Saturday, June 09, 2012

Recognising Catastrophe

These days the news from Egypt is pretty depressing for just about everyone. Voters are expected to choose soon between two candidates who are not the first choices of most of the voters, and who are fairly diametrically opposed. There is Dr. Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who terrifies all the voters who worry about Egypt turning into another Iran, while opposing him is Hosny Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, who claims that everything will be different if he is elected president, but most people sort of doubt that. Faced with two miserable choices, everyone is seeing disaster everywhere they look.

Some of us make a habit of seeing disaster in everything and I'm one of those people, oddly enough. "Catastrophizing" is a psychological term for the act of seeing the worst case scenario in every situation, and when I was a grad student it was something that I would be reprimanded for by my clinician friends as being maladaptive. I had no idea it had a name because it was just how I dealt with things.  I've catastrophized all my life. As a child I would lie awake at night and wonder how I would manage if I were to wake up in the morning and not find my parents there to care for me. Whenever I attempted something new, applying to university for example, I would spend hours imagining that I would not be accepted and think of what it would mean to my life, how would I manage to make a living, and so on. Of course, I did get accepted, but life was always coming up with new challenges to give me something to worry about.

It was when I was in grad school that one of my friends called me on my habit, gave it a name, and told me that it was a really bad thing to do. To be quite honest, I wasn't really convinced. I'd been looking at worst case scenarios all my life and a habit like that is hard to change. But when I looked up the pattern, I noticed that catastrophizing was something that was supposed to lead to a sense of inability, worthlessness and so on. But in my experience my assumption of catastrophe in every situation had led me to explore all the possibilities of what could go wrong and as many of the possible solutions as I might be able to imagine. Rather than paralyzing me, it pushed me to explore the possible futures that I might face and to try to figure out how I would deal with them.

When I was only about twelve I read about the epidemics that swept through Europe decimating the population in the Middle Ages. I became fascinated with the Black Death, probably to a certain level of concern from my parents. But I learned about the causes, the cures, the effects on the political systems and economies of Europe along the way. When we decided to move to Egypt, I took an entire series of first aid and CPR courses from St. John's Ambulance in Toronto and threw myself (quite literally) into a Bronze level lifesaving course at the neighbourhood pool. I had an idea from my travels here about the general level of first aid in Egypt in the late 80's (like nonexistent) and was going to be prepared for the worst case scenario, which in this case was needing this knowledge. And I did need it. A month after we moved here, with my training I was able to recognise and deal with my husband's  heart attack. We got him to a cardiologist and into ICU immediately, postponing my widowhood by a good twelve years. I don't want to think about all the times that the first aid training came in handy: broken arms, choking victims, a visiting child who had a crowbar fall on his head from a neighbouring construction name it, it happened at our house. People used to joke that the catastrophes happened around me because I knew how to deal with them and how to get people the care that they needed to survive them.

As I've grown older, my catastrophizing has become a good and faithful friend. When the bird flu broke out and began spreading, I was worried for my African Grey parrots so I learned all I could about the vectors, the signs, the problems...and I learned that parrots don't get it. By examining the catastrophe I realised that it wasn't really a catastrophe, no matter what the press said. I did have to slaughter my chickens when bird flu broke out at a chicken farm near me, but no people got sick at all and we were well provided with chicken soup for some time. Some research on swine flu also reassured me that I was highly unlikely to perish from that as well. When life turned interesting in Egypt during January 2011, I assured my children that I would be fine where I was, and although events were at times very frightening, albeit more for the people in the center of the city than for us out in the villages, I had no intention of evacuating. Instead I threw myself into finding out as much as possible about what was going on, what possible risks might be, what possible outcomes might other words, what were the worst possible scenarios.

I've continued my preoccupation with trying to prepare for catastrophe for the past year and a half. I have no input into what might happen in Egypt. Due to a wonderfully weird bureaucratic glitch, I don't have my Egyptian citizenship despite having been married to an Egyptian, being mother to two Egyptians, and having lived here for almost 25 years, and I can't even vote. It's pretty frustrating although the thought of having to choose between two totally unwanted alternatives is not terribly appetising.  I wish I could really say that I've gained some understanding of what is happening in Egypt right now, of what we can expect, but I can't. I'm watching bemused like everyone else, wondering how on earth we got here. I have my own ideas of what would be the greater catastrophe for Egypt: Morsi for president or Shafik...but even that has variables that I can't predict. I don't know how invested the military is in seeing that Shafik win the election, what they will do to ensure that, how they would respond if Morsi won, or what the reaction would be if Shafik wins and people feel that the elections are a total sham.

There are times when imagining the worst case scenarios just can't really do justice to reality.  Do I feel incapacitated, frozen, unable to make decisions or act? Not really. I am frustrated, worried, and do feel that way too much is hanging in the balance. Am I about to take off and leave? No. None of my worst case scenarios include my leaving Egypt. I love my farm, my neighbours, my animals and my life here. I'd say that my absolute worst case scenario involves me not being able to move around Egypt freely and being stuck out here...and as far as I'm concerned that isn't a bad scenario at all.

As I was thinking about all of this, quite serendipitously one of my children's friends posted a link to an excellent New Yorker article on the internet. Entitled Failure And Rescue, this article suggests that life is unpredictable, but that how we face our catastrophes determines how much we succeed.  He uses the story of surgery that almost went terribly wrong but ended up in success because people were aware of the possibilities of problems, recognised the signs and were able to deal with them. Sometimes catastrophizing is an adaptive trait.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani