Conversations with strangers.

In October last year, I broke my neck horse riding.

My neurosurgeon decided that forgoing surgery, I would heal organically over 3 months by wearing a ‘halo vest’ – a metal frame drilled into four sections of my skull, making it impossible to move my head and neck.

My halo is extremely visible and, I discovered, impossible for many people to ignore.

The conversations I’ve had range from the appreciated; people who have had halos themselves wanting to wish me luck in my recovery, to the upsetting; the man who accosted me while I was Christmas shopping, demanding to know how long I was in hospital for; “A week? You’re lying to me! It would have been much longer than that. I’m going to take your picture and put it on an online forum and find out more about this thing on your head…”

I have had my equestrian ability criticised; the man I met in a Thornbury antique shop who advised me that “the horse could feel you were inexperienced and anxious. You have to know how to handle such a big animal. I’m a pretty experienced rider, myself, so I’d know… ”

I have been amused; when on my first outing out of hospital at the Flemington Farmers Markets, self-conscious about how I looked and certain everyone was staring at me, a stallholder yelled “Oi! Do you get SBS with that thing?”

I have lost count of the times I have been told how lucky I am that the accident was not worse; “you’re a very lucky girl. You’ve got a guardian angel watching you.” I smile and agree (I am exceptionally lucky), but on darker days, I admit I have occasionally wondered what my guardian angel was busy doing while I was falling off the horse, unconscious and being stepped on by the large mare.

We live in a society where people sit silently among each other on crowded trains and trams, avoiding eye contact with other passengers, praying to get home undisrupted. We do our grocery shopping in silence, paying at the self-checkout, managing to avoid a conversation with anyone. 

So then, what is it about my halo that compels strangers to comment (often at length) on my health, my lifestyle, my situation? In equal measure, what is it about my halo that compels strangers to tell me intimate details about their health, their lifestyle, their past accidents and tragedies?

Working as a conversational bridge – akin to babies, dogs and engagement rings – my halo makes me an easy target for a chat, a conversation. From kids, to taxi drivers, people on trams and in restaurants…from the rude to the hilarious, to the sympathetic and the inquisitive.

More significantly though, it gives people the opportunity to talk about themselves. After people asked me about myself, I have been told stories of their own accidents and tragedies – often in great detail.

If I take anything useful from what has been a difficult three months, it is that people like to talk, need to talk.

What I once considered rude and invasive, I now understand is inherently human.

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