What’s the worst that could happen?

A common approach to dealing with one’s fears and anxiety is to imagine a worst-case scenario. What is the worst thing that could happen if you do X? For some reason this approach doesn’t seem to work on me as I have already imagined not only the worst-case scenario but also the slightly less troublesome scenarios on a sort of sliding scale. Want to know what I’m worrying about at any given moment? Pull up a chair, I’ll make you a list.

We’ll start with this one: I have a slight car wash phobia. The car wash in Buffalo is not simply a place you go every once in a while to get your car cleaned. It’s a way of life. If you think I’m kidding, stop by a car wash in Buffalo on a sunny day in January-April. Better yet, try to drive down the main road that leads into said car wash. People around here are very serious about salt removal.

And for good reason. My last van rarely saw the inside of the car wash due in large part to my irrational phobia, and it suffered from extreme rust. When we bought the new van, hubs decided I needed to get regular washings. He signed up for the unlimited car wash club because you get to go through the express lane, and he didn’t want to wait three hours every time we came to the car wash. Whenever it needed to be cleaned, which is pretty much every day for the entire season, I politely asked hubs to take my van please and drive it through so I don’t have to. Why, what’s the problem? he asked.

What’s the problem? I’m afraid of the car wash. Obviously.

We’ve known each other for 26 years. He’s used to my laundry list of ridiculous things that send me into a panic. Bees. Parking garages. Ordering food on the telephone. Making any phone call at all for that matter. So he didn’t seem all that phased by my car wash phobia confession. Didn’t tease me about it. Took my van when he could and would make sure he was driving if we went through together. At one point he asked what it is exactly, that makes me nervous?

Me, slightly embarrassed but nevertheless pleased he seemed to be trying to understand my phobia: Everything.

How do I even attempt to explain — it’s the social construct of getting into line and negotiating exactly what needs to be cleaned on my car and how, lining the tires up perfectly on the track and then relinquishing control of the steering wheel, the claustrophobia of the actual car wash, and of course my environmental brain that can’t help but wonder how many gallons of water pump through that place all day. Oh, and then getting out of the parking lot safely and back onto the busy street while a pile up of anxious drivers in clean cars accumulates behind me.

See? Everything.

He made no fuss and continued to take my car in dutifully, until he left for three weeks. And it snowed. A lot. I had to face the demons in my mind and just go through the stupid thing by myself. So I did. After a lot of deep breaths and a quick pep talk on the way in. I even went back a second time with my son, who happens to LOVE the car wash for some strange reason. One of the things that has helped me face my anxiety is having to parent with it. I refuse to allow the panic to win when I’m with my kids. It’s not always easy, believe me, and I got super lucky to adopt two outgoing boys who aren’t afraid to ask for things or stand up for themselves.

But the experience got me thinking. Living with anxiety is a daily struggle, but there are things I can choose to control that will make it easier. For example: when it comes to socializing and making small talk, I’m — oh what’s a nice way to say this — I suck. But I’ve learned through attending conferences and my job as an admissions counselor that it is a skill one needs in life. I’ve been working on it and (hopefully) getting a bit better. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still gone to parties recently and stood awkwardly by myself staring into my glass or walked away from a conversation thinking, why the hell did I say that?

Baby steps.

I decided to do a bit of a life experiment. When sometime comes up that makes me anxious, instead of asking myself what’s the worst-case scenario, I ask myself, would you feel better/improve the situation by doing the thing currently making you anxious? The car wash still makes my heart race, but I love seeing my clean vehicle and feel better knowing I’m protecting it against rust damage. There have been times when I felt the fear creep in during a situation — say I was nervous about asking someone for help or directions, or to clarify something, and I asked myself, will the information I need make the situation better? Yes? Then ask.

There are a lot of layers in my psyche full of worst-case scenarios. I already told my oldest that he better get used to checking in as I will regularly be imagining him in a ditch on the side of the road. I can’t alter the fundamentals of my brain. But I can take small steps toward not letting my fears keep me from the good things in life, like a clean car, new friends, or instead of the worst thing — imagining the best thing that could happen.

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