Cosplay Canes Conquer Anxiety

Did you know cosplaying can be good for your mental health?

Half a dozen people in fantasy-style medieval costumes sit around a wooden table. Anneliese, in a long blue vest and faun antlers, is on the right, facing the camera.

As a fantasy writer I feel I finally have a legitimate excuse to spend time and money on grown-up dress-up. It’s a new hobby I’m just beginning to explore, but one that I’ve appreciated from afar for quite some time. This past summer I had the chance to meet up with a regular group of cosplayers for a themed tea party at my favorite café. It wasn’t just fun to stroll around in a jerkin and horns and make new friends, it unexpectedly provided me an unlooked-for opportunity to tackle some blindness-related insecurities.

Part of my experience as a blind person has been wondering how people perceive my physical shortcomings, like my inability to navigate around furniture without ping-ponging off the edges or my tendency to slam my shoulder into door frames on my way through. I run into people, have a hard time determining what is and isn’t a line waiting at a register, or determining if there’s space to go around a group of people in my way, or if I should just try to slip through them as subtly as anyone with a long white cane can.

I wonder if people’s frantic attempts to clear paths for me, constant apologizing when I’m the one who bumped into them, and inordinate praise for successfully performing daily tasks is compassion or condescension. Do we as a society perceive coordination as courtesy, unless provided with mitigating circumstances? What would these people think if I didn’t proclaim my excuse card by walking into every room with a reflective cane or a harnessed German shepherd?

I wasn’t thinking about any of that, though, when I decided that a leather-wrapped bamboo pole felt more period-appropriate for my costume than the graphite stick wrapped in reflective material I normally carried. I donned my jerkin, horns, leggings, and un-authentic flats (I’m on a budget), grabbed the bamboo, and headed out to the car. And literally ran into two problems right away.

#1        Wearing extra appendages such as horns, tails, or wings can render my finely tuned proprioception irrelevant. The doorframe of the car nearly took my horns off as I slid into the passenger seat.

#2        Bamboo doesn’t fold up as conveniently as my normal cane. The car was bigger than a shoebox, so we were able to fit the pole in the back seat just fine, but I began to realize this might be more complicated than I’d imagined. Would I be able to find somewhere to stow it at the coffee shop where it would be easy to grab but not trip anyone else moving around the table?

The Dragons Forge café is exactly what it sounds like, except when it comes to size. As cozy as the name might sound, it actually occupies a large, airy space in the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment building, a historic factory converted into an arts community. I had no trouble finding somewhere to put my make-shift cane during the event. But before we even made it to the café’s 2nd-floor location I ran into another problem (figuratively his time).

As my co-author and best friend Galadriel (yes, that’s her real name, check out her book here) rode the old freight elevator and walked through the wide, high-ceilinged hallways I found myself growing more and more tense. I was listening harder than normal, trying to perceive quiet conversations around me over the noisy fans trying to keep the Alabama heat at bay..

Were people cursing at me for tripping over their feet? Was that guy offended that I grazed his shoulder turning that corner? Are those ladies wondering why I apparently can’t walk in a straight line without my friend grabbing my arm every few seconds/ I realized I was just holding the bamboo stick loosely in my hand like a staff, not using it like a cane. It didn’t feel like one, so my brain hadn’t automatically put it to use. I made a conscious effort, and had to keep doing that to maintain the rhythm and angle I’d learned so well more than fifteen years ago.

We reached the café, found our group, and settled in for a fun couple of hours. We spent most of the time in character, and I learned I wasn’t the only first-timer there.  I started to relax and have a good time. It was exactly how I’d wanted to spend the day, with people who shared my interests and enjoyed new experiences and new friends. The background music made its inevitable journey from atmospheric fantasy tracks to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and it was about time I got myself a White Dragon.

I retraced the by-now familiar path to the counter, performed my usual trick of asking the air in the cashier’s general direction if there was a line, and discovered there wasn’t. By the time I finished ordering my White Dragon, a vanilla latte with almond milk, and a bowl of tavern stew, though, several people had decided I had the right idea and were loosely clustered behind me, ready to witness and judge the dreaded cash-register Exchange.

This interaction has made me anxious since my mom first physically pushed me toward a counter, sometime in middle school. She’d already tried encouragement and firm words, but recognizing that my body was locked up in fear and not wanting me to let that limit my future, she gently shoved me forward until I stood at the register. I got through handing the cashier my cash with shaking hands and a voice barely above a whisper. Though the purchase of…whatever it was back then…went smoothly, the anxiety didn’t ease for years.

But I had a cane, people could recognize why it might take me longer to fumble my way through this every-day activity. Id’ be fine. So I ordered my stew and latte, pulled out my credit card, and felt along the counter for where I knew the little card reader usually rested. I got the card in the slot, it began its usual mysterious series of beeps, and I gave the cashier a chagrined smile. “Sorry, I’m blind. I’ll need help with the touch screen.”

“oh, yeah, I can’t see anything without my glasses, either,” the cashier said. Nothing happened.

“No, seriously, I’m blind, ‘ I finally realized she hadn’t understood. “I can’t see the screen.” I went to gesture with my cane, the top of which ought to be very visible over the counter – and suddenly realized why the cashier was confused. I didn’t have my cane. I had a leather-wrapped bamboo staff that went great with my medieval Tiefling costume.

The lovely cashier and I had a good laugh over the incident, and the people behind me chuckled a little, too. But you know what? I didn’t remember that detail of the story, our communal amusement, until I sat down to write this post.

I rewrote this post three, maybe four times, trying to appropriately capture the anxiety of not having my excuse for clumsiness recognized. Let’s ignore, for just a moment, how much that need for an excuse says about my inner perfectionism, though. Instead, I’d like to show you another aspect of anxiety, how it can actually change our long-term memories.

Studies have demonstrated for decades that engaging in visualizations and daydreams stimulate the sensory processing function of the brain in the same way that actually walking on a beach or going down an endless flight of stairs would. The brain can’t tell the difference between a good daydream and a real experience. This is one of the reasons that visualizing a positive outcome to a future stressful experience can make you feel more confident. The brain thinks it’s already succeeded, so what’s left to worry about?

But it also works the other way around. If you spend a lot of time meditating on what could go wrong, on your worst fears, your brain will consider that part of reality, process it like a real experience, and attach it to other relevant stored data. So when I combined the awkward credit-card exchange with my lack of cane and my fear of others not understanding why I couldn’t function the way they did, my brain inserted mutters and whispers behind my back that never actually happened!

Something felt off when drafting this post. That’s why I kept writing it. I’ve learned to trust that instinct; it’s what’s going to give you guys a fantastic character-driven nautical fantasy novel in a few weeks. When I feel that “wrongness” I know something in my writing needs work. So I took my hands off my keyboard, went upstairs to make a fresh cup of coffee, and meditated on the experience I was trying to describe.

I found I had two conflicting reflections on my experience. I could remember the tension, the stress, the embarrassment. And I could remember laughing at myself, enjoying a communal joke with people who had their own cosplay mishaps, and being vaguely surprised that things had gone as pleasantly as they had. Knowing that I had a history of assuming the worst I could pretty easily determine that the mutterings were the false memory.

But that meant that the moment of humorous fellowship was reality.

No one had muttered or cursed or shifted impatiently or let out long sighs of frustration while I navigated the mundane obstacle course of the cash register. Not a single condescending “oh bless your heart” came out of anyone’s mouth. Instead there was friendly laughter that I initiated because I had genuinely been amused by my own forgetfulness of the familiar symbol of my cane and how much I thoughtlessly depended on it. I’d learned something interesting about myself, and others, and we’d all appreciated the uniqueness of the experience.

A lot of freshly blind people struggle with the publicity of the cane. It declares your disability for all to see, plasters “I need help” on your front and back. It can feel humiliating, especially if you’ve lived forty years with the illusion of independence that being able-bodied provides. But if you never pick up that cane you’ll never give yourself the chance to disprove all of your dreaded assumptions, all the fears fermenting in the back of your mind and actively changing how you see the world.

I don’t want to imprint false memories of rude, patronizing people into my brain when reality has the potential to be so much more fun and interesting.

I also don’t want to spend my fun cosplay outings apologizing for bumping into people, so for the sheer practicality of recognition I probably won’t try costume canes again. And being able to fold my cane makes traveling with other inconveniences like broadswords and longbows a little less frustrating. But I am grateful for both the experience I had, and the way that writing this blog post allowed me to process it. It changed me, even four months after the fact.

If you enjoyed this post then there are a couple more you should look forward to. Next month I’ll be writing more about my experience as a blind fantasy author, and the month after that I’ll be officially announcing the publication of my book. But I also have a guest post planned about disability representation in tabletop roleplaying games. And sometime in the new year I’m going to tackle the topic of long reflective canes for the blind that come in more colors than just white and red.

But for now I’d like to leave you with one final thought. If you could choose to create pleasant, or unpleasant memories, I assume you’d choose the former. So take five minutes today, pick a low-stress experience you’re not looking forward to, and try to imagine every detail of the most positive outcome possible. Like I explained in last week’s post, you can survive disappointment if the best doesn’t happen. But how it changes your anxiety into anticipation, and your perception of the real event, will be worth the time you take now to prepare.

Until next time, I am your favorite blindfluencer reminding you to always look on the dark side.

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