It Could Happen, You Know

Brené Brown says vulnerability is a good thing, so let’s talk about my mental health.

I have an anxiety disorder. My imagination gets me in trouble; it’s vivid and unrelenting and, occasionally, quite grim. I’m truly gifted at the game of What If.

My anxiety has gotten markedly worse since my mom fell backward down a flight of stairs and broke her neck last October. She’s fine now, other than sporting a wicked scar and losing some range of motion. But I’m still a bit fixated on her fall, because it’s a variation of one of my recurring What Ifs—and it actually happened: 

“What if, while home alone, one of our girls slips down the stairs and breaks her neck or cracks open her head? And what if she left her cell phone upstairs, so she has no way to call for help?”

That might sound like a run-of-the-mill worry, but my brain is enough of a jerk to come up with a slow-motion play-by-play of what could happen and, even worse, what the result would look like. It’s horrifying, and if I don’t quickly find something to divert my attention, those images will just keep looping. Most of the time, singing the SpongeBob Squarepants theme song to myself does the trick. I know that’s a ridiculous coping mechanism, but it works (usually) and it’s a whole lot healthier than consuming an entire package of Oreos.

My most recent What Ifs include, but are not limited to, the following topics: my dad’s cancer; finances; car accidents; the unlikely event of a water landing; bridges; thunderstorms above the treeline; bungee jumpers; murderers; mystery smells; undercooked meat; cliffs; my terrible memory; being electrocuted; driving (that’s a brand new, particularly irritating one); power tools; retirement; parenting; spousing; moving heavy furniture; and the interaction between 15-year-old boys and alligators and/or lions (that’s not as random as it sounds, but it’s a long story).

Some of my imagined scenarios are sort of reasonable, but a whole, whole lot of them are laughably implausible. Such as:

“What if I just ran over a small child?”

For real. If I’m driving through a neighborhood and I run over something—like the curb—I have to look back to make sure I didn’t hit a human being. Even though I know it was the just the curb. Because what if there was a pigtailed four-year-old sitting at that curb playing jacks or drawing flowers on the sidewalk? And what if I just ran over her?

I use up a lot of energy worrying about such things.

Here’s another one:


My Driveway, a Sinkhole-in-Waiting

The photo doesn’t do it justice, but I’m convinced there’s a sinkhole under our driveway. Jack says it’s not a sinkhole; it’s ants. Now, think about that for a minute. If we have enough ants that their little underground highways are causing our driveway to fall apart, we are in serious trouble, and Jack’s attempt to relieve my anxiety didn’t help at all, because now I’m picturing a sinkhole filled with ants.

I’m only sort of kidding. It could happen, you know.

All right. That’s PLENTY of vulnerability for one day. But please read these next two paragraphs carefully.

My anxiety is not (usually) debilitating, I don’t suffer panic attacks, and today I can laugh at my brain. But I can’t do that every day. Please know I’m not making light of anyone else’s struggle. There are some forms of anxiety that are just never funny, and if you’re close to someone who has anxiety, it’s not at all helpful to laugh—unless he or she is laughing, too. People with anxiety aren’t just “worrywarts.” Anxiety is real and it’s difficult and it’s illogically logical, and we’re not doing it on purpose to irritate you. Also, telling us to “just stop worrying about it” won’t do any good. Please be patient with us. Let us talk about our concerns for the umpteenth time. Getting that crap out of our heads can be incredibly therapeutic, and sometimes it takes more than one round of spewing. (Confession: Even though I have anxiety, I don’t always deal with other people’s anxiety all that well. So this is a good reminder for me, too.)

Now, if it’s YOU who’s dealing with the anxiety, you aren’t alone. And anxiety and depression are closely linked, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed and hopeless talk to someone. If you’re afraid to reach out to someone you know, call 800-273-8255 or use Lifeline’s chat. The world needs you, so don’t give up.


  1. Jess Townes   •  

    I also look back to make sure I didn’t run over a small child anytime I hit anything with my car. I also have back up cameras in both vehicles and don’t trust them to tell the truth. Surely a small child is hiding just below the view of the camera.

    • Kelley   •     Author

      Haha! I’m so glad I’m not alone in this!

  2. Laurie   •  

    Not alone, sister. I could write a book. Someday I might. Although it’s no laughing matter, I laughed through the entire post…..because as painful as it is, it IS illogically logical. Now, if we could just keep those small children out of the streets, and if the bridges would stop collapsing as I cross, and if…. well, you know… maybe a book someday! 🙂 And for the record, I hum praise songs, not Spongebob… I don’t even know the theme to Spongebob… but maybe it would work better? 🙂

    • Kelley   •     Author

      I actually only know the first and last lines: “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SpongeBob Squarepants! . . . SpongeBob Squarepants,SpongeBob Squarepants, SpongeBob Squarepants, SpongeBob Squarepants!” Confession: I first learned this trick as a member of Morning Star’s Praise Band. If we were singing something particularly meaningful and I started to choke up, I’d sing the SB song in my head while simultaneously singing lyrics like, “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free…” Pretty terrible, eh? 🙂

  3. Library Heather   •  

    Like you, my anxiety is not (usually) debilitating, but my brain’s ability to What If is truly impressive. My fear of accidentally hitting a child while driving has decreased significantly now that I’m in grad school and drive mostly on highways to get to campus rather than driving to my previous job on windy rural back roads, where there were always a fair number of Amish children in darkish clothes walking to or from their farms or neighborhood farms on any given day. Things I’m anxious about but still do: driving (especially on highways where large tractor trailers want to kill me), air travel (must have window seat to watch wing of plane so it doesn’t fall off – it’s OK to laugh at this one), going over bridges, being on a campus again (worried about disgruntled shooters, which is not so irrational in this day & age.)

    Other random What Ifs that come and go: tree falling on house, tornadoes, ectopic pregnancy, breast cancer (no family history, and I do my monthly self-exam and annual mammogram, but still), husband dying (of something random, his health is fine, and he’s not a risk taker), nephews & nieces being kidnapped, a parrot pecking out my eyes (this last one is completely irrational and I can laugh at it, but I still don’t go near parrots, although I love all other birds).

    • Kelley   •     Author

      Wait, so… as long as you’re watching the wing of an airplane, it won’t come off? That is GREAT to know, and you’ll have to start traveling with me, now. Mkay? Seriously – thanks for sharing your What Ifs, Heather. I love finding people with whom I can have Me-Too Moments. (Also, for some reason your comment got pushed into my spam filter, so I apologize for not responding sooner.)

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