What if I push the person in front of me on the train tracks? Or grandma down the stairs? What if I blurt out the first thing that comes into my head? Most people can relate to the internal voice that suggests you “jump” when you’re standing at the edge of a tall building. Just to see what happens. But most people are not their first voice. You’re your second voice. You hear an outrageous thing to do or say echoing in your head, and almost immediately, your second voice has assessed the situation and suggests otherwise.
It’s an evolutionary thing. Survival of the fittest. A caveman enters a cave to sleep overnight and thinks of the worse case scenario. “What if a hungry lion walked in here?” The caveman assesses the situation and prepares as well as he can. Where are my exits? Maybe make some sort of weapon? Or perhaps, leave and find elsewhere.
This adaptation has survived in us, but the threat of being eaten by a lion has gone down slightly… 21st Century dangers are now social. You’re at a party. What’s the worse case scenario? You stab everyone? Punch the pregnant lady in the stomach etc.. You assess the situation and in a momentary glimpse, realise this is bad idea and instead you continue to drink beer with Susan from marketing who’s telling you about her kids.
“What if” is not only a Stanislavskian technique for actors, it’s a natural thought pattern. Now here’s the tricky thing; What if you can’t control the ‘what ifs’?
As Phillip Larkin once said “They fuck you up your Mum and Dad, they don’t mean to but they do”. Long story short: I ended up homeless. Not on the streets, but living out of a bag, constantly worrying about shelter, food, money, while also going to school. I was drowned in a sea of ‘what ifs’. What if I can’t find a place to stay tonight? What if I can’t eat? This lasted a few years until I went to University, where I had accommodation, a loan for food and various essentials, etc. I was back to ‘normal’ life if you like. I no longer lived in fear. But my brain had adapted to a way of survival which stuck with me for years, and is still today rooted deep in my psyche.
Maybe it’s the fear of ending back on the streets with nothing, but I now can’t stop thinking about everything all the time. I rarely live in the moment, and instead my thoughts are always days, weeks, months ahead of my body, crippled by future possibilities of things going wrong, and thus, I meticulously plan for them to happen, so that I am always safe. Always working. Always fed.
Many years later, I went to see a therapist who told me I had anxiety, specifically rumination. Which means everything I see or think about becomes a spider diagram, and all the separate legs in turn become spider diagrams, like an ever-lasting firework of spiders, until I’m cocooned in a web of unanswerable questions about future events.
A friend suggested I seek help after revealing my suicidal tendencies. I would never act on them. But I thought about it all the time, as a possibility to quieten the noise in my head. When she told me to get help, I got angry. My way of thinking kept me alive during tough times. It made me who I am today. And anyway, I am the one people look to whenever something goes wrong, because they think i’m great in an emergency, when really, I’ve already thought about this outcome weeks before.
But she convinced me to see someone. There’d be no harm talking to someone. She also told me something that stuck with me. If someone has a broken leg, they go to fix it. It’s no different to a broken brain. The only difference is we can’t see it hidden away in our skull. The brain is an incredibly complex organ, with many ways to break and many different symptoms.
After discussing what I thought was a normal thinking pattern and my suicidal daydreams, my therapist suggest i do CBT. So I did, and now I can ride a motorbike. How is that going to help?! (Niche joke: CBT means Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which helps to deconstruct negative thought patterns. It also means Compulsory Basic Training which you need to do if you want to ride a motorbike. See what I did there?)
Since receiving the help I desperately needed, I am happy and in control. My anxiety will never truly go away. I still have my bad days. People sometimes don’t understand why I spend all day sulking in the corner. It’s OK if you don’t understand. We’re all a bit different. What if you need a little mental health care? What if you know someone who needs it? What will you do?