When Playing “What-If” Is a Healthy Exercise


Sometimes life sends us the opportunity to explore what-ifs, in ways we’d rather not experience if we have the choice.

Monday afternoon I was minding my own business (literally).

I’d done my work for the day. I’d had a great meeting with great friends and creative co-conspirators. I even had coffee: a rare and profound treat for me now. 

If you had asked me what was about to happen next, I would have told you about the six more things on my totally unrealistic to-do list back home. I would not have predicted the “neurological event” that hit me just after my last sip of latte nectar.

Suddenly, I could not breathe or swallow. Then I lost hearing in my right ear. What I heard from my left was now distant, almost “disembodied.” (Before the ringing started, at least.) But worst of all was the iron clamp that slammed down on my right arm. I could not move at all.

This event lasted maybe 45 seconds.  I quickly re-entered the world as I had known it . . . but not unchanged.

I now noticed a distinct weakness in my right arm and a strange, fluttery feeling in my chest. Two more times that night I nearly choked to death when my throat froze up again. I thought I’d sleep all this off, but by Tuesday morning, I was truly in another world.

Or at least, my right arm was.

I could not write, grip anything or push myself up from a sitting position. I had trouble swallowing on the right side of my face, and while my right leg still technically “walked,” it was really just dragging itself along with the other one. 

I was practically a Mrs. Potato Head whose limbs had just been plucked off by a happy two-year-old. 

What had always been so Right was now so terribly . . . Wrong.

It was the strangest feeling in the world, one I hoped my regular doctor could help me clear up.

Sorry, Dorothy. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

By 10 AM, I was sprawled in a bed at Froedtert Hospital. (Pro Tip: Want to get seen immediately in the ER by every doctor on duty? Drag yourself in and say you’re the “stroke referral” from the local family practitioner. It works like a charm.)

Suddenly I was not Lisa England, the writer with deadlines to meet, but “The Neuro in Room 14” with nothing to do but a bunch of ridiculously easy strength tests . . . all of which I failed.

I saw three neurologists over the course of nine hours and had so many tests, I could have won a Scrabble match with their acronyms alone. They plugged me into machines, shot me up with contrast dye, and stuck my head into a football helmet for a claustrophobic MRI.

Note to Self: Get sedated for that one next time.

After all that hooplah . . . the tests came back negative. My brain and veins were beautiful, I was told. Not a thing to worry about in my head.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “My hand is as good as dead, and you’re telling me you don’t know why this is happening?”

[*Cue anticlimactic music here.*]

Obviously, there is a cause for what I experienced. Perhaps it was a viral infection from a recent bout of flu. Or something called a “non-epileptic seizure” which often mimics stroke symptoms (especially muscle weakness) with no permanent damage.

Whatever it was, I’m back at my computer today. I even typed this whole post myself—which at this time yesterday would have seemed like a minor miracle.

I am thankful I didn’t end up being care-flighted to Chicago for midnight brain surgery. But not knowing exactly what happened, either, makes me feel a little foolish. Everybody’s going to think I faked a day off by dragging my hand around at my side!

And yet, I’m glad it happened.


A lot of things went through my mind while I was lying on that gurney:

What if I can’t ever type or draw with this hand again?

What if I have to learn how to be left-handed?

What if I start losing my speech or memory, too?

I know what-ifs aren’t typically considered a good practice, but a girl with a big imagination can’t help but conjure all sorts of dire possibilities when she’s egged on by equally-imaginative people in scrubs.

When you’re forced to contemplate how your life might be different without sense you rely on,  it does something to you. 

You can’t stand at the edge of such a loss and not be affected in some way.

The point is: What-ifs can change us.

In uncertain circumstances, the What-ifs—bolstered by a real possibility and not just by classroom hypothesizing—force us to come face-to-face with a world that we can hardly believe exists, or don’t want to believe ever could exist. We are forced to start dealing with them. And to recognize all the beautiful, amazing gifts we never even realized we had.

Sometimes those what-ifs come true.

For me, the what-ifs did not come true yesterday. God is good, and I do thank Him for that—while being fully cognizant of the fact that if He had sent me a truly radical redirection of my physical abilities, that would also be good and cause for thanks. (Albeit with a much, much higher price tag.)

But the what-ifs He sent me did force me to realize how precious physical ability truly is. The ability to turn my thoughts into letters on a screen? Or put the lines in my head down on paper, in the form and shape I want? Or touch the hand (or paw) of someone I love?

That is amazing.

That is a priceless treasure.

I cannot waste a single moment of that gift, because tomorrow it might be gone.

At the moment when my hands were most uncooperative, I could not even form one letter of my name. I thought about the NaNoWriMo novel I planned to revise in 2016—and wondered if I’d have to learn how to “speak” it into a transcription program instead.

I thought about the next edition of Alethia Grey, and wondered how long it would take me to learn to draw a clean line with my under-practiced left hand.

I also thought about picking up my cats. And shaking people’s hands. (The doctors kept trying to shake my bum hand, and I was like, “Seriously?”) And hugging my husband with both arms tight around his waist.

I thought about all of these things, and I am glad I did.

Being forced to sit on that gurney and wonder, while we waited to hear if a blood clot were killing my brain, was probably one of the better things that happened to me in 2015. (If not one of the more expensive.)

I needed those what-ifs to refocus me on what is really important: not my impatience, or busy-ness, or even my deadlines, but the precious time I have been given with people and pursuits I love.

Because that luscious latte, sipped with my friend David at Stone Creek as we talked about great books, could have been the last one I ever picked up with my right hand.


In that sense, what-ifs are the healthiest thing in the world, even if you have to sit in the ER for nine hours to get them.

Sometimes life sends us the opportunity to explore an alternative reality, in ways we’d rather not experience if we have the choice. Those moments are precious, if uncomfortable. They helps us remember what counts and truly give thanks for what we have been given.

Let’s recommit to live with joy in this moment.

Because this moment is all we get.

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