What Happened to My Health When I Stopped Asking, 'What If?'

Kat Harrison
illustration of young woman standing on broken stairs leading up to sky

Have you ever played the mind-bending game of “what if?” It goes a little something like this: What if I leave the garage door open? What if I don’t go grocery shopping now and then I get a debilitating, all-weekend migraine? What if I never make a difference in this dark world? What if I’m never good enough? 

The “what if?” game is the mental chutes-and-ladders of what goes on inside my head a majority of the time I’m awake. A lot of my anxiety in adulthood stems from the uncertainty of my health, which really makes it impossible to plan things and follow through when I want to. But on the flipside, in the slightest of silver-lining sheen, the “what if?” game gives me incredible foresight, doesn’t allow me to procrastinate, and usually prompts me to brainstorm all of the possible outcomes of an event or moment so I’m moderately prepared for when something goes awry. And guess what? Things always happen. The “what if?” game is not foolproof, I’ve learned.

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A lot of the time, I keep the “what if?” thoughts to myself. I go through my day seemingly plagued by their presence, feeling them in the back of my throat like I’ve swallowed a handful of scratchy peanut shells – so even if I don’t speak them into existence, they’re always there weighing me down like I’m draped in velvet and despair.

Last December, I had a small mass removed from my right middle ear. The surgery was more complicated than my medical team and I expected, as the miniature mass was attached to the back of my eardrum. If you’re not wholly versed in ear anatomy, you can imagine what a narrow space this is (kind of like “Honey! I shrunk the attic!” but in dollhouse proportions). And since I’ve already had a multitude of aggressive procedures done on that exact same area, there is some hefty baggage in the form of scar tissue. So at the end of the day, my surgeon did what he could, but given his more conservative approach, he had to resort to doing some of the procedure “blind” – and thus, not fully knowing if they removed it all.

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The plan moving forward was to give me about 10-11 months to fully let that area heal. I would then follow through with another MRI to find out if there was anything abnormal on the scan. Normal me would’ve launched into a series of “what if’s?” for all of 2018 but rogue me wanted to try something a little bit different, a little proverbial off-roading if you will. So I asked myself this one question: What if I don’t think about what’ll happen? What if I just live and make plans and keep living like everything will be OK? And so I did.

And here we are. The scan is two weeks behind me. I went into my results appointment feeling light and fluffy and covered in figurative glitter like an inedible disco pancake. And this is what unfolded…

The mass has returned.
We are not sure of the damage to my hearing bones.
The surgery needs to happen soon.
My surgeon will have to be more aggressive in removing it in its entirety and therefore, will be excising a large chunk of my eardrum in order to do so.

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The only available appointment was December 20 so all of my holiday plans… poof!

Are you breathing after reading that? Because I definitely wasn’t when I first heard it. I didn’t prepare for this. I had never asked myself the “what if?”. I didn’t allow myself to go there. I lived and basked in the land of sweet denial and gosh, it was kind of lovely.

So what do you do when you look at an MRI of your brain and in all of the good, black areas, there is a bright (but bad) white splotch? There is no handbook for this, I thought. When I heard the news, I could barely remember my middle name. The room spun, I slightly choked on my tongue’s presence in my mouth, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. I drove home and crawled into bed and let everything come crashing down around me. I let the pieces fall and I lay there, unable to put myself back together for many days. I let my heart break. I let myself feel the loss. Why didn’t I prepare myself for the possibility of this?

But now, after I’ve had a little distance from the sheer velocity of that moment, as well as some time to work out the logistics, my heightened emotions have crawled back to a level of relative normalcy. I can do this, I tell myself every morning when I rise and every night before I sleep. I can get through this. I can move this mountain. I will not perish. I will not let it win.

So I’m ready to keep going. And I may or may not asking myself “what if?” along the way, because truly, the answers to those questions may or may not come true. You can’t change what happens to you, but you can choose how you react. So here I am, reacting.

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