Paralyzed by "what if..."? How to make space for fear... and live boldy anyway
What if I end up back in the hospital? What if my husband leaves for work today and gets in a car accident? What if one of my kids needs me and I can’t get to them fast enough? What if… what if… what if…
The “What If’s” and I have known each other a long time. In fact, you might even say I used to keep an open door policy, letting them come and go as they pleased and make themselves at home for as long as they liked.
Caution and worry of the possibilities - entertaining the What If’s - isn’t all bad. It keeps us from winding up in dangerous or crazy or regret-filled predicaments. At least sometimes. But the problem, I’ve come to realize, with me treating the What If’s so hospitably is that we couldn't ever really find a healthy balance, the What If’s and I. Eventually my life became completely controlled by fear of what could happen that I avoided letting anything happen.
I’d start thinking about doing something as simple (and safe) as getting in my car and going to the grocery store and before I'd even had the chance to just be brave and head out the door and do it, the What If’s would come right on in to make their rounds, persistently circling until I was sitting back in the corner dizzy and afraid.
I can still remember the moment I finally slammed the door on the What If’s and took back control of my own life, but that’s another story for another time.
The point is, my relationship with the What If’s - and anxiety in general - has come a long way since then. They still stop by from time to time, but now I usually (not always but usually) greet them with a smile and friendly “Hi! It’s been a while.” Then kindly explain I don't have time for them to come in, I'm busy doing what I should have been doing all along… boldly living my life.
So perhaps you’ll be as surprised as I was when this past summer I didn't just get a visit from a What If. To my horror, I experienced one.
My worst case scenario
I’d spent the evening in the bathroom enduring my first bout of tummy issues since my boys had left for their week at Lake Powell. Unfortunately, unpleasant tummy issues are a normal thing for me these days. When I finally was settled into bed for the night with an episode of Star Trek as my company, I thought I was through the worst of it and I quickly fell asleep to the sounds of the Enterprise.
Then a cry in the middle of the night from my little one’s room. Followed by panic.
My already uncooperative body doesn’t respond well to middle-of-the-night interruptions - to put it mildly. Thankfully our kids are solid sleepers so it rarely happens.
Otherwise, my husband selflessly takes the night shift. But with my knight in shining armor miles and miles away, sleeping on the roof a houseboat or maybe even still awake staring into a night sky full of stars, I was on my own. With each slow step to her bedroom, I tried to keep the what if’s at bay and not imagine the worst.
It only took a few minutes to calm her down and tuck my little one back under her blankies. And somehow I made it back to bed and did the same. But by the the time I laid my head on my pillow, my body was shaking and teeth chattering. With each minute my body felt worse and worse. Despite the shivering, I was in a cold sweat. My ears rang and my face started going numb. Even though I was already laying flat in bed, I was on the verge of fainting, and honestly, I wished I would. Because the rushes of nausea were almost more than I could handle.
Nights like these happen for me, sometimes for no reason that I can tell. It usually means a few hours of my husband’s patient, loving care getting me to the bathroom, warming up my shivering body, and knowing what needs to be done to calm my muscle spasms, unsettled stomach, and panicked mind.
Every time, in the midst of the misery has always been this fear: What if this happened when I was alone? In my mind, it was a worst case scenario and a What If that refused to leave me alone.
And now there I was laying in bed miserable and alone, my dreaded nightmare playing out right before my eyes, without a clue of what to do. With a leg refusing to work and my body literally flailing, anything I could think of might as well have been on the other side of the world. The loaf of bread on the counter downstairs in the kitchen to soothe my stomach. A glass of milk to boost my blood sugar and energy. My husband who could scoop me up and tell me everything was okay.
I had no way of getting myself any of them. Any scenario of me trying to get myself what I needed seemed to end with me - unconscious or not - in a broken heap at the bottom of the stairs with no one around to help. Even the comforting sounds of Star Trek couldn’t distract me from how absolutely miserable and helpless I felt.
I rolled to my other side to try to ease the pain that was growing in my stomach and back. But it only brought on another wave of nausea. The worst part… if I did end up being sick, it would probably be in the bed or all over the carpet. My unreliable legs would never get me to the toilet in time.
I eventually, miraculously, fell asleep. And when I woke up the next morning, shaky and weak like I usually do after such a night, I at least had enough clarity to know that somehow I needed to get my crying Naomi out of bed and get us downstairs so I could eat some bread.
As my exhausted body digested the pieces of toast and full glass of milk I’d willed myself to eat, a What If so terrifying and so bold came barging to the forefront of my mind.
What if this happens again tonight?
In another time I might have completely melted right there on the spot. Sobbing and shivering in a puddle with barely enough strength left to wait for a rescue. In another time I might have let that What If get big enough and heavy enough to flatten me like a pancake and spend the next three weeks recovering from the whole ordeal. In another time I might have interrupted my husband’s vacation with his family and guiltily begged him to come home and save me.
But this time, in one surprising and empowering moment - and one that I’ve come back to many times since - I didn’t invite the What If in, but I didn’t turn it away either. I listened to what it had to say. After all, that nightmare of a disaster happening again that night seemed like I frighteningly reasonable possibility. But instead of letting myself wind up paralyzed in a corner, I answered back…
And promptly put a paper plate, a loaf of bread, and a throw up bucket next to my bed. And when my angel of a husband called to check in on me that afternoon, I bravely held the trauma and tears in. (At least it felt incredibly brave to me at the time.) What if this happens again tonight? the What If whispered again. Well, I’d already survived it once. And I’d be even more ready for it this time. So I guess… bring it on.
Do you have any What If’s knocking on your door? Or perhaps figuratively lounging around in your living room overstaying their welcome?
What if I make the big move I’ve always wanted to and the grass really isn't greener on the other side?
What if I make a big change that I think is for the best and my family disapproves or my kids freak out and maybe never forgive me?
What if I go after my dream and it ends up being a huge waste of money, time and energy?
What if I do this because it feels right and I totally embarrass myself?
What if I turn down this opportunity and it ends up being the worst mistake of my life?
What if I stop doing what I've been doing for 20 years (because it's time to claim my happiness, my health, and my life) and the sky falls?!
I learned this summer that sometimes it's not so bad to let yourself wander through the trail of What If’s so you can realize that the frightening (and sometimes ridiculous) spiral of events keeping you paralyzed always leads to the same result: Everything will be okay. Will it all turn out just like you planned or hoped? Probably not. Will it all somehow turn out? Most definitely yes… believe it or not.
So entertain the What If’s, if you must. Then look them in the eye and answer back.
Tell them - and yourself - that whatever happens, chances are you may walk away a little shaken and perhaps dehydrated (from all the crying, of course) but you'll walk away a little more confident, a lot more experienced, and undoubtedly more capable of conquering than ever. Tell them that whatever happens, chances are you'll survive and come out on the other side better than before.
And when the What If’s persist - and they usually do - I hope you’ll answer back with a What If of your own…
What if my heart is telling me to do this and I don’t?
What if I miss this chance to grow and become who I was designed to be?
What if someone needs me today and instead of being an answer to prayer, my own hesitation and self doubt take its place?
What if this one act of courage is the beginning of the brave, beautiful life I’ve been looking for all along?
What if life never gets happier, never gets brighter, and never gets better because I never let it?
What if nothing ever changes and I keep living life by default... all because I let you What If’s make the call instead of me?
That, dear friend, is far scarier and far more devastating than anything else I could possibly imagine.