As I look back, how could I have not known I had lice? I awakened one morning with such a feeling of my hair being on fire that I could have been a member of the 9/11 Commission. The flames seemed to burn from the nape of my neck to my ears. I spent all day scratching and, that night, asked my daughter to look at my scalp for a rash. "I don't see a rash, but I think I see things moving."
Why would I have something moving in my scalp? I knew my daughter didn't have lice because I had checked her regularly since she came home a month ago from a sleepover with a friend who, she told me, had lice (admittedly, I didn't know what I was looking for because I didn't want to know). After I itched intensely for a few days, I went off to the dermatologist. I mentioned, as an aside, that my daughter thought she saw life-forms on my scalp, but the doctor gave me a cursory look and said no, what I probably had was an autoimmune disorder. If that's what it was, I would have it the rest of my life, and to control it, I needed to apply topical steroids. At least it wasn't lice!
I filled the prescription and began dousing myself. It turns out the louse responds to steroids the same way that Barry Bonds does: It becomes bigger and more powerful. Itching and dousing, I packed our bags for an extended vacation at bed and breakfasts in Maine. A few days into our trip, the lice load must have finally gotten to our 10-year-old daughter, who previously had had no symptoms. We were in the living room of the B&B, when she stuck a fingernail into her scalp, pulled out a tiny, disgusting creature, and said, "Every time I stick my finger in my head, I get one of these."
"We were just walking in the woods, it probably fell on you from a tree," said my husband, flicking it away. I concurred that it was nothing, then scratched my own head frenetically. Yes, we sound like nitwits. My excuse is that the lice had sucked so much blood from my head that I was losing mental function. My husband now admits he thought our vacation would be much more pleasant if his wife and daughter didn't realize they had parasites.
The next day over breakfast, while our hostess was out of the room, our daughter stuck her finger back into her head and pulled out another creature. "I haven't been in the woods, and look at this!" she demanded. "If you dig deep enough into anyone's scalp, you're bound to find things with legs," my husband said. This remark was so profoundly cockamamie that it got my attention. I had noticed a magnifying glass in our hosts' living room. After breakfast, my daughter pulled another creature out of her head and we all looked at it through the glass. It was an eighth-of-an-inch-long insect. I now know that each of its six legs was tipped with a tiny claw, which allows the louse to hang on to human hair as it lays its eggs and drinks our blood. It was perfectly clear that my daughter and I were hosts, too. I tried to cheer myself up that the lice had cured my autoimmune disorder. We retired to our bedroom with the magnifying glass, and I examined my husband's head. His scalp, deforested as if by Agent Orange, was clearly incompatible with insect life.
Having lice is bad enough, but what is the etiquette of traveling while infested? This dilemma also came up with a friend of mine who was visiting relatives with husband, toddler, and infant. They all had been itching for weeks, but had been, like me, deep into lice denial. She had variously decided the symptoms meant she was pregnant, her husband had a skin disease, and the toddler had a tic (although not a tick). The truth became clear when she glanced down at the head of her infant, snuggling on her chest in his Babybjörn, and noticed insects teeming through his flaxen hair. Telling the relatives seemed impossible, so the family engaged in surreptitious, late-night shampooing and laundry sessions, until the secret became too much to bear. They confessed. Their hostess called the other relatives and, using her "It's cancer" voice, cancelled the family gathering. Two brave souls showed up to give their regards, from a distance, to the unclean visitors.