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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

I Shaved My Head To Put 2020 Behind Me

Courtesy of Mike Blaney
Jolene Almendarez explains why shaving her head has been a cathartic experience after the struggles of 2020.

I was waiting for a moment I was sure I'd feel. Right when the barber pressed the clippers into my hair and I started to see my scalp in the mirror, I thought I'd have at least a fraction of a second of regret. But that moment never came. Instead, I just felt relief. 

I shaved my head Saturday. I pinned a measuring tape to my hair before I did it and estimate that I cut off just over 20 inches. My mane of flyaway curls has unwittingly been one of my calling cards over the years. But 2020 added an indescribable weight to the locks and, for a while now, that weight has been pulling at my brain and making me more exhausted every day.

Credit Courtesy Mike Blaney
Almendarez outside the Off Tha Top barber shop in Newport, KY, where she shaved off more than 20 inches of hair.

Maybe it's the weight I imagine my hair carrying. Maybe it's this value I picked up during the pandemic — that life is fragile, and I shouldn't waste a moment on something I don't care about. Maybe I just need a change after feeling like I've been living the same version of the same day for months.

Either way, my hair is gone now, and I managed to help some kids out in the process. 

'Like DNA In The Hair'

I know women who've cut or dyed their hair after major breakups. I've done it, too. There's just something so cathartic about creating hair that hasn't been touched by someone who's no longer in your life. 

Coby Alcantar, a stylist at Little Axe Salon in Brooklyn, told Cosmopolitan last year, "Some people come in after a breakup and they just want their hair off, they don't want the memories, like there is DNA in the hair that holds those memories."

Memories of 2020: something nobody wants to have. Let me back up and take you to a moment I had in San Antonio, which you likely also experienced here in Cincinnati.

The first time I knew crap was going to hit the fan with the burgeoning coronavirus was when I stood in a long line just to buy toilet paper. That's when I knew things were about to get real. 

A women holds a sign near a busy roadway in San Antonio letting people know a local store has toilet paper in stock on March. 28, 2020.

I saw a woman spinning a sign that said, "Toilet Paper"on it and I immediately drove into the parking lot of a hole-in-the-wall grocery store by my mom's house. It's one of those places that sells dinged cans or nearly expired spices for a reduced price. All the toilet paper there seemed to have a rip in the wrapping or was smashed into an irregular shape, but by then, the major stores had been out for days. I bought two packs for myself and six for my brother who gave them to coworkers he knew were low. 

Within days, restaurants in the city were reduced to carry-out only. Then, bars closed.

Just a few weeks later, I was reporting when San Antonio police shot rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of protesters after the killing of George Floyd. A few of those people were breaking into stores. But others were on their knees with their hands up in protest of police brutality when the tear gas was deployed. I was hit by pepper pellets. This was all in the midst of a volatile election season that culminated in the deadly insurrection at the capital on Jan. 6.

Credit Jolene Almendarez / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
On March 19, 2020,  Joseph Sanchez, a cook at Sam's Burger Joint in San Antonio, texts his mom to tell her the news after the city announced all bars and restaurants will be limited to take-out, drive thru, and delivery.

Shedding More Than Hair

I'm exhausted. But I recognize that I've been lucky. 

I started the year as a freelance journalist and part-time bartender living with my dad in a spare room by the garage. Times were pretty tough for me financially and emotionally after a failed business venture. But I finished the year with a great job, living in a new city in the nicest apartment I've ever had. On top of that, my best friends on the planet live about a block away from me. 

And the worst effects of COVID-19 have managed to stay just outside of my immediate circle. My brother and grandmother got it, but they managed to bounce back. Just about everyone I know managed to keep their jobs. 

Most people can't say their lives got better this year, though.

Almost3 million people have died from COVID-19 and countless others are still suffering from the long term effects of the virus. Many people lost jobs and homes. People missed out on milestones that make our lives richer, like graduations, birthdays, baby showers and weddings. 

I feel a little bit of guilt about being someone who managed to be so lucky while others suffered so much. In part, that's because I don't think I'm a lucky person. If there's a glass vase in a room, I'll break it. If there's one icy spot on the road, my car will slide on it. So, it doesn't make sense for me to be employed, fully vaccinated and reasonably happy right now. 

But I'm ready to be done with all of that. I'm giving myself permission to let go of the guilt of being happy. And I'm giving myself permission to get rid of the worst echoes of 2020 that I felt were lingering in my hair. 

I want to be clear that shaving my head is not being done in place of self-care. I have spent years in therapy, though I've been on a small break from it since January so I can spend some time getting settled. My beagle forces me to go outside for long walks every day because he'd cry and eat my furniture if I didn't. And 2020 was the year I finally started taking an antidepressant and multiple anxiety medications. So don't worry. I am taking care of me. 

But I'm also using this opportunity to take care of others. Right around the time I was feeling like it was time to make the drastic change to my hair, the St. Baldrick's Foundation was less than two weeks away from their annual fundraiser and awareness event. 

Each year, people raise money for research into childhood cancer and shave their heads on the same day. So I joined their ranks, raising almost $1,000 for the organization.

If there's any feeling that lingers as my hair starts to grow back, I want it to be kindness and the willingness to help others. That feels like the perfect expectation to set in 2021. 

Jolene Almendarez is a reporter for WVXU. 

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.