Exploring the “It Can’t Happen to Me” Mentality…

And what precious little separates us

The day after the fierce flooding caused by Hurricane Ida here in the northeast United States, I had just so happened to have a consultation scheduled with a solar company.  A sobering, “too little too late” synchronicity?  Perhaps.  But given the years – long absence of it in my trying to conceive and healing processes, I now revel in any remnant of synchronicity that comes my way!

As I took the virtual call, I was fumbling through assimilating the events that had occurred a mere thirty miles from my home while feeling mildly comforted in taking a step that would perhaps contribute a drop to leveling off the climate crisis.

Towards the end of the call I inquired about the benefit to the environment.

“You care?” The representative said in a facetiously caught off guard tone.

“It’s a quaint notion, but yeah, every now and then…” I shot back sarcastically.

As he went on to connect the dots between solar power and burning less fossil fuel, he also shared that almost no one ever asks about the environmental benefit when looking into going solar.

“Well, that’s strange,” I thought.  I mean, of course people want to know the ways in which THEY will benefit, as did I.  It’s only human.  And, if infertility and childlessness have enlightened me to anything, it’s the human tendency to be disinterested in other people’s suffering.  But what about one’s own potential suffering due to the climate crisis?  Why would that not be of any concern?

And then I remembered – there’s also the human tendency to fail to see how easily other people’s suffering could (or could have) become their own.  Or as I inwardly have been referring to it, the “It Can’t Happen To Me” mentality.  

A few weeks ago a hurricane that was headed straight for us took a last minute turn right.  And this past week, my particular geographic area was on the lighter, left edge of the storm.  We ended up receiving buckets of rain that our suburban area could mostly absorb, unlike our considerably less fortunate neighbors in concrete laden Queens.

I too lived in basement apartments in Queens from 2000 – 2004, so being able to imagine having my life swallowed up by water roaring into my home in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, has been uncomfortably fluid.

The days that followed these – what were this time – near misses were eerily inconsequential in my world, especially the day after the flooding here in the northeast.  I woke up to sunny skies and clear crisp air that promised an eventual ebbing of my dysautonomia symptoms.  It wasn’t until midday that I clicked on to the New York Times and learned of the instant purgatory that had popped up a few miles from here.  

My goodness, how many times during my years of trying to conceive and the many years that followed had I awakened battered while everyone else’s life had the nerve to on as normal?  These days, whenever I’m on the other side of that, I do my best not to take it for granted.  Not out of guilt – heck, I’ve paid and over paid my dues in that department.  But more so because, like any good infertility survivor I know what precious little separates us humans.  And I also know due to my infertility and nervous system disorder experiences that whichever part of the coin you may find yourself on at any given time – horrendous, blissful or neutral, there is often no good reason, and likely no reason at all for where we land.

It’s not just the disparities themselves that are rattling, it’s largely the randomness behind them.  A truth, I’ve learned, people will go to great lengths to avert.  

Being that “it” HAS happened to me twice in the last decade, these aversions towards reality have become quite the phenomenon to observe here in my new life.  I used to spend much time in bafflement as to why people don’t “get” infertility’s randomness.  Like everyone else who has to spend more than a few cycles trying to conceive, I was privy to the constant denigrating barrage of the “have you tried….” notions.  It was presumed our infertility was the result either of something we were doing “wrong” (working or stressing too much) and/or something we hadn’t figured out yet, or even worse a character deficiency (see the “maybe it’s emotional” and the “you need to deal with your relationship with your mother so that you will be able to conceive” idiocies). 

I’m recalling an article I read written by the mother of a child who had been  present for, but in the end physically unharmed by, a school shooting.  The piece was equal measures tender and insightful.  She rightfully marveled at the fact that her child, years later, was alive and experiencing adolescence. And she also “got it”, stating the full on truth that had the shooter turned left into her child’s classroom instead of right into another classroom she’d be living a whole other reality now.  She knew that the shooter’s random direction was the only thing separating her current experience from the experiences of the bereft parents in the equation.

While I have had people in my circle who are supportive, I’ve also sustained an excess of othering as a person who could not physically, whatever she tried, have a child.  I’ve experienced people actively avoiding and distancing themselves from me.  People shamelessly trying to fix me and shut me down in conversation.  People who are noticeably uncomfortable in my presence.  And of course, the endless inferences that I’m somehow complicit in not being able to have children.

But I know the biological realities.  So what, in fact, really does initially separate me from someone who could have a child or children?  

A couple of measly HLA allele genes, for one.  That the person I happen to be spending my life with and wanted to father my children has a set that isn’t completely compatible with mine.  

On the endometriosis front, perhaps it’s a silly uterine enzyme or two.  Or a level of cytokines or nk cells a bit elevated from the norm.  

Essentially, what separates me from people who could have kids?  

Bad Luck.  Finite Bad Luck.

The number of things that take place on a cellular level that determine life outcomes AND that we don’t control is endless, after all.  The short of it is that a few minute aspects of my reproductive programming figuratively turned left instead of right.  That’s all.

“People should be treating me how they’d want for their children to be treated if one or more of their children can’t have children one day” I used to muse, genuinely confused at the lack of empathy that came my way time and time again.  But alas, I had underestimated, or was perhaps entirely unaware of, the potency of the “it can’t happen to me” mentality when it comes to someone or their offspring not being able to have children.

I’ve since learned that this denial of unknown possibility isn’t limited to infertility.  The Covid pandemic has opened up a whole new display of such an outlook. 

I’m sure the psychology behind not getting vaccinated when you are able to and/or taking excessive risk with Covid is varied and complex.  But the one dominant response to seeing unvaccinated adults hooked up on ventilators from me these days is “Did they REALLY think this couldn’t – or wouldn’t – happen to them?”

From an infertility and IVF survivor standpoint, and from plenty of other standpoints as well I’m sure, this is absolutely confounding.  Because you of course don’t know ahead of time if you’re going to be the one who doesn’t get pregnant naturally.  Or if you’re going to be the one who doesn’t respond well to the stim meds, or if you’re going to be part of that couple who creates tons of viable looking embryos none of which implant (us).  Or if you’re going to be the one with silent endometriosis.  Or if you’re going to be the one who catches the random virus that gives you a debilitating years long nervous system disorder with the funny name.

Just like you don’t know if you’ll be that person whose immune system goes haywire in response to Covid, landing you on a ventilator.  Or if you’ll be that person who develops Covid Long Hauler’s syndrome, many cases of which include – hey whadaya know – a form of dysautonomia (my nervous system disorder).

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman sheds some light on this “it can’t happen to me” mentality that exists in the general population in her book Shattered Assumptions – Towards a new Psychology of Trauma.

“We seek to understand the ‘distribution’ of good and bad outcomes, and in the service of meaning we recognize or impose seemingly natural contingencies between people and their outcomes” Janoff-Bulman writes in her heavily researched work.

She goes on to point out that “In Western culture, the social laws most likely to be invoked to explain the “why” of events are those of justice and control; these enable us to believe that misfortune is not haphazard and arbitrary, that there is a person-outcome contingency.”

And, that “…..such a belief provides us with one means of maintaining a view that the world is a meaningful place.  In fact, we tend to perceive a contingency between what we do and what happens to us, even in situations when this is clearly inappropriate.”

Well hmmm…..that explains (though doesn’t entirely excuse) the general population to some extent.

So what about my world view and those like mine?

Research has uncovered that trauma survivors of all kinds, be the perpetrator human or natural causes, share the common thread of having had their assumptive world shattered.

Speaking on the world view of trauma survivors Janoff-Bulman writes: “What generally begins as a threat to victims’ physical integrity becomes an overwhelming threat to their psychological integrity as well.  Suddenly survivors become dramatically aware that ‘bad things can happen to them’.  They are not protected, safe and secure in a benign universe.”

She also aptly states that“They can no longer assume that the world is meaningful or what happens make sense.  They no longer assume they have control over negative outcomes or will reap benefits because they are good people.”

Ummm…..yes!  My trajectory of transformation PRECISELY.

For me, it hasn’t been only not having children that has challenged my connection with the rest of the world.  It’s the unchosen world view my experiences have rendered, the reconciliation of which has been mind-boggling.

Early this summer I was enjoying a day out on Long Island’s North Fork, sipping wine in the afternoon with my husband at a winery.  We were partaking in their outdoor seating which entailed a couple of Adirondack chairs overlooking a pacifying field of grape vines.  All the perfect recipe for reflective conversation, and I had just gotten on a role.  Hopeful talks of my life slowly but surely coming together finally and some measured excitement about prospects for the future – both things that life events have omitted from our conversations for years now – wafted gingerly through the North Fork air.

Then some cooing, ooohing and aahhhing sliced through my fledgling conversation space.  Someone had a baby and other winery customers were of course taking an interest.  While this doesn’t slay me like it used to, I’m still amazed at how swiftly it sucked the wind out of my sails. 

After some bouts of somber silence and allowing sadness to be met and spread out as it needed, the conversation next to us cut in to our moment:

One set of parents who apparently had older children of some sort were bonding with the parents of the baby.  It came out that the baby was small for her age, and some back and forth chit chat surrounding that ensued.  

“Things have a way of working themselves out” the mother of the older children said righteously, passing off her naïveté and life inexperience as smug wisdom.

Before I could stop it, a loud guffaw escaped my mouth.  A few people looked up but then quickly returned to their baby gazing.  “No they fucking don’t!!” I said, managing a quieter tone this time.

“Oh my god, that’s hilarious!” I said to my husband as I shook my head.  What used to incite off the chart levels of indignance in me now more-so registers as an irritated form of amusement.  Some things do randomly work out in life sure, it was the “as an absolute rule” tone of the statement that smacked me with its inaccurate simplicity. 

There is so much more on this thick topic of world view that I look forward to sharing with you all in the future.  For now though, like many of you I continue my exploration of navigating the world no longer cloaked with the illusions of logic and reason in the universe that tend to serve so many people so well.  These days I’m attempting some balance, and I’m honing in on not only the frustrations and losses this has brought, but also the strengths and possible usefulness of it all.

To be continued, dear readers……..

8 thoughts on “Exploring the “It Can’t Happen to Me” Mentality…

  • OMG – this really resonated with me. For quite some time now I’ve been marveling at this phenomena, the ‘oh, that couldn’t possibly happen to me/in my family’ mentality is widespread. But it goes even deeper than that with some people. I have friends and relatives who have never given any thought to a) getting older b) how they would cope with failing strength and health c) death. I have even had some quite mean/snarky responses when I have mentioned the thoughts and plans I have in place – ‘oh, aren’t you the clever one’ – really!! These are people who are no less intelligent or capable of rational thought than I, but somehow they seem to have more Ostrich than Human genes. So not only do they think disaster or misfortune could never happen to them, they also seem to think that if they don’t think about these things it will make them immune, even to death! Well done for writing about this little recognized Mental Health issue!

    • “…….more Ostrich than Human genes” – ha! That’s perfect Lesley! Thanks for your comment – I too have had some experiences in this realm though not directly with people close to me. I’m sorry (though not surprised) to hear people aren’t benefitting from your wise perspective. A couple of years ago (when I was struggling more than I am now with this complete alteration in world view I hadn’t asked for) I started to notice people in their 70’s who hadn’t addressed the reality that they were going to die at some point (????). And, I ran into a woman while getting my hair cut – she was probably about early 60’s – who was freaking out over her elderly mother being in a nursing home. Now I of course understand that this is typically an incredibly stressful and emotionally draining experience, to say the least. What stuck out was that her main expression of stress was “..is that where I’m going to end up one day??” Uh, yeah, probably!! It seemed this was all just occurring to her. I just stared at her baffled, thinking “where did you think we were all headed, Club Med for centenarians??”

  • I feel as infertility survivors we’ve had the “red pill” forced down our throats and the scales lifted from our eyes. It’s definitely a brutal, life changing experience. We take very little for granted anymore. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It’s certainly a hard thing.

    • Exactly Jennifer! Thank you for this validating comment! To your point of it being partially a good thing, I think so too. In addition to all of the challenges, for me living closer to reality has made me stronger and more confident in some ways. And more anchored to the present moment because as you said “we take very little for granted anymore”.

  • Brilliant as usual, Sarah! I agree with Jennifer above that we’ve lost our innocence, and once we’ve taken that red pill, we’ll never see the world in the same way again. I know some people think we’re overly cautious about covid, etc. — but hey, once you’ve landed on the wrong side of the odds, you can’t shake the knowledge that yes, bad things do happen to good people, and they can happen to you too.

    • Thanks LB! I still have yet to encounter an infertility/reproductive trauma survivor who is not on the cautious end of the Covid spectrum. It would be interesting to research the connection between the two, between anyone who has had a life altering loss/experience and their perspective on Covid actually. Well, I’d find it interesting at least!!

  • Thank you Sarah – so insightful – really resonate with this piece and look forward to part 2. It explains so much as always – I also see now why I’m very Covid concerned – thanks Loribeth, yes of course – I don’t trust any odds having landed the wrong side of “good odds” several times………

    • Hi Jane – Maybe it’s a coincidence (which I do firmly believe in!), but I have loosely observed a connection between covid cautiousness and IF survivorhood (see my comment to LB). I’d say for me anyway, it’s not that I necessarily think something bad is going to happen, it’s more so I know that my control over whether it does or not is limited and furthermore, my control over what occurs if I were to get sick is next to none. It’s the knowledge of not knowing I think.

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