Fear can be healing: Why you might actually want to be terrified
A medical mama and haunted house producer speaks on the connections between her two worlds
My husband and I got six minutes into Netflix’s Stranger Things before we turned it off.
It was 2016, our young twins were safely in bed and everyone had been telling us we needed to watch the binge-worthy show. But we got to the first jump scare of the boy riding his bike home in the dark and decided: NOPE.
We had had enough real trauma involving children to last a lifetime. We’d seen true terror on the faces of our own children as they underwent medical procedures or even as they encountered ordinary life struggles that their brains told them were cause for panic.
But now our boys are preteens and each Halloween they want more and more scariness in their life. As we head to a roller coaster or other jitter-inducing attraction, Mack* and I will argue back and forth with him saying: “fun, fun, fun!” as I say: “scary, scary, scary!”
Thanks to Chrissa Paradis, another medical mama in our community, we got to attend our first haunted house this year: ScareGrounds PDX, three fully accessible haunted house attractions.
At first, I hated it. My shoulders — which are already debilitatingly tense from stress and lifting a 70-pound person multiple times a day — felt like they were up to my ears as we walked into the first house. We passed the creepy things and jumped at the loud, sudden noises. All I could think was: How fast will the boys let me get out of here?
But then something happened: I screamed. Or rather, I let myself scream… and then giggle. After that, it was a lot more fun.
As parents to kids with medical emergencies — or the isolating subset of folks who have to deal with the real possibility of child death — visceral terror is not funny or theoretical: It’s some of the most real moments of our lives.
But perhaps, even for us, recreational fear can be healthy.
“As someone with a heavy amount of stored trauma — screaming, the act of literally screaming and releasing — you feel it free some of that,” says medical mama Paradis, producer and director of guest services at ScareGrounds PDX. “It really does have a restorative nature.”
Paradis says it has also been interesting to see how her staff have benefited from creating scares. She says about half of the cast members are LGBTQ and have experienced a lot of struggle in their lives — either coming to terms with themselves or with their family and friends’ reactions.
“They all find that creating the scares and taking that control is very healthy for them,” Paradis says. “So we kind of see it on both sides of how this environment provides some very primal healing.”
She says her medical motherhood journey has influenced a lot about the attraction. All of the sets are fully wheelchair accessible, actors will never touch the audience and there are emergency exits for anyone who isn’t having fun anymore. But an awareness of disability is also part of the storyline. Paradis says that when the team designs haunted houses that are asylums or abandoned hospitals, the fright factor isn’t being stuck in a place with people with mental illness, but rather a maniacal doctor who just might make you his next patient….
It turns out science confirms that screaming, shaking, ghost stories and other forms of recreational fear have therapeutic properties. Much like how wild animals will “shake it off” from head to tail after escaping a predator, human nervous systems can benefit from physical manifestations of trauma and even “scream therapy.”
As Paradis says: “There definitely are some positives to putting yourself in a safe mode where you get to have some genuine scares.”
Before having her daughter, Paradis liked scary movies. But now that she’s been scared out of her mind in real life, even the most well done horror movies don’t do it for her anymore. “My peak is so much higher now than most people.”
Paradis turned 20 when her daughter was a toddler on the brink of death due to an infection. Jasmine survived several medical procedures and now lives with disability.
“I found that I heavily disassociated from the emotional impact of what was happening so I could function,” Paradis says. “Which is something I absolutely still do as an adult.”
Paradis says even when her daughter had a life-threatening illness at 17, she pushed away “how are you doing?” questions to wall off her emotions and focus on the work that needed to be done. She had to, she said, to continue functioning at the highest level her daughter needed.
“Maybe that’s not the greatest for other relationships,” Paradis laughed, “but it keeps me from breaking down.”
Paradis occasionally follows groups through her haunted houses for security and quality control. She’s observed that about 90 percent of the time after people scream, they laugh. “It frees something inside. It just kind of unlocks some of that tension and heaviness.”
If you want to try being scared for fun this Halloween, The Washington Post has some tips. You can try to start slow with children’s movies like Spirited Away or keep the lights on during a scary movie to maintain some distance. Or, go to a haunted house like Paradis’ and let yourself scream. Just be sure to go with friends — it’s always better to have someone to cling to in times of stress.
As for me, I did recently try Stranger Things again. The subplot of medical parenthood was certainly triggery, but safe on my couch, away from the hospital, I could enjoy the show.
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Medical Motherhood’s news round up
Snippets of news and opinion from outlets around the world. Click the links for the full story.
• From WRAL (Boston): “State probes Boston schools' treatment of disabled students”
MALDEN, MASS. — The state education department is investigating a complaint that claims the rights of children with disabilities in the Boston Public Schools are being violated because the district's bus system is in “disarray,” Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Tuesday.
The complaint filed last week by Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Advocates for Children on behalf of the parents and guardians of six students with disabilities says children are being being denied an education because of chronically late or canceled buses.
“The systemic disarray of the BPS transportation and special education departments deprives thousands of Boston children, many of whom are low-income students with disabilities and students of color, of what cumulatively amounts to weeks or months of learning time,” the complaint said.
• From The Los Angeles Times: “In California, spending on adults with disabilities differs by ‘race and place’”
The report from Disability Voices United, titled “A Matter of Race and Place,” builds on long-standing concerns about racial disparities at regional centers — a system of nonprofits that are responsible for coordinating services for developmentally disabled children and adults. It also underscores dramatic differences in spending between centers serving different parts of California.
“We shouldn’t have 21 different ways that people are receiving services,” said Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United, who is also the parent of an adult served by a regional center. “It shouldn’t be based on where you live or what your race or ethnicity is.”
Regional centers provide assistance under contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services, which has invested tens of millions of dollars in recent years to try to close racial and ethnic gaps in spending. Earlier this year, the legal advocacy group Public Counsel found racial disparities had nonetheless persisted in spending on services for children and teens.
[…] Mark faulted a “culture of no” at regional centers that is easier to fight for those with more resources, including white families and English speakers. Fernando Gomez, a parent and co-founder of Integrated Community Collaborative, said “the system is just so hard to navigate.”
• From Disability Scoop: “Disability Service Provider Crisis Worsening, Survey Finds”
Disability service providers across the nation are overwhelmingly turning away new referrals, shutting down programs and services and struggling to maintain standards and there’s no relief in sight.
Findings released this month from a survey of 718 organizations serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities nationally show that providers are continuing to shrink more than two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic set the beleaguered sector into a tailspin.
Of the providers surveyed, 83% said they are turning away new referrals, 63% indicated that they have discontinued programs and services and more than half said they’re considering further closures. Nearly all respondents said they’ve had trouble achieving quality standards.
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