The Dreadful What-Ifs
by Donna L. Scrafano
Oh, what we do to ourselves by attempting to anticipate the future! During the years I worked as a Human Services professional, I often advised clients to relieve themselves of the “what-ifs”—those annoying, self-doubting questions of what may or may not happen, questions that cause us to worry about a particular situation that may simply never end up being real. I would tell clients that such worrying was a waste of time because it “only makes it seem like we are doing something.” The reality is, however, that the stress and anxiety of being preoccupied with what-ifs can often have damaging effects on our physical health.
As a young person in my twenties, I did a lot of “what-ifing,” so much so that I once found myself arriving at the doctor’s office with heart palpitations and breathing into a brown paper bag because I was hyperventilating. The doctor said I was having what at the time was called a “panic attack,” but I was certain that there had to be something wrong with my heart. I refused to believe that the symptoms were just due to having “bad nerves,” another phrase used in the ’70s to describe what we now refer to as anxiety. You see, being young, I thought I was Superwoman and could handle anything. Therefore, off to a heart specialist I went. After another battery of tests, I was again informed that my heart was good and that it was indeed a panic attack I had suffered.
Throughout my twenties I continued to have little episodes of these palpitations, and once I finally accepted that I was not Superwoman and was indeed suffering from emotional stress, I decided to seek counseling. Counseling helped me to understand what the emotional basis for these episodes was, and this experience was one of the catalysts that led me into a career in Human Services.
During my time as a Human Services provider, I applied not only my educational background to assist individuals but also the perspective of my own personal experience. I once operated a women’s group and titled one of the sessions “The Dreadful What-Ifs.” I was able to incorporate the exercise of removing the stress-causing what-ifs from my life for a very long time.
Fast forward 40 years. I now provide caregiver services to my father, who turns 90 this year. For the most part I do it solo, though I have supports in place, such as an Adult Day Program and a private Certified Nursing Assistant. Without such supports I honestly would not be able to do it. My father is very dependent, and he grows more frail each day. Inevitably the what-ifs have crept back into my mind and my life. What if he falls again? What if he becomes bedridden? What if I die before him? What if his money runs out? What if I just can’t do it anymore?
In addition to caring for my father, I also must manage the family home and its full acre of land. Me, who longs to return to well inside city limits, with an acre of land! Go figure. And the what-ifs about the house and the property are daunting as well. On top of all that, there is the stress of dealing with a couple of individuals who do next to nothing to help yet have a lot to say about what I should be doing and how I should be doing it. Ever notice how often it is those who do the least who say the most?
So the stress is back and with it have come the same physical reactions. When you are 64 years old and you get rapid heart palpitations, the need for stress reduction is not the first thought that comes to mind. Nonetheless, your body may still react to severe stress as it did when you were younger. Again, I had to remind myself that I am still not Superwoman and that I needed to take a look at the what-ifs that were threatening to overwhelm me yet again.
Luckily I have friends who are still providing therapy and are willing to assist. So I attend therapy for a tune-up, pump up my care of myself, walk three miles a day instead of two, read self-help books, work on my spirituality, and fight off “the dreadful what-ifs” with every ounce of energy I have.
Art curated by Tim Mossholder with artists Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon (OR).
Donna began her journey in Human Services in 1983. During the next 35 years she held various positions and formally retired in 2018. She writes on an array of social issues. Donna's relaxation time includes walking her Lab, Roxy, having fun with her seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, writing for Silver Sage, spending time with friends and family. Her last full-time position was providing care to her father. Since that has ended, Donna is taking the time to invest in her own self care and interests.