Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I'm Not An Optimist, I'm a Recovering Pessimist

Late last night I was talking with a friend who was dealing with a problem. He belongs to a club specific to one of his hobbies and this club has a committee that leads the club and deals with internal problems between members. One member has made false allegations against my friend, so patently ridiculous that almost no-one is taking them seriously. The supposed incident happened at a private home outside of club activities but an aggrieved party has taken it upon themselves to complain to the club leadership directly.

The leadership, being stuck in admittedly a sticky situation no matter which way you look at it, has decided that they'll take both sides of the story and then determine what to do.

This pissed him off. After all it's none of the club's business, it happened outside of the club between friends, they have no jurisdiction, etc... not to mention that he's offended that they're even taking the allegations seriously. He was so pissed, hurt, and offended that he could not see why the leadership could be taking this stance.

I pointed out that yes, while the allegations are ridiculous and yes, they have no "jurisdiction" they must as leadership make it clear that all such allegations will be taken seriously. They also must demonstrate that while allegations are taken seriously they will take pains to get the whole picture and presume no malice on the part of the accused until they finish taking everything into account. How they handle these allegations, the accused, and the accuser sets precedent for future incidents. Also, if they determine the allegations were made in an attempt to victimize the accused then they set precedent for dealing with false allegations as well.

In other words, the behavior of leadership didn't reflect on him or whether or not they actually believed the allegations. Their behavior is all about them, how their leadership is perceived (fair or arbitrary) and what they think will be best for the club as a whole. This has nothing to do with him or his friendships with the leadership.

At the end he thanked me for my "optimism". I contend it wasn't optimism, but instead harsh reality. I believe you can't make an assumption until you gather all of the possibilities and determine which is most likely (or test until you find the answer).

Gathering all of the options and weighing their likelihood isn't the act of an optimist. An optimist seizes upon what they perceive to be the most favorable scenario, much like a pessimist assumes what they perceive to be the worst scenario.

I'm a recovering pessimist and alarmist. I choose to handle my pessimism and panic by laying out of all of the possibilities and taking the scare out of the bogeyman. In other words I replace my fear and uncertainty with knowledge, hard facts, and odds.

Let me give you a real-world example.

The day Chris and I walked into the endocrinologist's office for the first time we didn't know what was wrong nor did we expect to have any more of an idea by the time we left. We expected blood tests to be ordered, theories to be raised, follow-ups to be scheduled.

We did not expect the PA doing the intake to find a thyroid "nodule" (the catch-all term for a growth of the thyroid of any type) nor did we expect to be sent straight down to imaging for an ultrasound. Yep, there it was. Definitely a growth of some type.

Our response (other than scheduling the biopsy) was to go home and do our research.

99% of all thyroid nodules are benign. Only 1% turn out to be cancerous. There's some good news right there, right? The odds are low enough that you can just ignore that possibility and assume the best, right? After all, the graph is really, really, comforting.

We can't be that unlucky, can we?

Wrong. That line of thinking is guaranteed way to fuck yourself up later if it turns out the odds are not in your favor. Also, leaving yourself with a vague bogeyman doesn't do you any favors.

Cancer is an extremely vague bogeyman. There's several different types with several different manifestations, several different likelihoods of survival, and several different levels of suckitude. Just "OMG CANCER" with no idea what it means in that context leads to reacting from emotion, not reality.

The key to avoiding pessimism is to react from reality, not fear.

So when I found myself left with the fear of OMG CANCER I knew it was time to dig a little deeper. Gather all of the possibilities and all of the data about the possibilities. Here's what I found out.

So what's the scariest bogeyman out of all of the possibilities? Anaplastic. Look, the worst possible outcome now has a name.

If it has a name, it has a treatment or a way to deal. If you can name the fear and make a plan of how to deal with it the fear loses all power. Also, by identifying the worst possible outcome you automatically turn everything else into a sigh of relief.

When the news that the biopsy came back "fibroid encapsulated mass with mixed papillary and follicular structure showing poor differentiation and grossly enlarged nuclei" almost everyone not involved was shocked at my reaction. I knew enough to know that almost certainly meant follicular thyroid cancer (cannot be confirmed by biopsy, only removal). While everyone else was going OMG CANCER, I was saying thank God it's not Anaplastic. I was relieved, almost giddy. I'd already memorized all of the important figures. 96%+ survival at Chris's age. Relatively easy to treat. Not going to kill him immediately.

When your named fear is a cancer that kills quickly and is hard to treat, finding out its a highly treatable cancer that 96%+ cases in the age range survive - now that's something to be relieved about.

Several people asked how I could possibly be upbeat, optimistic, downright silver-lining about cancer. That's how. I'd sought out all of the possibilities, gathered all of the knowledge, and developed that most elusive of mental states: perspective.

I fight my own pessimism and panic with hard facts and knowledge so I'm prepared for whatever happens.

When I lay out all of the possibilities and compare them and take the fear out of the worst cases, that's not optimism. That's fighting pessimism and being prepared for whatever may come.