When ANTs Come True
When I started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) a few years ago, I was told to think of my intrusive thoughts as ANTs, short for automatic negative thoughts. By learning which type of ANT I was experiencing, I could learn how to defuse its energy - to kill it, like I was squishing an actual ant.
When I learned these facts, I also learned - whether from the doctor or my own assumptions - that my ANT thoughts were false. For most of the obsessive-compulsive thoughts of my childhood, that was true - I wasn’t going to throw up because I touched a doorknob two times instead of three, nor was I going to literally break my mom’s spine because I accidentally stepped on a sidewalk crack.
When it came time to sign up for Pokemon Go Fest Chicago, however, I began to reassess if all ANTs were false - and what might happen if one was true.
The ticketing system for the main Pokemon Go gathering in the Americas was done entirely by lottery. There was an equal chance for everyone who entered to get in, but with far more entries than tickets, I started to worry almost instantly. What if I didn’t get in? My thoughts quickly followed a pattern I’d learned to identify as “catastrophizing,” one of the categories of ANTs. I was so many steps ahead of what was going on in real life, and the thoughts only got worse as wave after wave of tickets got sent out and my name was never drawn.
I ended up getting a ticket from someone in my local Pokemon Go group who I’d only met once. It directly contradicted the thought plaguing me that not being able to go meant I had no friends. Thankfully, I didn’t have to follow the thought path any further. Sure, I hadn’t won the lottery, but I did still wind up with a ticket that thrilled me beyond belief. Now, all I had to do was prepare for an incredible day at Grant Park with friends new and old.
As the day got closer, however, several friends of mine began to worry about the weather. Spring wasn’t following its typical pattern in Chicago, and the event was rain or shine. I’m usually fine with being in the rain, but considering I’d be playing on my phone the entire time, that quickly became a new worry. And it wasn’t at all something I could reason through.
As part of the CBT process, you’re supposed to find some alternative thought to think that takes power away from the ANT. But for the thought that it might rain, and the event might get canceled or my phone might get ruined if it wasn’t, there was no good solution. All three of these things were perfectly possible. I could wind up playing for an entire day in the rain and soak my phone, or the event I was looking forward to so much could just get canceled.
The four-day event began on Thursday, and with my ticket designated for Sunday, all I could do was watch and wait. It felt good when the sun shone on Thursday and Friday, but Saturday dawned with a thick cover of clouds and only got worse. It wasn’t long before my phone started to buzz with notifications: Pokemon Go Fest was closed.
All I could do was write to my friend who’d been worried about this problem most of all, who’d gotten the thought into my head in the first place. My friend who was now sitting at a bar a few blocks away as her Saturday ticket was rendered useless. And all I could say was an incredulous “it actually happened.”
I’d followed all the CBT guidelines. “Thoughts are thoughts, not threats” ran through my head, and in every circumstance so far, that was true. But now, with my friend’s Go Fest experience being ruined and my own time the next day in jeopardy, I didn’t know what to think.
It’s true that my being scared of rain that day didn’t make it rain, but I felt defeated as I watched it pour down the windows of the bus, my friend texting me miserably. It took almost two hours to get the attendees back in the park, which was now covered in a thick layer of swampy mud.
It wasn’t an irrational thought that my friend had. Nor were my worries about what Sunday would be like. It had rained. The thought we were afraid of had happened. An ANT was real.
I won’t lie and say I wasn’t nervous on Saturday night as my friends checked the weather again and again. I worried about the rain even as I woke up on Sunday morning and was relieved to see that nothing was happening, but the fog descending on the tops of buildings kept me anxious as I headed over. There was no easy way to get the thoughts to not happen. It could rain, very easily. It probably would, given the color of the sky. And there was nothing I could do to fix it.
In the end, few people would have described Sunday’s weather as perfect. It was cold enough that I needed to bring a jacket, which didn’t look great with the cosplay I planned - nor did the mud that completely coated my white shoes. It was foggy and dim and the photos all came out dark. But it was perfect for me - the only rain was a brief drizzle, and with my phone and my Go Fest experience intact, I couldn’t have been happier.
I still got to do everything I wanted. I caught over 800 pokemon and met people from around the world while spending time with friends who’d flown in for the weekend. I got to play trivia with my team and participate in quests that made me feel like a real wilderness explorer. And even when the skies threatened imminent rain, the day went on.
Thinking of this brought me back to an uncomfortable therapy session when I first began CBT. My therapist asked me to tell her what would happen if a horrible thought in my head actually happened. She asked me to detail the exact steps. For throwing up - an obsession that took hold throughout most of my childhood - it would look something like this: I’d feel nauseous, I’d go into the bathroom, I’d probably pace or sit down on the toilet, and then it would happen.
“Then what?” she asked. It struck me that I had an answer for everything that happened before, but nothing for what would happen after. The ANT always felt like the end of the world.
“I’d clean up,” I remember saying. I described the process of finding cleaning supplies and taking a shower.
“And then what?”
I had no more answers. I’d read a book, maybe, or play some video games. I’d probably call home, if I wasn’t there. I’d get in some comfy clothes and relax in my squashy armchair. There were options. My fate wasn’t locked into reliving the experience for the rest of my life. I’d survive, just like my friend did when her fears of rain came true.
I’m sad that rain had to be part of my friend’s Go Fest experience, but there is still something that happened next. She’ll get to catch extra pokemon this upcoming Saturday, for more hours than she missed during the storm. Her Go Fest experience will look different than mine, and not at all like she imagined, but she still got to attend, and there are many moments of happiness to find even with the darker times.
It struck me, then, that thinking like this could be a way to defeat this unexpected kind of ANT. After all, I loved Go Fest, muddy shoes and all - and even though it didn’t look like the perfect experience I imagined in my head, I still had the amazing time I dreamed of when the event was first announced.
Trying to see more than one way for things to go right is a new idea for me - I tend to be very rigid in my thinking - but it’s a new path I’d love to explore. And when it’s time for Go Fest next year, I’ll make it my goal to endure the process of waiting for tickets and weather forecasts with the confidence I use on other types of ANTs. And to catch lots of pokemon, of course!
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.