Predicting the Worst


On Tuesday we had one of those moments….

Ivy was on the ground pleading with Eli to roll her up in the monochrome blanket. Eli initially refused, but finally caved in and promptly (accidentally) kicked her in the mouth, reopening a recent wound in her gum. Her mouth filled with blood. I was feeding Harvey on the couch and reaching towards her to offer comfort. I barked orders at Eli to go and get a wet cloth, but she would have none of it, sputtering blood onto her dress and me. In the meantime, Eli inexplicably managed to lift up the couch and drop it onto Hudson’s foot.

Then there were two.

When I exploded in frustration and asked Eli to just find something to do, he began as well: “You don’t love me! I’m going to run away to somewhere where I AM loved!” The front door opened and then shut again firmly. I leapt out of my seat on the couch – Harvey still tenuously attached – with a crying Ivy and Hudson reaching out behind me like zombies. It turned out that the door sounds had been mere theatrics to make me think that he had left, which didn’t help my already explosive mood.

When the dust settled later (after more than a few choice expletives) I crept over to Eli to apologise for the outburst. I described to him the state of my mind at the time that I had yelled at him – the blood everywhere, wondering if I would have to take Ivy to get stitches, wondering if her adult teeth had been damaged underneath – my mind paralysed momentarily by the flood of negative possible outcomes arising from one accidental movement. When describing the scene to Dave later, I expressed my worry about the state of Ivy’s teeth again. He shrugged, “So we will deal with it if and when that does happen.”

As he spoke I suddenly remembered that my own two front teeth are broken – the result of a rather unfortunate incident when I was nine. We were dressed and ready for school, my younger sister grabbed the wet mop and began chasing me around the house. I took a corner too quickly, slid on the shiny floor and landed – face first onto the tiles. When I rose from the ground, bruised and crying, I felt something strange and jagged in my swollen mouth. The two inner corners of my front teeth were absent. A gaping, triangular gap in the centre of my (vanished) smile. I scrambled around to retrieve the fragments but it was a fruitless search. I remember having to go to school that morning and refusing to open my mouth to say a word, so embarrassed was I of my tainted visage.

These days, no one has ever guessed that the teeth aren’t ‘real’, thanks to a stellar and immediate reconstruction effort by our family dentist. My life has hardly been adversely affected by the loss except for some minor initial pain and the inconvenience… and a sleepless night before my wedding as I was convinced that somehow the caps would fall off just in time for the special day. They didn’t.

It turns out that the panic and anxiety of predicting the worst in a stress-filled moment doesn’t take into account the actual reality of our response and adjustment to an unfortunate situation when it does happen. Human beings are resilient. We bounce back from incredible setbacks and tragedies. The stories I catch myself spinning, though, can be bleak and dark – editing in only the negative elements of the future.

Apparently predicting negative outcomes when faced with uncertainty is actually a function of our brain wiring. According to Dr Srini Pillay (Psychiatrist and Brain Researcher), a study showed that “75% of people in uncertain situations erroneously predicted that bad things would happen”. In a podcast interview with Unmistakable Creative, he blew my mind with his insights about the brain, about the importance of focusing on resilience, and the illustrations he gave of current studies into behaviour.

The good news is that these initial panicky thoughts don’t have to be included in the narrative. Now, when they swirl into the stress vortex, I try to note their existence, pause to consider the message, then move on. Of course, there are always those moments when it all becomes too much and I explode anyway, but thankfully, the ultimate story that ends up being crafted is not one of a hopeless, anxious future… but of resilience, hope and realism.

I’m definitely still learning this process. I catch myself catastrophising all the time, but having the mental weapons now to move through that initial response is so helpful. This week has been a huge test in itself as we have learned of a number of new health challenges facing those in our family. Life sure isn’t easy, but I am reminded of a powerful quote that I read in Nicole Connor’s timely piece – ‘The Avoidance Crisis’:

“The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

We are doing our best to live by this mantra, to face the difficulties of life head on, and to learn to tell a story that breathes triumph rather than echoes of failure.  One step at a time.

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