Three days after turning 30, I found my first gray hair. Yes, this gray hair was coming out of my own head. And yes, I found it thanks to the unforgiving fluorescent lighting of the restroom at work. I work at a junior high school, and it’s important to note that it’s no wonder middle school kids easily develop complexes about themselves—go check yourself out in the restroom mirror of a junior high sometime and watch how quickly your self-esteem takes a dive-bomb directly into one of the toilets behind you.
Coincidentally, at my 30th birthday celebration that past weekend the topic of gray hair had been discussed at length. To my horror, my friends revealed that they had recently been discovering and subsequently plucking their own gray hairs. I listened in shock, marveling at the fact that even some of those who are younger than I am had been cursed with this misfortune and I had not. I felt so young and vibrant and silently pitied the rest of them. “I’m aging so well!” I told myself. “I have such good genes!” I cheered inside. I got too cocky. Never get too cocky, even on your birthday.
“How about you, birthday girl, how many grays have you had to pluck so far?” my friend inquired. I appreciated this attempt at camaraderie, even if it was for a club that I’d rather die than belong to. I hesitated to respond because I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want to seem like a Braggasaurus Rex.
“Uh, I haven’t had any yet,” I disclosed. Why did I feel embarrassed? I should have felt proud, but it just made me feel like a social pariah for being the only one without a gray-hair story. Everyone’s faces around me smiled politely, as they were probably LITERALLY STARING at the gray hair that had already sprouted on top of my head but that I was too oblivious to yet discover. Thanks, guys, for sparing my feelings on my birthday.
My day of reckoning came three days later, because life doesn’t care about your feelings. My trail of denial could only continue for so long before karma caught up with me and I acknowledged that I was no better than the rest of everyone. Which takes us back to the middle-school restroom…
As I dried my hands with scraps of brown paper towel (these are literally terrible for drying anything, aren’t they?), I examined myself in the mirror. I looked tired. The bags under my eyes were screaming for a combo of caffeine and sleep, neither of which I could give to them at the moment. And what was up with my hair?! Did I even brush it this morning? I placed my fingers against to my scalp in an attempt to fluff my deadpan crown of hair back to life, and as I rummaged through my scalp…I spotted it.
Perhaps it was the memory of the conversation at my birthday party, or perhaps it was just THAT noticeable, but I had to address it. That isn’t a GRAY hair I’m seeing, is it? That would just be too cliché. Come on. I would have noticed this before. The lighting in here is just weird. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage my pride, I rationalized (with no real rational basis to it whatsoever) that this was simply a “lighter brown” hair that dreamed to be different, or—reaching even deeper levels of denial—a random blonde hair sprouting out of my dark brunette head for no apparent reason.
I turned to leave the restroom and got halfway out the door before the pit in my stomach grew deep enough that it forced me back in front of the mirror.
Haloed by the soft hue of the pea-green subway-tiled walls surrounding me, I gave in and more closely examined the offender. There was no denying it—this singular gray hair was stinking up the joint like one dirty sock in a pile of clean laundry. I pondered just how long it had been visibly present and how many people had already seen it. It felt much wirier than my regular hair and had a thickness to it that I actually wished the rest of my hair would adopt. Keep your color and texture but give me your width, oh gray one! Color, texture, its physical presence in space and time aside—I couldn’t outrun it. My first gray hair, the physical embodiment of what I already knew to be true: I am getting older.
I tried to salvage any amount of dignity I had left by maneuvering pieces of my hair around to cover it so that I could exit the restroom and face the public. Then I made an immediate phone call for an appointment to dye my hair. I couldn’t take the chance of there being more grays that had sprouted up without my knowledge. At this rate, it felt like more could appear at any second.
But I didn’t pluck the gray hair out. Not then, and not later. What am I, crazy, you ask? Of course I am. But that’s not why I left it there.
I think I left it there because I felt almost, weirdly, proud of it. As bad as I thought it would feel to see a tangible sign of my march closer to the grave, I had earned that little gray monster. My body decided it would bestow upon me a little visible evidence of the past three decades, and even though it felt a little depressing in the moment, I was almost…grateful. I was still going to cover it up and pretend to the rest of the world it never, ever existed, but hidden beneath the hair dye, there was a smidgen of gratitude.
Years ago, this story would have made me gag at how gross it was that I let a gray hair survive on my head, and how sad it was that I still had to endure the harsh lighting of a middle-school bathroom at age 30 (what are you STILL DOING in there, Heather?! Haven’t we escaped that yet?!) But later that week at my hair appointment, I realized something important: the lighting in the hair dresser’s chair is even less flattering and more horrendously awful than a middle-school bathroom. Is there no justice in this world? Kidding aside, there’s no escaping adulthood, or grays, or looking washed-out and dreadful in mirrors of all walks of life.
Growing older has always been a real struggle for me. Even when I was a kid, I was never really in a rush to grow up like other kids were. Sure, I looked forward to driving, and dating boys, and having my own money (let me know when that last one happens, will ya?), but I always valued being a kid. I loved to play pretend until I was embarrassingly old, and I begrudgingly gave up my Barbie dolls to the depths of the attic when I was almost in junior high. I clutched tightly to the hope that Santa was real until even my own dad started to make fun of me for leaving cookies and milk out and would simply start eating the cookies right in front of me to get the point across. But perhaps the hardest I have ever tried to deny adulthood was during the period of time when I was technically already an adult.
Adulthood starts to slowly creep in during our twenties, but we spend the better part of the decade pretending that it isn’t. I had mixed feelings about saying goodbye to a decade of time where some kid-like behaviors were still considered somewhat passable. My 30th birthday party served as the clarifying reminder that I can no longer pretend that my body (or my life in general) functions as it did ten or even five years ago and expect to get away with any of it. It took me TWO DAYS in bed in my pajamas watching Gilmore Girls to recover from turning the big 3-0. I barely moved unless I had to go to the bathroom. The only food I was able to consume during this hiatus from being a functioning member of society was McDonald’s, and that was halfway through day 2, so you can picture what the beginning of my 30th year of life was like. It felt appropriate that my twenties left me with one final parting gift before saying goodbye. “It’s been fun, Heather, but here’s a nasty reminder that you can’t do things the way you used to. Be 30. Good luck.” Oh, and, “In two days from now, you’ll discover your first gray hair. You’re welcome.”
Truth be told, I still listen to crap music like Drake cruising around in my SUV drinking my Starbucks nearly every day that the sun shines. I have and use Snapchat—and how sad is it that we look infinitely better as cartoon dogs than we do as actual human beings? I still think memes are hilarious, even most of the inappropriate ones. I still binge-watch Netflix, stay up absurdly late on occasion, and sleep in until noon on weekends when appropriate (it’s never actually appropriate, but that doesn’t stop me). Inside, I feel much younger than a washed-up 30-year-old, and for that I am thankful. But as we first-wave millennials bid adieu to our twenties, we also have the arduous task of re-training our brains to somehow fully appreciate the beauty of leaving them behind.
I’m not here to say that 30 is when you have to have it all figured out, because I’m 30 and I’m not even close. I’m also not saying that some people don’t have it figured out a lot sooner. But whether or not we’re ready, or we may never be—Father Time is coming for us, Millennials. In fact, he’s already here, and he comes bearing gifts like slower metabolisms and increasing trouble keeping up with technology.
So here I sit with a whole shiny, new decade laid out before me, and my first gray hair dyed a brilliant shade of dark brown. The gray might be concealed, but it still exists, much like the lessons and experiences of my youth. I wouldn’t admit to nearly half of those experiences if you paid me, but I still know that they happened and that they are a part of me. And without them I wouldn’t be nearly half the swirling mass of organized chaos that I am today.
Here’s to all of us, the Millennials who are out there discovering day-by-day what it means to age. Maybe the world will stop throwing us under the bus in nearly EVERY conceivable way now that we have some gray hair. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll stop associating all of us O.G.s with the younger sector of Millennials, some of which are still seniors in high school and—come on, let’s be real—have literally nothing in common with those of us who just discovered our first gray hair and watch Gilmore Girls. (Why is a spread of 25 years’ worth of ages still lumped together as the “same?”) Either way, I hope we can each lay down our pride and stand up for aging gracefully. I hope we’re prepared to pass the baton someday to the rest of these kids. But first they have to survive their twenties. Good luck, you guys. We’re rooting for you.
I hope this next decade is as full as the last one. But no matter how it turns out, I know that with every day that passes I become a little less worried about it. I know it will be good, yet I know it will be different. And that makes me both a little sad and a little thankful all at the same time.
Sort of like finding my first gray hair.