This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Sarah
I was editing the podcast when the first earthquake happened. Meagan and I had just finished up an Independence Day recording session (#summerworkingmomlife). I thought the dog had jumped up and landed on the bed where I was sitting, but when I looked up from my computer he was lying still, staring back at me (he probably though I’d rocked the bed!). From where I live near the coast in Orange County, about 170 miles south of Ridgecrest, CA, where the 6.4M quake originated, it was just a hint of a tremor, about what you feel when a big truck lumbers by your house.
Bryan had the kids at a 4th of July carnival (see also: how we still feel about fun) and they didn’t feel it at all. After obsessively refreshing the Los Angeles Times Twitter feed for about an hour, I was able to ditch the earthquake-related jitters and get back to celebrating the 4th. We even watched fireworks from Bryan’s office on the 10th floor of a building in Newport Beach and I didn’t give our venue choice a passing thought.
When the 7.1M struck the same region around 8:20 Friday evening, Bryan and I were on the couch watching The West Wing (we’re re-watching the whole series). The older two kids were in their rooms, awake and reading; Violet was already asleep. When the rolling tremors stopped we went upstairs to talk to the kids. They knew what had happened, seemed more surprised than anxious, and didn’t appear fazed.
After the second, larger quake I had a much harder time moving through the stages of comprehension and anxiety–the ones that start with “Holy Cow, the EARTH is moving” and move on through “Wow, that was an earthquake” and “Whoa, what if that had been bigger? Would we have been prepared?”, finally landing on “Okay, we’re safe, it was centered pretty far from here, and everyone’s okay.” Instead of progressing through these mental states like I had the previous morning, on Friday night I got stuck. Stuck refreshing Twitter. Stuck clicking on sensational headlines. And stuck in the What if stage.
Maybe you’ve been stuck there before; it certainly isn’t limited to natural disasters. What if my birth goes terribly wrong? What if my child drowns? What if my marriage isn’t strong enough? What if I lose my job? What if we go to war? What-if thinking isn’t shy or sensible; it’s audacious, imaginative, and uninhibited. It can take the scantest piece of evidence and build a sensational case for itself, a spectacular movie of the mind worthy of Richard Gere’s “Razzle Dazzle” number from Chicago!. When you’re stuck in a pattern of What-if thinking, you can’t see the facts for the feathers and fur.
Catastrophizers, you know what I’m talking about.
Coming up on 48 hours later, I’m doing much better. The likelihood of another earthquake is the same as it was when I sat fidgeting on the couch Friday night, making Bryan research preparedness tips and manically clicking developing news stories on my phone. It’s the same as it was Saturday, when I put on a brave face and spent the morning at sea level wondering about tsunamis, silently memorizing the path to higher ground. The threat (or lack thereof) remains, but I seem to have mostly moved through to that final stage of “Okay, we’re safe, it was centered pretty far from here, and everyone’s okay.”
I wish I could have gotten there within seconds of the earth’s quieting, like my husband. Or within an hour or two as I had the day before. I wish I hadn’t snapped at Violet when she bumped the restaurant table or at Reid when he accidentally knocked a picture frame down, revealing the jumpiness I was working so hard to cover up for their sakes.
But the day and a half I spent stuck in that yucky place imagining the worst was instructive, too. I’m lucky to have a partner who loves science and statistics. We make a productive if humorous pair in times like these, with me lobbing wild scenarios at him like fat beach balls and him deflating them one by one with a combination of hard data and “honey, chill” reality checks. We also recognized that our disaster preparedness plans were due for an update, especially now that we have kids who spend more time on their own or out of the house. We actually unpacked our Earthquake Backpacks, purchased a while back but never inspected, and added a few things to them.
As it turns out, my personal prescription for moving through a hardcore catastrophizing episode is a combination of things. First, talking through real risk versus “crazy thoughts” (my label :)) with someone who is patient enough not to ridicule the crazy and interested enough to provide the facts. Next, taking action on a few concrete things that do make me feel safer and more prepared. And finally, waiting it out, trusting that the heady gloom and uncomfortable thought patterns will subside on their own.
What works for you might be totally different. It might be total distraction in the form of trashy television or a juicy novel. It might be prayer or mediation, yoga or running, writing down your fears or making an appointment with a therapist. Whatever it is, it has very little to do with the actual threat and much more to do with your ability to enjoy life in its presence. In its own way, this too is a radical, audacious act of What-if thinking: What if we could teach our kids to duck and cover without living in fear that they’ll need to? What if we accept that the ground under our feet might shift at any moment and choose to stand on it anyway?
What if we let ourselves believe–truly believe–that it’s all going to be okay?