31: Eighty-Five Percent

31: Eighty-Five Percent

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Eighty-Five Percent

Let us be of good cheer, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which will never happen.

~James Russell Lowell

In my earliest years my older sister and I bounced from place to place. Our parents separated when we were toddlers, so we made the rounds, staying with Grandma, with our dad, with his friends, and then back again to Grandma’s.

As if these uncertain circuits weren’t enough to disquiet even a tranquil tyke, one time I even lost the company of my sister, the closest thing I had to a security blanket. At age four I became hospitalized for several weeks with double pneumonia.

Then when we were five and six, an aunt and uncle adopted us. But my childhood continued to be peppered with predicaments. In addition to the normal childhood diseases of those pre-vaccination days — measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chickenpox — I also contracted scarlet fever, which kept me bedridden for weeks. I’d barely recovered when I had to be hospitalized again, this time for a tonsillectomy.

I became a nervous wreck. I realize now how frustrating it must have been for my adoptive parents, watching while I ran through the gamut of self-soothing behaviors. I covered all the bases. I chewed off the entire left collar of my red boucle coat. I sucked my thumb, even licking off the acrid iodine Mama painted it with. I rocked myself to sleep, banging the bed against the wall so violently that my entire family complained of lack of sleep. And, most embarrassingly for Mama, I’d huddle under my bed, shivering in fear, if visitors showed up.

Nowadays, the average parent may be better educated about the impact of childhood trauma and might seek out professional advice. Back then, though, my family hadn’t a clue. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book on baby and childcare wouldn’t even be published until I was nine. So bless their hearts . . . my adoptive parents tried every ploy they could dream up to deal with me, an abnormally anxious child, as I struggled to get through the days and the nights.

“What’s the matter with you?” Mama would demand, as I sobbed uncontrollably when she turned off the light at bedtime.

I was scared to death all the time. I didn’t know why. Nothing seemed to calm me down. Not promises of ice cream or bluffs to drop me off at a nearby police station if I didn’t like it where I was. No treat or threat succeeded in seducing or scaring me into tranquility.

In those days in our suburban Southern California neighborhood, people didn’t chauffeur children to school. We simply walked. We’d been warned to look both ways before crossing streets, and not to jaywalk. Nevertheless my heart began to pound every time I came to an intersection. What if I stepped off the curb and a car came around a corner hit me and I died? Thank heavens I only had to cross three streets to reach Bryson Avenue Elementary. If there’d been a fourth I might have made “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” column as the youngest heart attack victim ever.

By the time I turned eight and my family moved to Oregon, I’d settled into a daily routine of waking up early to enumerate the dozens of imaginary landmines I’d be called upon to sidestep if I were to live until nightfall. “What if” became my dismaying morning mantra.

Then things changed. Miss Magee, my new teacher, decided I should skip third grade because of my high reading scores. She worked with me after school to catch up on long division and multiplication. She stared down the boys who called me “Terri Termite” because I chewed my pencils. She suggested to my parents that I be given a baton for Christmas because I’d had my heart set on one for years. She let me read every book in the little three-room-schoolhouse library. She praised my book reports, gently reminding me to write on, and not between, the lines.

Most of all, she helped me to distinguish between my negative and positive thoughts. She told me that as a child she’d been afraid, too, but at her Friends Church she’d learned to believe she had an Inner Light. This Inner Light would always lead her to find positive ways of viewing the world. So she suggested that when I awoke in the morning I ask myself what wonderful things I’d be doing that day, rather than wondering “what if.”

It was hard at first to change my thinking pattern. I’d grown used to viewing each new day as yet another struggle to avoid trouble. But Miss Magee would check with me at recess, and I had to be ready with an answer when she’d ask what positive thought I’d selected for that day.

“Picking crab apples in the orchard,” I’d say. Or “Reading Dandelion Cottage.” Or “Helping Grandma shell peas.”

If I fell back on my old habit of looking for the worst possibilities, Miss Magee would remind me that when I learned my multiplication tables I’d had to practice them a lot to get them right. Now I had to practice looking for positive possibilities, over and over, until it became automatic.

Gradually, I grew more comfortable around other children and even trusted a few enough to make friends. Of course I still encountered woes. Once I caught poison oak, and once I cut my foot stepping on a piece of broken glass while wading in a creek. Though these were uncomfortable experiences, somehow I’d grown mature enough to realize that minor rashes and gashes were only that . . . minor.

Now I realize that I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder as a child. Its repercussions have remained with me for life. Now, though, whenever I lapse into dread, I force myself to think of what positive activity I’ll soon engage in: an hour with a Dickens novel, a walk with my dog, a dish of frozen yogurt . . . something wonderful.

When I married my late husband in 2000, he told me he could never understand worry. A man who spent his career in the gaming industry, Ken appreciated statistics and odds. Somewhere he’d read that eighty-five percent of the things that people worry about never come to be. And worrying can’t alter the final outcome of the remaining fifteen percent, he’d remind me. If I voiced what he determined to be unreasonable concern, he’d just cast me a baleful glance and murmur, “Eighty-five.” Gradually, I picked up his phrase.

Oh, I still have some telltale anxiety traits. I’m not a hoarder, but I like a well-stocked pantry, and probably have a dozen more cans of soup than I really need. I’ve never lost my keys in over fifty years, but I still check several times to make certain they’re in my purse before I leave the house. I still have that recurrent dream of not being able to locate the classroom where I’m scheduled to sit for a final exam.

Worry? Yes, but not excessively. Eighty-five percent of the time I’m thinking positive!

~Terri Elders

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