair.

This haircut usually took about thirty-five or forty-five minutes (maybe it was longer, or maybe it wasn’t, I’m not really sure because it was one of those moments when time slows down or speeds up, if that makes sense). And I listened to him have a conversation with the barber about him being not competent to stand trial and the barber asked him what that meant and then the guy was able to define and give examples of what competence meant. And I was looking at his face which is scared and littered with these incredibly wild Egyptian-style tattoos. And I was staring at his face and I was watching the barber cut his hair with the clippers and he was explaining that you get a closer cut if you buzz your head with the grain and then against the grain. And I was just standing there and watching and listening. When the haircut was finished, we escorted him back to the control unit and secured him in his cell without incident.

I say without incident because there was no physical altercation and there was no verbal exchange with staff, there was no nothing. According to us, according to our facility there was no incident.

However, I have to respectfully disagree, because there was an incident. There was an injury, a scar. See, I, will never forget that haircut. I tie it to the television show. I tie it to the murder. I tie it to the phone call. And I tie it to cutting my hair.

Still with me? I hope so.

So, those of you that know me know that I have kept my hair short for years. I used to shave it bald, with a razor, but when I got older and lazier, I started buzzing it with clippers. Well, here’s the problem. Every time that I cut my hair, since that night, since that conversation, since that haircut, I think of him and I think of that moment and I think of that haircut and I think of that barber and I think of the woman that got shot in the face and I think of that television show and I think of that phone call.

So, sometimes I let my hair grow out a little bit. And I tell people that I’m being lazy or that I didn’t have time to cut it, and I make jokes about letting it grow out. But the real reason is, the honest to gosh truth is, that I’m not ready to think about him yet. I’m not ready to look in the mirror and see his face, which is the same face that the woman saw right before she was murdered.

Who would’ve thought that a haircut could be that traumatic?

Now I do eventually cut my hair and I still keep it short, partly because my wife likes it and partly because my hair is turning gray and white. The difference is that now I have to mentally prepare myself for the ten or fifteen minutes that it takes me to cut my hair.

And when I finally cut my hair, I use the same technique that the barber used. I make sure that I go with the grain and then against the grain, so I don’t miss any hairs. And when I finish, I clean my clippers with a toothbrush the same way that the barber cleaned his clippers. And afterwards, after I cut my hair, I immediately jump into a scalding hot shower, so I can wash that memory away.

The funny thing is that even when I manage to cut my hair without thinking about him, I think about how nice it was to not think about him.

So, how many of these haircuts, how many of these “non-incidents” have you encountered during the course of your career?

Who would’ve thought that a haircut could be that traumatic?

This article as been reprinted with permission from the March 2019 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Corporal William Young has worked as a Correctional Officer in the state of Nebraska since March of 2005. He has worked throughout his facility in various areas ranging from Sanitation to Segregation and is currently assigned to Community Corrections. Corporal Young is a member of the Crisis Intervention Team and the Crisis Negotiation Team. He is a certified Emergency Preparedness (LETRA) instructor and also teaches Motivational Interviewing and the award winning course “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment” (CF2F).

If you have any questions, comments, or feedback that you would like to share, please contact William at Justcorrections@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/wllmyoung/.

The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the agency.

Other articles by Corporal Young


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