Superstition, Shame, and Science
When my husband was in graduate school for his masters in counseling, his school invited spouses to take classes for free. One that I signed up for was Educational and Psychological Measurements taught by Dr. Leonard Matheson.
Dr. Matheson is a neurorehabilitation psychologist who told stories of counseling people who have experienced trauma or who have traumatic brain injuries. He was the kind of expert who knew how to share his experiences, instead of hoarding them. He had a way of communicating advanced, complex concepts so they were easy to understand. His classes were engaging and compelling. I was a full time social worker and I landed in this room full of energy and curiosity, as opposed to the other 30 people who were full time graduate students and very, very tired. I had enough experience in my career to know everything he was saying was true and relevant, but I was new enough to still need and willfully soak up every ounce of wisdom he could impart. Even so, I never would have guessed any of it would have applied to me so personally and permanently.
One thing he taught stuck with me years later and I think about it often. It’s a simple phrase, almost like his tag line. And regardless of that day’s lecture, it always applied. Dr. Matheson would say, “our brains are pattern making, pattern completing, machines.” Twice a week for 15 weeks I heard this reminder. It became poetic and grounding.
He taught using stories of real people he had counseled, so he’d say this to preface or cushion a story about someone that was particularly shocking. Just when you’d start to judge someone’s condition as hopeless he’d throw it out there to help you wrestle with it all and realize how quickly everything can change. How quickly a healthy brain can be injured and how well a broken one can heal. It helps me understand myself better and be more compassionate with others, and today it is what brings me comfort and combats the critic in my mind.
For as long as I can remember, all of my thinking is in the form of a conversation. I’m not sure who the other person is (but it is not an audible voice so don’t worry about me – too much). This morning, the voice is (or I am?) ridiculing me for being superstitious about getting pregnant. Each month in the days leading up to the end of my cycle, I read into every feeling, twinge, or ache in my body as if I have hypochondria. Only I’m not worried about my symptoms, I’m hoping for them.
So when I think, “I’m on cycle day 28 and my last three have been 26. I must be pregnant,” I also immediately think, “that is the silliest, most illogical, thought you could possibly have. You know better and you know more about cycle length than to get your hopes up yet.” Then I mentally walk away dejected like Charlie Brown.
Some other fun thoughts I have (and by fun I mean ridiculous and ultimately painful) are:
“I’ll know I’m pregnant if my chest is still sore by cycle day 29. If it goes away by cycle day 28, then I’m probably getting my period.”
“Last time I got pregnant when I least expected it and I had wine the day before I got a positive pregnancy test. Plus I know stress can make it harder to get pregnant. I shouldn’t worry about it and just do what I’d normally do and enjoy a glass of wine tonight.” Followed by, “But that article I read last month said alcohol and caffeine can negatively affect the chances of conception. I shouldn’t have any wine ever again.”
Honestly, I was sitting on the toilet this morning when all this hit me. It’s Saturday, cycle day 28, and not a single sign of a period. Just desperately searching for a sign of being pregnant and wondering what I should be doing to secure it. All morning long, in the few minutes it takes to wash my hands, pour a cup of coffee, or turn the shower on, every single possibility has reeled through my mind. Which means their counter part, the critical voice in my head, has also been offering a commentary all morning long. The simplest decisions require an unreasonable, disproportional amount of mental energy. Nothing else in my life has caused me to think like this.
Feeling ashamed of my superstition and preemptively exhausted by where this train of thought was going, I was pretty defeated by 7:30am. Why do I do this to myself? I’m an intelligent person. Why do I even entertain these thoughts? I know better than to get swept up in old wives’ tales or base my experience off of a Yahoo! Answers thread from 2013. Why do I think if I burn through all the possible scenarios in my mind, it won’t hurt as much when I’m still not pregnant? Since when has worrying ever actually softened the blow? When did anxiety help me grieve?
And then out of nowhere this reminder flashed in the back of my mind, like a superhero flying unrecognizably in and out of view. Like a friendly hand outstretched and tugging me graciously back into the goodness of reality, I heard, “our brains are pattern making, pattern completing, machines.”
I sighed. “Thank you,” I whisper to no one. To God? To my gut? Telepathically to Dr. Matheson? No idea. In that moment I felt a little better about myself knowing that it’s only natural I’m trying to find reason and order in this process. Even if it can’t be found.
Searching for patterns and making sense of the world around us is self-preservation at its core. So where is the line drawn between old wives’ tales and cycle tracking? Sure, old wives’ tales are frequently debunked, and every once in a while when one turns out to be true we call it anecdotal or coincidence. And I’m not seriously trying to equate folklore to science, but I’ve tracked my temperature, cervical mucus, and symptoms for 14 months and I’m still not pregnant. I couldn’t tell you what I did “right” the last two times I did get pregnant. When something finally goes your way, it’s human nature to start guessing the reasons why it worked and then sharing them with other people as if they are now guarantees. I can understand how old wives’ tales get so popular and why they’re fun to entertain. It’s not like entering all my symptoms onto an app has gotten me any further. Whatever method you follow, it’s an attempt to take what you know about something, figure out the pattern, and use that to get the outcomes you want.
You can see this desperation clearly in gambling. A major component to the addiction of gambling (and the fun of it) is the absence of pattern. The brain wants so badly to do its thing and make sense of roulette or slot machines, but it can’t. When someone finally gets those three in a row they think “I’ve got it! I’ll just do everything exactly that way again.” But it won’t work. Even though people know on some level that it won’t work, they can’t help, but try to duplicate their efforts to get the desired result.
It feels like there are a lot of gambles in the world around me. I think it makes me appreciate the fact there isn’t one part of nature that is exempt from the predictability of science. If a seed is planted in the ground, something will grow. If I throw a ball in the air, it comes back down. Photosynthesis doesn’t take a break and gravity doesn’t play pranks on people. So as a healthy couple, for all intents and purposes, who is trying to get pregnant, it is likely we will. With all the information about us as a couple that money could buy and with perfect timing and an abundance of chances, we should eventually get pregnant. But that exact truth is what makes it all the more infuriating when we don’t. And when you’re not privileged enough to have every answer available to man, conceiving can feel less like science and more like a gamble.
This *should* be predictable. This *should* be a matter of increasing chances and expecting certain inputs to lead to outputs. But there are too many variables in my life and too much about my body that I don’t know with 100% certainty. Still, every month I spend valuable time trying to use very little, unreliable information, to predict something with a lower probability than a coin toss. You’ve not met a more superstitious person than a woman trying to conceive. Not a college football fan, not your neighbor who visits the casino each week, not even Pat in Silver Linings Playbook can think of the absurd connections we do.
Then again, how absurd is it? Well, the idea that “if I avoid going to the bathroom then I won’t get my period” is the definition of absurd, which I am guilty of for sure. But trying your hardest to make sense of all the little things that led to your last (successful or failed) pregnancy and trying to duplicate them? Relying on the few personal experiences you’ve had to give you hope? Praying that every trip to the bathroom for the next few days will be the first of 9 tampon-free months? I think that is just our brains. As much as I try not to give in to those reeling thoughts, sometimes I just cannot help it.
Complex and miraculous as they are, our brains are still predictable, studied organs that do the same function over and over our whole lives for better or for worse. Which is to make and complete patterns from what we observe and experience in the world. That is certainly not absurd and nothing I am going to spend time being ashamed of.