Why I stopped asking ‘what if’

BY: STEVEN EDELMAN

I imagine Bill Buckner must have repeatedly asked the ‘What if?’ question to himself for years after the Boston Red Sox lost the 1986 MLB World Series. What if he, the Red Sox first baseman that made an error during the ninth inning which cost his team the game and the series, scooped up the ball perfectly for an out and the Sox became champions?

Bill buckner misses ball
BILL BUCKNER MISSES THE BALL IN THE 1986 WORLD SERIES; PHOTO VIA REDDIT

What if his teammates stayed in Boston and the team played with winning results for the next decade? What if they became a legacy that would have been remembered for generations?

‘What if this had never happened’ is a question that goes beyond sports. It’s an examination that we all ask about ourselves after major mistakes we’ve made, or a tragedy we’ve experienced.

The answer we tell ourselves, the majority of the time, is something more positive we wished had happened. This leaves us unhappy with the life we are currently living. It’s counterfactual thinking and it’s a way to avoid facing uncomfortable truths of our experiences.

Around 12 years ago, I was a sports journalist in San Diego. A decision I made one night changed my life and those who are close to me forever. I had too much to drink at a party and thought it would be a good idea to get some attention from others by pulling a risky trick on the third-floor deck. Unfortunately, during my attempt, I fell 25 feet down to the concrete below.

I was unconscious and an ambulance took me to the ER where the doctors diagnosed me with a Traumatic Brain Injury. There was severe damage to parts of my brain and it wasn’t clear as to what can be healed.

Man sitting alone

After I woke up from a three-month coma, my recovery began. In a rehabilitation hospital, I had to re-learn how to walk, how to speak, understand information when listening to others and grasp as to how I ended in the hospital. The process was challenging and demanding. Nonetheless, over several years I gained most of what I had lost.

It seems like the usual positive ending of this story, but it wasn’t that simple. I was angry. I was angry with God as to why I, a drunken man, was given another chance while other people are not. I was angry with friends that didn’t understand why I was different from the person I used to be before the accident. I was angry at myself for putting all the people I loved in stress and pain. Mostly I was angry with myself for not appreciating what I had until it was gone.

That’s when my ‘What if?’ self-talk started. What if this accident never happened? What if I continued my career as a sports journalist and I didn’t have to stop for my recovery? What if my relationship with my friends and family continued to grow?

What if I didn’t lose all that time and went traveling? What if there were other opportunities that I missed during my time healing? The questions never ended and I fell again in a dark place with no idea how to get out.

The way I eventually got out of this depression was to stop denying my past by creating a made-up ‘What if’ story that was unrealistic. I had find a way to get to the present.

It was about changing my pattern to a new one where I was in control. In many cases injuries are out of our control, but how we absorb them is in our control.

Since the accident I easily forget peoples’ names, it’s not as easy to learn new information. I am not exactly who I was before my brain injury. Yet this is a new chapter in my life where I have different expectations and new priorities. I have a supportive wife and a newborn son who gets nothing but my love and attention. I’m not denying my past and what has happened, however, I am part of something bigger than an ‘error’ I made and overcame.

The truth is that Bill Buckner never played the ‘What if?’ self-talk game with himself despite that he and his family were threatened after his mistake. He took responsibility for the error and found a way to overlook the anger that Red Sox fans and the media had created for a long time. Buckner was only concerned about his family and he understood that one misstep does not describe a person’s character.


I’m Steve Edelman, a survivor of TBI that never lost who I am.  I entered a new chapter of my life with an understanding wife and a healthy 1-year-old son.