What I was going for.

I will tell this story so that you never have to. It’s a common trope: girl wants to change hair color; girl has no money for professional dye job; girl dumps $10 box of bleach on hair; hilarity does not ensue. In fact, so little hilarity ensued that it took about 3 years of recovery for my hair to regain its essential “hair-ness.” But for that first hour, when I raked my fingers through the wet mess and pulled away tangled globs of hair-mush, I realized that, once again, I should have reviewed the fine print on this, another beauty folly that found me staring into my bathroom mirror and uttering, “Oh shit.”

My best friend Audrey came from a family of Italians, with their robust scalps teeming with lustrous, sturdy brown locks–extra shiny from all the olive oil. It was her idea that I dye my already-bleached locks as white as I could get them. She said I would look like Gwen Stefani. At 19 with my Freshman Twenty-Four prominently bulging out of all of my clothes, I desperately needed the boost.

Audrey was planning on doing the opposite and dyeing her hair very dark brown, so that,

More like what I got.

together, we would look like a pair of kitschy Urban Outfitters bookends or a Benetton ad. If I had known that we would end up looking like a beautiful dark-haired model and fat Doc Brown in drag, I would have left the bleach on the shelf where it belonged. Instead, we shopped for the hair color together and ultimately settled on the box with the model with the whitest, shiniest hair I had ever seen.

Once the bleach was in my possession, I could barely walk through the bathroom without staring at it with wide-eyed anticipation. I imagined long, slender legs and arms with my head glued to Ms. Stefani’s lithe torso, made possible by the magic of extra-strong bleach. It seemed so possible and tangible that I could not wait for Audrey’s help to keep the bleach off of my already-porous blonde hair. So I mixed it up according to the directions and dumped it all over my head liberally, root to tip, and waited.

The reason professional stylists hate boxed bleach is this: they are to hair coloring what a cherry bomb is to cleaning toilets. Because your hair must come out looking like the picture on the box, these kits usually contain an extra strong volume of peroxide bleach so that, no matter if you start off with dark brown or sun-bleached blonde, it’ll all come out white in the end.

Or in my case, it all just came out.

The bleach had completely eaten away most of my hair’s keratin structure. What was left was a matted, stringy kind of white mush. It broke off in huge chunks and pieces, depending on how wet it was when I mistakenly ran a comb through it. When the weaker members of the tribe had been ripped out, what was left was a dry, porous mop of hairs with so little pigment, they would take the color of whatever chemical they were last bathed in. It went green in pool water, yellow in the iron-heavy water at my parents’ house, and white again in the cleansing lime-heavy well water of my friends’ homes in the country. It continued to break off and fall out whenever wet, leaving big wads of light-gold threads mashed into my hairbrushes. All the curl was likewise removed, and the once-bouncy loops hung in long, exhausted waves.

In a last-ditch effort to restore some kind of permanent color, Audrey and I returned once again to the hair dye aisle at Walgreen’s and chose a semi-permanent, “all-natural” boxed dye in an ashy gold tone. We chair-danced home in Audrey’s maroon Cadillac–a gift from her grandparents–and dumped the mixture on my head. Upon rinsing, we would discover that the Boxed Color Gods were simply not destined to ever smile upon us. Without any color in the over-processed hair, my tired strands hung onto the ash tones in the box. In short, I had long, fuzzy, mostly-grey hair. The Universe was teaching me a lesson, and it was not doing so gently.

Here’s the other surprise this event contained: it did not, in fact, make me look anything like Gwen Stefani. Delusion is 36-24-36, but the cruel reality of mirrors is 20/20 and still 24 pounds heavier than last year. I was still as fat as I’d ever been, and now I had Dust Bunny-flavored cotton candy for hair. Try to contain your laughter.

Reality came crashing in when I returned to college in the fall and my friends ran their fingers through the mess and clucked their tongues: Oh, honey, what happened? I went about dying pieces blue and pink and purple, then died the whole mess dark chocolate brown in an attempt to restore as much structure as I could. My stylist convinced me to lop the rest off, allowing it, at the very longest, to only graze my shoulders–a good eight inches shorter than before. I only cried for a few days, and after occasionally trying to pull off the “wig” I saw in the mirror before my brain train pulled into Full Consciousness Station in the morning.

It took two years of eating vitamins, frequent trims, and the slow and cautious reduction of the brown back to a sandy blonde with the skilled hand of a team of professionals. Eventually, it grew back out to normal porosity and length, and I was grateful for healthy locks in a way you only can when you haven’t had them for years.

The worst part of it all was that it was essentially a three-year-long Awkward Phase. Anyone who has ever tried to grow out a pixie cut or bangs knows this phenomenon: that period of growth where it won’t do anything right: it won’t curl or flat iron, lay the right way, either up or down. Multiply the growing pains of hair length by the devastating element of also having destroyed the hair’s very structure, and you can imagine how mortifying some of the in-between cuts and styles were. The most heinous was when I decided it was time to start lifting my dark brown again and ended up with Kelly Clarkson Season 1 orange tiger stripe highlights.

The moral of my cautionary tale is this: Never, ever trust the boxed dyes. If you can’t afford a salon, find a friend with a cosmetology license or get the whole thing on the cheap at a cosmetology school like Aveda. Especially when it comes to things like significantly lightening or otherwise altering your hair color, I strongly avoid going about it like my stupid ass. It turned out to be the most costly “cheap” alternative I have every tried.