There is a voice inside my head. It sounds like my own. Higher pitched, but still familiar. When it speaks, I think of a girl pacing in a circle. Her hands fluttering like birds. Smoothing down her skirt, running through her hair, fingers clasping, unclasping. In the palm of each hand, two words: “What if?”
“What if they don’t like you? What if they think you’re stupid or silly or strange? What if you make a mistake while everyone’s watching? What if you can’t take it back? What if you trip and fall? What if there’s a fire? A flood? An attack?”
Paper cut to catastrophe. It is built on the bedrock of infinite imagination.
When was the voice planted? Where do its roots begin?
Maybe it comes from living on a city built over fault lines. Always shifting, shaking, threatening to break. Five years old and I’m hiding under a desk, my knees pressing into cold linoleum. “What if there’s an earthquake, class? How long do we hide?” Running home, excited, building What If kits with sticks of gum and tissues and pictures of family.
Maybe it comes from being hurt young. The not knowing what went wrong. The not knowing how to fix it. Four years old and I’m watching a white moving truck kick up dust on a quiet road. Disappearing with books and chairs and carefully wrapped dishes. With my dad. “What if he doesn’t come back?”
Maybe it comes from being hurt again. In different ways. Eighteen and I’m full of teenage cliches. Tear-stained pillows and scrawled poetry and waiting by the phone. But, he doesn’t like me. He never did. “What if no one ever does?”
Twenty-two and I’m sitting in a scratchy orange chair, holding confetti-coloured paper, and hearing new words strung together. “You have Crohn’s Disease.” Twenty-three and I’m back again. Same office, different coloured paper. “What if I don’t get better?”
Maybe it’s everything. Maybe it’s all of me. Maybe that’s why the voice gets so loud, sometimes. It’s not one girl. It’s a chorus. Every me that ever was is crying out.
What if I can’t control things?
Because, that’s what it all comes down to, really. That’s the ‘what if’ behind all of the others.
And, I know that you can’t control the things and the people around you. Sometimes, what if becomes what is, and the only control is how you respond to it.
I know this.
And, yet. The voice is still in my mind. Pacing. Ruining today by bringing up the endless possibilities of tomorrow.
“I’m feeling great, today. But, what about tomorrow? What if I’m sick again, then?”
The other day, I was having one of those moments. A good moment. A sun on your face, wind in the trees, smile on your face moment.
And, then. What if this all goes away?
I turned to my sister, my hands jumping at my sides. Frustration. “Do you ever have that voice?” I blurt. “The one that says ‘Okay, this is really great. But, what if something else happens?’”
“No.” She says. “It died a long time ago.”
“Died?” I smile. “How?”
We laugh. Loud, long.
Then, she looks away, thoughtful for a moment. “At some point, I just stopped giving it oxygen.”
I like that. Maybe that’s the key. Recognize that voice. High-pitched, but still familiar. Call it by its name. And then, move on. Cut off its air, turn your back on it. And maybe one day it will just stop talking.