Our thoughts have a lot of power. They come out of nowhere. They say things that may not be true. And if we don’t rein them in, they make up stories that take us to crazy places.
On top of that, our bodies believe the tales our minds have to tell. Apparently, our nervous systems either freeze, take flight, or get ready to fight with the right kind of threat.
To be honest, I tell myself lots of stories. My imagination generates situations that haven’t happened and most likely will never happen.
These thoughts often involve my family. When I am not with them, I am often picturing them and praying for their safety. If I let my mind wander too much, it makes up scary scenarios.
It gets worse when I add to that an app I have on my phone.
It’s called, “Find My Friends.” It shows me where family members are with the touch of an icon. Sometimes I use it to see where my son is when he is on tour with a band. Or I may confirm one of my daughters is safely back at her house after a visit. The benefits of locating those I love speak for themselves.
Yet this tracking device has drawbacks. Lots of times, seeing someone’s location makes me wonder and worry: “Why are they at that place? How come they’re not home yet? Has something bad happened?”
One evening last month, I opened that app to see if my husband Scott was almost home. And I noticed that my daughter, Carina, was at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. My heart started to pound. My brain began to scramble. My mind was trying to fill in that huge gap of ignorance: I knew not why she was there but I had my guesses.
In the next two hours I told myself three different stories and morphed through multiple states of mind and body.
♦ Story number one: “It’s 7:30 PM so this cannot be good. It must be that my daughter and her husband had to take their daughter to the emergency room! What has happened? What’s wrong with my granddaughter, Callaway! Why didn’t Carina tell me she was headed to the hospital?”
“Breathe, Breathe,” I told myself. “Pause and practice a non-reactive response. Let the panic pass. There’s no need to call or text her yet.”
The gap between my fictional catastrophe and what was actually happening was as wide as the miles between us.
Honestly, I was shocked at myself for how quickly I’d escalated the danger in my mind. And embarrassed that I could find my daughter’s whereabouts so easily. She didn’t need to be reminded in my panic that I was tracking her with my app.
I reminded myself, “You don’t know if this story is true.” True, I’d used the app in the past to confirm what I already knew. My daughter’s icon was in that very spot at downtown Nashville’s Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital countless times in the last three years. Since their daughter was born, she and her husband had shown up on the map at that location a lot.
Their emergency room visits began on Callaway’s third day of life. After nearly dying, Calla received her genetic disease diagnosis.
Later, after months of metabolic crises and then her liver transplant at 1 year old, she began a new tale of suffering, healing, and recovery. Add to that the ensuing hospital stays and tests and check-ups and I became quite familiar with that hospital. No doubt, I had good reason to be telling myself the frightful story.
Except that, at 3 years old now, my granddaughter had been steady, stable and thriving.
“Was she really rushed to the hospital tonight?” The tension in my neck said I’d better get the story straight.
♦ Story number two: “Ok ok, she’s just picking up Callaway’s prescription medication, the one that suppresses her immune system so she won’t reject her transplanted liver. Sometimes it’s convenient to go to the in-hospital pharmacy at night, right? Yes, that’s it. Carina has just dropped by to get some meds while Calla’s daddy gets her ready for bed at home. Phew.”
I closed the app and pushed my phone across the table. After a few deep breaths, I pledged to check again in an hour. “I’m sure she’ll be home by then.”
♦ Story number three: It’s 8:30 PM and I have re-checked my phone to find my daughter’s icon now smiling at me from the middle of the Children’s Hospital.
“Ugh, that’s not where the pharmacy is and anyway, why would she still be there?”
The app is quite precise — I can see she’s not in the emergency room or pharmacy area but actually in the hospital section itself. “Why would she be in a regular hospital room? Why hasn’t she texted me?”
My chest was getting heavy, my nerves were jangled and vibrating. “I’ve got to call her right now to find out what is wrong!”
“Breathe,” I tell myself, “and hold on. You really don’t know if the worst is happening.”
I relaxed my shoulders, opened my fists. Let my brain shift to a lower gear.
“Wait a minute…oh yes, oh now I remember! My friend has a baby in the hospital and Carina has visited twice since he was born. That’s it! She’s visiting that newborn baby with special needs like her own child three years ago. My girl has a heart of compassion and fierce kindness that would send her back to that place which stirs her with so many memories. Yes, that’s it, Carina would definitely go in at night to support a suffering mother and child.”
The Power of Thought
I did check again at 9:30 PM to see that Carina was safely home. Two hours and three stories later, my pulse had finally slowed.
The next day, she told me of her hospital visit and holding my friend’s sweet little baby boy. I admitted to her my two hours of silent storytelling. She smiled as one well-acquainted with the practice.
But the situation was what it was. Nothing changed in the time I spent fretting and flailing. Reality remained the same though mostly unknown to me. What changed was the state of my mind and my heart, depending on the story I was telling myself.
This illustration of the power of projection, the impact of reacting with few facts, reminded me of why I am learning meditation and mindfulness.
I only see in part. A small part. New information can tell me a totally different story. Taking care to watch where my thoughts go, to notice the stories I’m telling myself, makes all the difference in my body and mind. In taking the time to breathe through the horror story, release my grip on a possible fiction, I found the space to stay present and wait, respond rather than react.
One of these days, I’ll delete that app. But until then, I promise to use it more judiciously.
For more on this, read: “Have You Noticed What You Notice?”
For more about Callaway, read: “A Mother Shares Her Daughter’s suffering”