Halloween: What gives you goosebumps?

It’s Halloween! The time of curling up on your couch with a cup of tea, scrolling through all the pictures of your friends dressed up in costumes as they go out partying… well, maybe that’s just me.

Now, to be clear, from here on out I’m talking about the mostly secular version of the holiday. The one that has emerged over time, as traditions that originated from various religious and cultural rituals and beliefs merged together into a celebration that involves pumpkins, costumes, trick-or-treating, an emphasis on death and the supernatural, and an overall sense of ‘spookiness’.

Over the past month, we’ve all been confronted by ‘scary’ images as haunted houses and other halloween themed activities are advertised and decorations of severed limbs and cobwebs appear.

In marketing geared towards children, grotesque characters often make an appearance in the form of hunched over individuals, intense scarring, blood, missing limbs, wrinkles, crooked teeth, and bedraggled hair. In marketing geared towards adults we see similar characters stripped of their comedy and often in the process of performing deviant acts, shown alongside blank, staring faces, insensible screaming, and straight jackets.

These are the images that we, as a culture deem to be scary. More than that, we classify them within the genre of horror.

And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think too much about it.

But I can’t help noticing that these depictions of what our fears are supposed to be all seem to centre around themes of disability, aging, mental and physical illness, and death.

In many ways, I can understand that. It is a basic human instinct to be wary of the unfamiliar and the different. It is also at the very core of our collective being to shrink from death in our endeavour to survive.

But we aren’t cavemen anymore. We are living in an age of medicine where sickness often doesn’t mean contagion or death. One can be chronically ill and live with their condition forever. We are living in an age of constantly evolving mobility technology, where a differently structured body should not have to result in isolation. We are living in an age where people are living longer, and their wrinkled faces are something that we can and should aspire to. We are living in an age where we are increasing our knowledge and understanding of mental health conditions, one where we actively work to reduce the stigma.

Even death – have we not figured out by now that we’re all going to die? Can we not focus instead on making the experience less isolating and traumatic for ourselves and each other?

As I type this, I feel reasonably confident that most of us would not directly equate the ideas of disability, age, and/or illness, with fodder for a horror movie. I have faced many reactions as I’ve gone out and about in the world with a variety of mobility aids and the most extreme looks I received were those of discomfort and pity with a side of judgment. My simple appearance on a street corner has never been greeted with a gasp of fear.

But still, I have never seen anyone question the idea that a heavily scarred woman without legs belongs in a haunted house.

So, while I believe that we, as a society, have evolved to the point where we no longer consciously associate these things with outright horror, I do think that we still experience that underlying fear. I think that’s where those reactions of discomfort and pity stem from.

There is so much to be celebrated about Halloween. When done responsibly, getting dressed up in a costume can lead to greater understanding, empathy, and the chance to discover new things about oneself. As children go door to door and meet their neighbours, a sense of community can be established. The fact that we buy candy with the plan to give it away to strangers is fairly beautiful within itself.

And most of all, it’s fun. It’s fun to get that adrenaline rush when we’re scared inside a safe space. It’s fun to paint our faces and wear something that we normally wouldn’t. It’s fun to do all of that with our friends and family.

But as we celebrate today and watch the trappings of the holiday fade away within the next week or so, maybe we can take a serious look at what messages we are putting out into the world and absorbing.

And maybe we’ll be able to find the beauty in our scars, in our wrinkles, and in our unique bodies, instead of the horror.

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I’m back.

My one year surgiversary is a week away!

I like acknowledging anniversaries of events. I’m not generally organized enough to actually plan something for the specific date, but I do like to take stock of the time passing, what has stayed the same and what has changed.

One year and a week ago I was in Baltimore. I probably would have been feeling pretty scared except for three things. Firstly, I was really out of it. There was a reason that I needed neurosurgery, and that reason kept me fuzzy, submerged in a haze of pain, fatigue, and other fun stuff.

The next reason is that I had something else to focus on – my family and I had forgotten my suitcase in Ottawa, and the surgery was in Baltimore. So around this time last year, my wonderful mother was running around Baltimore, taking pictures of articles of clothing and sending them to me as I essentially grunted in response. It was great.

The last reason is the most important one. I was in the midst of being both overwhelmed and incredibly supported by you, collectively. This surgery was not covered by OHIP, and it cost a lot of money. An insane amount of money. And I only had 3 weeks notice to get everything ready before the procedure was going to happen.

I created a go fund me page and the response absolutely blew me away. The outpouring of support, both in words and dollars, was more than I could ever have imagined. After going through 4 years of fighting alone for a diagnosis and proper medical care, all of the sudden having hundreds of people supporting me, on my side, was a truly indescribable feeling. At that point, I wasn’t even thinking about the surgery itself and what might happen afterwards. I was completely immersed in a feeling of awe, surrounded by more love than I knew existed.

I don’t remember much from the morning before the surgery. I remember my parents, teary eyed as they were told it was time for them to leave. I remember saying something that I thought was witty to try to get them to laugh. It probably wasn’t helpful. I remember being wheeled in to the OR and hearing the razor that would shave the back of my head start to buzz. And then the next thing I remember is waking up to my parents faces, voice scratchy from the intubation, saying ‘hey, I had surgery’ and them saying ‘sweetie, we had this conversation already, when you first woke up’.

I had been told that I might not notice any improvements in my symptoms for a couple of months, and there was no way of knowing how much my ability level would change. We did know that I was dying without the surgery, so it was a no brainer, pardon the pun. But I was prepared to wait and see, and be happy with whatever little improvements I might gain.

That night, still hooked up to a room’s worth of machinery and very high on pain medication, I managed to walk down the hall and back independently. That was more than I had been able to do for at least 3 years.

Now, one year later, I can tell you that the surgery was a huge success. More than a success. Not only did it save my life in the literal sense, but it gave me the opportunity for a new life beyond what I had thought would ever be possible for me.

I took some time away from writing as I recovered – physically, mentally, and emotionally. I thought I needed to get a handle on what my new realities were. I wanted to know what my baseline was, ability-wise. I wanted to have a plan, to know where I was at now, and to know where I was going. I wanted to feel a sense of security before opening myself up to the world again.

And I do feel secure. But not in the way I expected.

I trust my body to be unpredictable.

I trust my ability level to change.

I trust that I will always want to do more than I am capable of at any given time.

I trust that I will try anyways.

I know what I want to do, because I know what I care about.

And I know that there is a lot of love and beauty in this world, just waiting to be called into action.

Really, I couldn’t ask for any more security than that.

So I’m back. Salted Brownies is back. And with my current level of ability, I plan to work towards my goal of starting conversations about chronic illness in as many ways as possible. Through writing, music, comedy, drama, public speaking, film, and anything else that comes to mind. If you want to work on something with me, let me know!

Because if I trust anything right now, it’s that I’m ready.

P.S. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for helping me get to this point. There will never be enough thank yous to truly express my feelings, but I’ll keep trying regardless.