Have you ever played the "What If" game? You know . . . What if I had landed that job in New York? What if I married my high school sweetheart?

This is the latest in a series of mind games I play when I can't fall asleep. The older I get, the longer the games tend to be. I recently entered my thirties, and I understand that it only gets worse from here.

The various "Can't Sleep" games started soon after I finished law school. My first clue there was a reason for my insomnia was when I couldn't catch my breath walking a block to the Metro in the mornings. I thought I was having a heart attack. When I told my doctor my symptoms, he didn't bother examining me. Instead, he asked how long I had been working at my first law firm job. Answer: about two months. To my relief he told me I wasn't dying. He explained I had a condition called "stress." I was the fifth recent twenty-something law school graduate to come in complaining of chest pains. Strangely, none of us could breathe or sleep.

This is when I invented the "Can't Sleep" games. I needed a diversion, so when I went to sleep at night I didn't dwell on the things I did wrong that day at work. First there was the "Name Game." I would randomly pick a letter in the alphabet and list either every female or male name I know beginning with that letter. You won't believe how many female names begin with the letter "A." Because the goal of the game is to fall asleep, you do this in your head. I don't know the scientific name for this principle, but it has something to do with occupying both sides of your brain so you can't think about anything else.

Eventually the "Name Game" led to others: "Fruit Game," "Vegetable Game," "State Capitals."

Variations include listing all the vegetables beginning with each letter of the alphabet. To this day, I still can't think of a vegetable beginning with the letter "d." Some nights, dark green spinach leaves count, others they don't.

I'm lousy at geography, so if I tried to name all the cities in Spain I know beginning with the letter "S," the game would be over within 30 seconds. (Seville . . . ) One word of caution, if you are the obsessive-compulsive type, these mind games may only add to the stresses in your life.

It has been about seven years since I graduated from law school, so the stresses have shifted from work to my social life, or lack thereof. Not only is this keeping me up at night, but my mom hasn't slept for two years. Her biggest fear is that my sister's children (ages 6 and 3) will get married before I do.

One night my usual "Colors Game" wasn't working (Is apricot a color or just a fruit?), so I began to play the "What If" game. What if I didn't transfer to Maryland my junior year of college? Chances are I would not have interned on the Hill my senior year and discovered I wanted to practice communications law. If I had stayed at Indiana University, would I be a lawyer today? Would I be married, living in Chicago or maybe St. Louis?

Last night, the first few "Can't Sleep" games were a complete failure. I was wide awake at 3 a.m. with my stomach in knots. I had just been burned by my boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend), and no matter what I tried, I could only think about the events of the past few days.

This called for an industrial strength "What If" game.

It turns out, this game also was a complete failure because here I am half an hour later typing away at my computer. I guess tomorrow night it's back to counting fruits and vegetables.

There are some people who believe a greater force or higher being already has made these choices for us, that a person's destiny is predetermined and all of life's paths lead to the same place.

I don't happen to be one of those people. I think mostly life is what you make of it, with some luck thrown in. My dad says some people are born a little luckier than others, but I think he was referring to low-handicap golf players. Because he may have to work a little harder than others, it is a good thing he can devote seven days a week to the game. (Yes, golf is a game, not a sport, but that's a whole other story.)

Maybe life's paths are determined by everyday occurrences we never think about. Lately, I have been going to the gym in the morning instead of after work. I soon discovered there are very few excuses at 6 a.m. Even fewer now that the boyfriend is history. Maybe unbeknown to me, this seemingly inconsequential change in my life forever altered my life's path. What if the very evening I stopped going to the gym at night, I would have met my new soul mate, or run into a high school friend who told me about a fantastic job opportunity. Although you can't go through life second guessing yourself, it does give you pause.

Well, it is almost 6 a.m., so I'm off to the gym. Let me know if you come up with a vegetable beginning with "d." It looks like I'll need it tonight.