“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
I suspect that Tale of Two Cities’ opening line is a pretty apt description of most people’s lives. I certainly is of mine. Drama has always found me like a homing pigeon. and I’m pretty certain that “what if” were among my first words.
They say worry is a relentless scavenger. It’s an insidious little thing that crawls around your mind, feasting on whatever it finds. And it finds plenty. At any given moment, your head is host to a whole variety of negative possibilities that ‘could’ happen. In most areas of our life, we’re uber reasonable. We’re self-aware. We can laugh at ourselves. We’re even pretty cool. But that worry thing keeps real peace of mind on hold.
“Worry gives a small thing a big shadow.” Swedish Proverb
Are some of us just born worriers? Does stress come attached to life experiences? Yes — and yes. I’m an heir to legendary anxiety. My parents were worriers to the max, and an array of possible disasters was always on the menu. Could it be that we, like many people, have autonomic nervous systems that seem always to be higher than the average bear? Studies have shown that some of our brains are more wired for worry than others. Great. We can buy a lot of stuff on Amazon but a new brain? Nada
Experiencing trauma gives constant stressing a step up. Been there, done that. Traumatic experiences reset ‘normal’, and raise thoughts about what could happen to the Olympic level. Once encountering that dark side, we can’t take anything for granted ever again. Going forward, everything has a question mark assigned to it and a panic button ready and waiting.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I think my first wake-up call came the day I arrived home from school as a high school freshman to an empty house and a ringing phone. The person on the other end offered condolences on my brother’s death – but not the one who’d die a few years later. No, their call was about my other brother who, unbeknownst to me, had been hit by a car and was in very serious condition. My terrified parents had raced, to the hospital with no time for a note, leaving me in a vacuum to wonder what had happened. That brother today is a father and grandfather but on long ago fall day, trauma visited us all.
I’m no stranger to panic attacks. They’ve dogged me for years and anyone who’s had one, knows how it feels to have your body hijacked. All of a sudden, you’re breathless, dizzy and feeling doomed. Your heart is out of control and you think you are, too. But once again, you’re being conned by your brain. Oh, that brain of ours.
“Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear.” Corrie ten Boom
For the most part, having a good imagination is a pretty good asset for a creative. It’s helped me render award-winning design, and write imaginative copy. But it can also conjure up the craziest disasters a mind can imagine and I’m a champ at spinning scenarios to titanic proportions in a nanosecond. Sometimes they are run of the mill fear projections like driving, flying, and other traditional things. But the problem comes when they involve those I love.
My grandchildren have a starring role in my life. It’s only when they are passengers on my obsessive runaway train of thought that it becomes a problem. And last week, my nightmare worry was about the teeniest. This little dude was born with boundless love, expansive innocence and is gorgeous to boot. Stranger danger means nothing to him; everyone is a friend. That particular night thoughts of his vulnerability and trust triggered an ear worm of worry with no off switch. The more I tried to free it, the more it adhered to every vision.
“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” said Piglet. “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh, after careful deliberation.
A dear friend and clinical therapist, reminds me that ‘what if’, if framed right, can be a positive way of thinking. If each time a catastrophe mind movie sends us to Neverland, we use ‘what if’ in a different way, it could make all the difference. What if I DID take that flight and finally saw Italy again? It’s not an easy assignment, but positive ‘what if’s’ can start to shrink that monster under the bed to a manageable dust ball.
Just telling someone about our freaky worries can be scary, even embarassing especially when others seem like they have it all together. Putting our ‘crazy’ thoughts into words not only exposes what bumps in the night but can also reveal traumas beneath. Worse, what if they were prophetic? Yet, psychologists tell us that the only way to let go of the things that gnaw at us is to dig through them and shrink them down to size.
They say 85% of the things we worry about never happens. If, one day one of them does, not one of your worries could have avoided it anyway. Every time you hear a police siren, a firetruck, a phone ringing, your kid goes out the door, your loved one gets in a car— you worry. Yet, at the end of the day, that siren didn’t involve them. The phone call was another robo ring. Their car pulls safely back in the driveway. I think of that often, knowing how I worried about my husband on the road every day. Affectionately dubbed “Crash” by my bestie, he didn’t of an accident on the highway but an embolism in our house. Who knew?
“Life is what happened – when the ‘what if’s’ didn’t.” Jodi Picoult
Some of our biggest monsters live only in our heads. The undertow of anxiety is more turbulent than any ocean. What if’s make the world an even scarier place to live than we know it is. No matter how creative any of our worry scenarios, how hypervigilant we are or how agile our mental exertions, we can’t change a damn thing that’s meant to happen. That doesn’t mean that if or when something happens, it still won’t shake you to the core. I know now that I could not have changed the outcome of the night I came home to find my guy had left this world without warning. Yet, for months every ‘what if’ came at me with a vengeance. The inevitable is a pretty hard thing for all of us to accept.
“Fear is placing your faith in ‘what if’s’.”
Edward Hallowell claims that worry is a “disease of the imagination”. Well, imagine that. Negative ‘what if’ thinking makes everything so much harder than it needs to be. With a brain that’s constantly on overdrive, I totally get it. Helicopter mom and grandma that I am, I know I can’t put everyone I love in a fully padded bubble suit. (Darn!) I can’t keep any one of them safe and healthy and perfect anymore than I could keep my husband alive and well. All I can do is love them.
Just so you know, I learn from my blog posts even as I write them. I have no lock on any great enlightenment. And in most things, I rarely stick the landing. I’ve lived, worried and have had trauma more than a few times — just like you. I’m not at all perfect, as I’m sure my random tales these past two years have assured you. No matter what accidental calm and inspiration flows from my computer fingers, I’m anything but Zen.
But I’m working on it.