I had a heart attack on June 14th. It was a mild one, but it scared me nearly to death. In fact, it triggered an anxiety attack as soon as I got out of the hospital later that week.
Together, the two attacks knocked me on my butt. They’ve also knocked some sense into me. On things like how many work projects to juggle, how to loosen control over my two teenagers and how to manage a life-long mental health challenge.
Most importantly, this coronary-angst episode offered a lesson around manhood: how we need our full humanity as men to survive and heal from serious health scares.
That is, we need to embrace the entirety of the male symbol:
We need the arrow — the strength, the clarity of direction, the assertiveness. And we need the circle — the connectivity to others, the vulnerability, the compassion.
Cutting off any part of it deadens us as men. Can leave us dead prematurely. But being a whole man — an arrow-and-circle man — frees us to feel fully alive.
At least that’s what my healing heart and head have taught me.
My heart attack seemed straight out of central casting. I huffed and puffed up a hill near my home in San Francisco as I spoke on the phone with a friend. When I walked down the hill, I started to feel chest tightness, nausea and light-headedness. I had to sit down on the sidewalk for several minutes before those sensations ebbed.
I called my doctor’s office a little while later, and the Kaiser Permanente nurse on the other end of the line told me to come to the emergency room right away. I did. A blood test showed elevated levels of troponin — a marker of heart trauma. And an electrocardiogram (EKG) differed from a baseline measurement taken a few years ago.
Conclusion: a mild heart attack. A myocardial infarction. Part of my heart had been starved of the blood and oxygen it needed.
The next question was, “Why?” My cardiologist predicted a blockage in one or more of the arteries that nourish the heart. A cardiac catheterization would solve the riddle. Doctors would snake a tube with a tiny camera from my wrist into the arteries of my heart and take a look.
So I was wheeled into a room that reminded me of a spaceship — a brilliant white chamber with powerful overhead lights encased in mirrors. A massive flatscreen monitor sat to the left, and a hulking imaging device descended from the ceiling to just above my chest. The narcotic fentanyl put me in a daze.
The next thing I remember is doctors showing me a movie on the big screen. It was my own heart, with one artery branch crimped in a zig zag shape. Then the miniscule camera-tube squirted out a liquid — nitroglycerin — and the artery sprang back open.
This meant I had a relatively rare kind of heart attack. Not the typical buildup of plaque related to poor diet and minimal exercise. I had a coronary artery spasm. One of the heart’s blood vessels had clenched up of its own accord.
Coronary artery spasms aren’t perfectly understood but chief suspects for them include extreme emotional stress, smoking and illegal stimulants, like methamphetamine and cocaine. Since I’m not a smoker or a coke user, stress was the likely culprit.
This was good news. I could work to reduce stress. What’s more, my doctors put me on a calcium channel blocker — a medicine designed to relax blood vessels and inhibit future spasms. After three nights in the hospital, doctors sent me home with a positive prognosis. I should limit alcohol and caffeine, and stay away from marijuana. But gradually I could return to regular exercise like yoga and swimming.
Overall, the docs said, I was on course to rebound to full health within several weeks.
My mind, though, had other ideas.
The very day I returned from the hospital, I felt tightness in my chest again. I took two of the tiny nitroglycerin pills I’d been given in the event of another spasm-induced heart attack. I called Kaiser to report the experience, and they suggested I come back in. My wife and I got in the car and started driving to the hospital again. But we decided to turn back.
My discharge papers, after all, anticipated I might need the nitroglycerin pills. And a return to the hospital would mean an ordeal.
The background is important here: I have a history of exaggerating and even making up physical ailments amid stress. My previous anxiety attacks have included hyperventilating and fear that I was incontinent. The incontinence incident happened just before my first child was born, about 19 years ago. I was convinced I was leaking urine, and started making doctors’ appointments to address the issue. Then my wife challenged me to pull my pants down to check.
“Fine,” I said, sensing wetness. But when I felt my underwear with my hand, it was dry. My peeing problem had been in my brain.
Might it have been the same with the chest tightness I felt in the wake of the heart attack? Could my psyche have manufactured the feeling of a myocardial infarction?
So we drove home. And a follow-up call with my regular doctor was reassuring. He said the medicine should protect my heart, and that I wasn’t “in a life-threatening” situation. But the next two nights were torture. I continued to experience “surges” of sensation in my chest with tingling and pain that radiated throughout my torso, arms and jaw.
On the second night, I kept falling asleep and waking up with a pounding in my chest and more surges that spread through my body. I worried that I’d had another spasm, and my slowing pulse during sleep meant my heart wasn’t getting the blood it needed. It therefore kept jolting me back to consciousness. One way or another, it felt like I might die.
In fact, I even made a kind of peace with that possibility. Just as despair threatened to overwhelm me, I felt the presence of my mom, who died seven years ago. I heard her soothing, deep voice.
The voice that used to calm me as a child: “It’s Ok, Eddie.”
Then I imagined other beloved relatives — my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather — comforting me along with my mother.
I didn’t die that night. But I knew something was wrong. The next day, a Sunday, I called Kaiser again. Based on how many surges I’d felt over the past 48 hours — at least 20 — they wanted to see me in the E.R.
That visit confirmed the anxiety attack. I diagnosed it even before blood and EKG tests came back. Almost as an afterthought, I asked the E.R. doctor for a drug to help me calm down and sleep. He gave me the sedative lorazepam.
It was a revelation. The lorazepam allowed me to see that what I had been experiencing as heart trauma was actually superficial muscle strain. As the drug took effect, the intensity of the chest sensations melted into nearly nothing — just minor tension I was holding across my torso.
Sure enough, the doc returned with news that my troponin levels were normal and my EKG was fine.
“Your heart is perfect,” he told me.
Relief washed over me.
But the anxiety didn’t drain away completely. Like past anxiety bouts, it lingered. For much of June and early July, I experienced a low-grade dread much of the time. And occasionally I was plagued by intrusive thoughts, including worries that my heart might be spasm-ing again.
Actually, “thoughts” and “worries” don’t do the anxiety justice. I went on to experience moments that felt similar to the original heart attack and to the psycho-somatic surges that landed me back in the E.R.
In other words, many more scary moments of chest sensation.
Scary, yet also silly on some level. Some of these incidents had triggers that are laughable in retrospect. One time, my wife and son and I were watching The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s comedy about a dysfunctional family. At the moment when the con-artist father is revealed to have faked a case of stomach cancer, I felt a surge come on.
It’s as if I were doubly punishing myself. I already was disturbed that I had “fake” symptoms of heart trauma, and here I was lashing myself with another episode of chest “pain.”
Today, I can look back on that event and smile at its absurdity. Because, over the past two and a half months, I’ve gradually worked through the anxiety and heart attacks.
My healing has much to do with the remarkable support system I have around me — the circle of people and institutions that have cared for me, loved me, encouraged me.
“Encouraged” is a fitting word here, by the way — as its Latin root “cor,” means heart.
The heart and head help I’ve received starts with the skilled, devoted medical staff at Kaiser Permanente. With the doctors who performed routine but nonetheless miraculous procedures to find the cause of my heart attack and prescribe me medicine and guidance for preventing another one. With the nurses and other Kaiser folks who monitored me, kept me safe and lifted my spirits with jokes, extra apple juice boxes and additional warm blankets.
Then comes my inner circle of family and friends. In particular, my wife Rowena has been huge in my healing. She has combined tenderness with just the right amount of tough love — snuggling with me in a hospital bed, reading to me as I nervously awaited my surgery, and weeks later prodding me to see the bigger picture around sensations that I worried were heart attacks.
My two teens have been terrific too, offering me more hugs than usual and holding my hand when I was at my most scared. And close pals dropped what they were doing to connect, express care, pitch in with advice and meals, and lend me their generous ears.
Perhaps the most pivotal group in my recovery, though, is the set of people and organizations just beyond my most intimate tribe. My church pastor, Maggi Henderson, paid a house call and prayed with me. Members of the Teal Team professional group I co-founded treated my family to flowers, groceries and ice cream from foodie icon Bi-Rite. And the seven clients I serve overwhelmed me with their flexibility, affection and empathy. Great Place to Work, my former employer and current client, sent flowers and caring cards, for example.
But beyond the gifts and kind gestures, the Great Place to Work folks and others in my wider network did something else: they made space for me to discuss my anxiety attack. They made it safe for me to talk candidly about a mental health challenge — I could discuss the craziness without feeling like a crazy person.
Nobody shamed me. Even when I walked them through the context of my earlier incontinence scare and my heart attack delusions. Instead of retreating from me in horror, a number of people surprised me by sharing similar periods of difficulty or darkness.
And every time someone else opened up, I felt a little lighter. A little more like myself. In fact, I’m convinced that I am working through this bout of anxiety faster than I did in earlier incidents because I feel less shame. I feel less alone.
On the one hand, this points to societal shifts under way around mental health. The Covid pandemic all but forced us to be more honest about when and how we are “not ok.” Many workplaces and leaders are acknowledging the importance of mental wellbeing and destigmatizing ailments such as anxiety and depression.
The greater openness around mental health had been building for decades. And it reached new heights recently as top athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles bowed out of competitions citing mental wellbeing — and were largely embraced for their choices.
On the other hand, my willingness to discuss anxiety and the support I received speaks to the company I keep. I’m blessed to be surrounded by people unafraid to be vulnerable, especially when they think that vulnerability will benefit someone else. I have spent decades cultivating relationships with folks with big hearts and wise heads — and those bonds bore sweet and nourishing fruit in recent months.
I also want to acknowledge how my springy personal safety net has much to do with privilege. I was born into a white, middle-class family, attended excellent suburban public schools, and graduated from an Ivy League university. I’ve been mostly able-bodied, I’ve been fortunate to find meaningful work, and lucky enough to find a loving life partner in Rowena. As a friend pointed out, “most people don’t have that line-up” of advantages. Those life supports make it less likely for someone like me to need life support, and more likely to be able to respond resiliently when trauma hits.
Indeed, buoyed by my personal network as well as the societal de-stigmatization of mental illness, I’m doing deeper work on my mental health than ever before. I enrolled in a Kaiser Permanente six-month program called “Adapt,” designed to reduce anxiety and depression. I’m taking the antidepressant Zoloft, and I talk regularly to a counselor. My sessions with Tina include practical steps such as exercising more as well as plumbing the depths of my psyche. Though I’ve seen therapists in the past, I have never taken such an honest look at the possible roots of my anxiety.
In particular, Tina helped me home in on the ways I often felt unsafe as a little kid. My father had a wicked temper. Although he very rarely punished me or my two siblings by hitting us — and never physically hurt me — his outbursts terrified me. One of my earliest memories is of him lying on the living room floor, trying to put eye drops in his eyes. When he failed to get the drops in, he became enraged and whipped the Visine bottle across the room at our stereo cabinet.
During this and other tantrums, what stands out is his face. He would open his eyes wide, tense his jaw and clench his tongue between his teeth. Like he was about to explode.
It isn’t fair to lay all the blame for my nerves at my father’s face or feet. Anxiety may be in my genes as well. And my dad mellowed out mightily by the time I was a teenager and young adult. But Tina helped me see that I may have developed a belief in early childhood that I was not safe if I wasn’t in control. And given my dad’s volatile temper, that was much of the time.
This insight touched a nerve for me, and forced me to redefine my past. I’d always called my childhood a happy one, even if it had some rough patches. Now I’m recognizing the damage that a climate of fear may have created.
“You may have to grieve your childhood,” Tina said.
I knew she was right as soon as she said it. But it’s not easy for a guy to grieve. And that gets at lessons I’ve learned from this health scare.
The main ones are about masculinity. For starters, fending off the heart and anxiety attacks, healing from them, has required emotional vulnerability not usually sanctioned for men. This includes the recent work I’ve done with Tina to face my past more fully, mourn the sad, scary parts of my childhood, and consequently understand and manage my anxiety better.
The power of emotional openness also surfaced at the beginning of my traumatic summer, when I first arrived at the hospital after experiencing chest pains. As I lay propped up in a gurney, a female E.R. doctor gave me the hard news in the softest way.
“It looks like you had a mild heart attack,” she said, explaining the troponin and EKG results.
Then she put a hand on my lower leg. “I know this is a lot to take in. But we’re going to take care of you. You’re in the best place possible.”
Her gentle touch melted the tough-guy veneer I’d kept up since I arrived in the hospital. Tears streaked down my face. I felt my fear of dying. I felt my worry about what this heart attack might mean for my family and friends. I felt my gratitude at being in her care, in her team’s care.
“Thank you,” I managed to say to her, my voice breaking among halting breaths.
From that moment on, I largely surrendered to being cared for. And this represented another departure from the typical man-rules. Not only are we supposed to be stoic, but we are supposed to be self-sufficient. Needing help is a sign of weakness.
And at times during my hospital stay, the myth of men as islands unto ourselves tugged at me. It whispered from somewhere deep inside me that it was wimpy to be holed up in a hospital room wearing a backless hospital gown with nurses checking on me every four hours. That He-man voice also told me I should be ashamed of all the get-well-soon texts, emails and calls that poured in. That the messages of how much I mattered to folks, the bouquets of flowers were a stain on my character.
But mostly, I let the love in. And let myself be treated by Kaiser San Francisco’s ace cardiac unit. In fact, I let myself be pampered. I started to frame the hospital stay as a kind of spa retreat. Because where else do you get to order each of your meals (the French toast was tasty!) as well as have people on call to bring you warm blankets and help you adjust your television set?
I started joking with the nurses and other staff that I was going to miss the Kaiser Ritz Carlton.
Another act of vulnerability was actively reaching out to others about what I experienced. Connecting with them about my heart attack and my anxiety episodes, and asking for help. Rather than pretend I was recovering instantly from the health problems, I acknowledged I needed to rest and reset. And that I needed people’s support.
My clients wowed me. First, they offered flexibility on deadlines — which provided great peace of mind around money matters. Beyond their generosity on work schedules, they offered crucial wisdom about recovering from health challenges, including mental illness.
My client Carly, for example, listened to my concerns with kindness, told me she recently experienced a bout of anxiety, and then offered me a breathing technique. Carly, who is writing a book about her own health journey, told me to inhale for four counts, pause for two counts, then exhale for eight counts.
This simple tactic has helped rein in my reeling mind dozens of times over the past two months.
Other clients and partners have given me guidance on crisis management, clarity of thought and resilience.
I should have paid my clients this summer, rather than accepted their money.
So much for the self-made man. I was the community-supported man. By surrounding myself with people who cared for me, I couldn’t fall down. The concentric rings of people — Kaiser professionals, family members, friends, and colleagues — wouldn’t let me. I had no choice but to regain my footing following the body and mind trauma.
Then there’s the soul. And the soul of me might offer a lesson about the souls of men.
I surprised myself that dark night I thought I might die. For most of my life, I’ve said nightly prayers, and I’ve had a vague belief that there is some sort of life after death — the product of a Catholic upbringing, Presbyterian church attendance and a yoga practice infused with Hindu spirituality.
Still, I’ve been afraid to die. And that fear, while understandable, has fueled the anxiety that occasionally has hijacked my mind.
But when I sensed my mother with me the night of the many surges, peace replaced terror. Surrendering to the possibility I could perish then and there and join her, I experienced calmness in my soul and courage to face the unknown.
Many men pooh pooh matters of the spirit. As adolescents, we tease those who take the soul seriously. And that attitude carries into our adult lives as men, where we are much more focused on material achievements and the realm of the flesh. Indeed, recent research finds that men are in general more likely than women to describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or nothing in particular. Spiritual seekers are often written off as “holy rollers” or “woo woo.”
I’ve bought into those biases. Even though I’ve long been drawn to explore the sacred, I’ve harbored shame about that desire.
My dark night of the soul helped erase the vestiges of that self-loathing. What richness we give up when we sneer at spirit. What strength we forfeit when we focus on physical fitness to the exclusion of a fully alive soul.
I was able to not only survive the scariest hours of my life, but to transcend fear itself, by listening to a spiritual calling. And allowing myself to follow that voice where it would take me.
I’m glad my path remains on this earth for now. And the map to the serenity I experienced, and to the physical and mental healing I’ve achieved, is largely about the circle. Vulnerability, emotional expressivity, connection, community, spiritual openness — these are circle traits rather than arrow energies.
I’m returning here to the male symbol composed of a circle with an arrow jutting out to the upper right. It appears the origins of the arrow and circle to represent “male” and the circle and cross to represent “female” have roots in the Greek letters that begin the words for the planets Mars and Venus, respectively. Plenty of meanings have since been heaped on the symbols. Some have viewed the male arrow and circle as the shield and spear of the god of war.
It’s also easy, from an anatomical perspective, to see the male symbol as scrotum and erect penis. The circle therefore contains those quintessential male components — the testicles. A man’s “balls” are about his courage. Particular kinds of courage, though: bravado especially in the sexual, physical and financial realms.
I can “see” this interpretation. But even if we do view the circle as sac, it also speaks to a different side of men. It conveys procreation, and therefore child-rearing and care-giving.
To me, then, it’s helpful to see the circle in the male symbol as containing the feminine side of men.
There, I said it.
We men have feminine traits or energies available to us. Receptivity, emotional depth, connection to others and to the sacred are all human qualities. Guys can access these qualities just as women and people of other gender identities can access masculine energies such as confidence and a driving sense of purpose.
The yin and yang of the feminine and masculine exist in all of us.
For thousands of years, though, men have rejected the feminine within. This denial has coincided with a banishment of the “divine feminine” in our spiritual and religious lives. And that has hurt men and women alike. Scholar Matthew Fox puts it this way: “The male soul has been profoundly wounded by this history — as has the female soul. Today, the stakes for finding a Sacred Marriage of the Divine Feminine and Sacred Masculine have never been higher. Our survival hangs in the balance.”
Fox is getting at the way our collective lack of compassion and connection — to each other and to nature — have taken humanity to the brink of extinction. Annihilation via nuclear war remains a threat, and it’s ever clearer our species is close to the point of no return when it comes to global warming and climate catastrophe.
But this slighting of the circle carries negative individual effects as well. We men typically opt for a hyper-masculine, hypo-feminine life, and we suffer for it. Our dearth of compassion includes a lack of self-compassion. So we fail to care for ourselves. That leads to skipping doctor check-ups, and potentially missing early signals of serious disease.
This is true for heart attacks and other cardiac events in particular. A 2019 Canadian study found that “refusing to recognise the cardiac event and purposely delaying the hospital (emergency department) visit seems to be a prevailing behaviour among men.” Men’s sense of invincibility was a factor explaining the denial, as was the vulnerability men felt as they experienced such things as a loss of control or a fear of death.
Our sense of ourselves as self-sufficient, rugged individuals, meanwhile, hinders our ability to make and nurture friendships. This failure to connect leads to impoverished, shorter lives. Weak social connections have been linked to a reduction of lifespan similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.
The proportion of men living alone in 2018 was twice what it was in 1970. Covid and its lock-downs exacerbated many men’s social isolation. And that isolation is leading to despair and death. One study found that middle-aged men who have many close relationships can weather three or more incidents of intense stress per year — such as divorce, financial trouble, or getting fired — without an increase in their mortality rate. That level of stress, though, tripled the death rate of socially isolated middle-aged men.
Suicide rates for both men and women have climbed over the past two decades in the U.S. But men are about 3.6 times more likely to take their own lives.
Rejecting the circle, the feminine, also leads men to struggle in the wake of heart attacks. The Canadian study mentioned above sought to understand why men who have suffered a heart attack are at high risk of having undiagnosed mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Among their their conclusions? Heart attacks and surgeries strike at the “heart” of men’s identities.
“Our study revealed ‘broken masculinity’ to be an untold and unrecognised distress following a cardiac event,” the authors wrote. “We found that men experienced a great deal of psychological anguish over the changes imposed by their cardiac illness, and that these changes were directly related to their sense of themselves as men in their family and in society.”
A quote from one of the men in the study illustrates this sense of a manhood unmade by a heart event: “It changed my life totally. Like, you know, I was pretty confident, …I was a supervisor at my work, captain of my team, just, you know, that 10 feet tall and bulletproof. I wasn’t there anymore.”
In other words, a heart attack raises questions about a man’s strength, his vitality, his independence and his ability to provide for his family. These are almost exclusively arrow traits. So if a man denies the circle qualities such as self-compassion, vulnerability and receptivity, heart trauma can lead to “head trauma.”
Like it did for me.
I’m sure my life-long struggle with anxiety played a major role in my post-heart-attack moments of panic and despair. But I suspect some of the same “broken masculinity” factors affected me as well: the fear of seeming weak, of breaking the taboo of needing help, of losing my shield of invincibility.
I was tempted to go down that path of self-loathing, worry and depression. But mostly I chose a different course — one with overlapping circles that allowed me to spiral upwards. The emotional and physical vulnerability, the connections to community, the openness to spirit.
I’m so glad I embraced those feminine, circle features. If I hadn’t, I might be dead — having not called the hospital in the first place. I wouldn’t have achieved the serenity I experienced in a torturous, terrifying night. I wouldn’t have recovered as quickly from the heart attack. I wouldn’t have healed as rapidly from an anxiety attack. I wouldn’t have named and claimed a deep source of the fear in my psyche. I wouldn’t have made progress in smoothing that hitch in my soul — a snag of abiding angst that has held me back time and again.
In some ways, the circle stuff was easy for me. Last year, I published a book on the topic of men needing to break out of confined views. Co-authored with Dr. Ed Adams, the book’s title is Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection. And truly, compassion, connection and other circle traits have enabled me to live, to heal and to feel freer than ever from anxiety.
But I also needed the arrow. I needed traditional masculine traits like physical courage and focus. For example, I had to steel myself to get stabbed repeatedly for intravenous lines and blood draws. I’ve fainted in the past during blood draws. But I was a good soldier for about a dozen of those needle jabs in the course of my hospital stay and subsequent emergency room visit.
I also had to muster my bravery to make it through the cardiac catheterization. I squelched the claustrophobia I felt with the massive imaging machine suspended inches above my chest. And I suppressed my queasiness at the thought of the docs puncturing my wrist artery and snaking a tube all the way into my heart.
I’m mindful, by the way, of how women courageously endure as much or more pain than men do. Childbirth is exhibit A along these lines. I would suggest that women’s pain tolerance in labor and other settings is a case of masculine energy expressing itself in women. Again, we all contain both the masculine and the feminine within ourselves.
One of my childhood friends from Buffalo texted after the heart attack: “Ed — be strong and keep the faith.” And even though there were moments I needed to get vulnerable, his arrow-ish advice to be strong was on target.
It was wise advice as Rowena drove me back to the hospital after I first sensed another possible heart attack. In all likelihood, I was in a state of anxiety rather than suffering an actual heart attack. But I remember thinking I needed to keep my shit together during that 20-minute car trip. If I’d fainted or started feeling a full-blown heart attack, we may have had to pull over and call an ambulance. That could have meant a long wait and maybe even a fatal outcome. So I focused. I concentrated on deep breaths. I stayed strong enough to get to the hospital.
The arrow has continued to be important during my recovery these past few months.
I summoned the courage to test my heart during a hike with Rowena — walking up inclines that had me breathing hard. Then I returned to yoga classes and swimming. I challenged myself to get sweaty during warrior poses and chaturangas — yogi push-ups. And I began letting it rip every fifth lap in the pool, racing and getting my heartbeat up to a healthy 145 or so beats per minute.
It has felt great to feel this physical strength. This manly power, this positive arrow energy.
I’m now exercising four or five times a week. This compares with about two times a week in the year leading up to my heart attack. Covid had something to do with the lighter exercise schedule — public pools in San Francisco were closed for much of the pandemic. But I also let work get in the way of workouts.
During the first half of the year, I was juggling about 25 different projects and professional commitments. This craziness wasn’t about an oppressive boss. In fact, in December, 2020, I left my previous corporate job for the life of a “solo-preneur.” Nor was my full plate about trying to put food on the table for my family. In the first half of the year, I was able to arrange ongoing gigs with a half-dozen paying clients.
Happily, financial insecurity wasn’t straining my heart. But like a kid in a candy store, I kept saying yes to yummy opportunities.
By stuffing my face, I grew stressed. I often worked well into the evening as well as weekend days to keep up with emails, meetings and deadlines.
As soon as the heart attack hit, I realized the ridiculousness of my packed Google calendar. I chopped my activities down by half. This included stepping down from the board of a treasured organization, the Berrett-Koehler Authors group, and dropping out of a promising gathering of advocates for a better masculinity.
But the health scare scared me straight when it comes to integrating work and life. If I wanted to live, I needed to work less.
And I needed to parent less. Or less intensely.
Because when I think of the biggest strains on my heart and psyche over the past year, they had to do with how I showed up as a dad. Blew up is more accurate. I lost my cool a number of times in parenting my 18 — year-old son, Julius, and 16-year-old daughter, Skyla. These tantrums were not in proportion to the behavior of my teens. They are both great kids, and have made mostly great, healthy choices in a challenging landscape facing young people.
But a tough year and a half triggered my temper as a dad. First there was Covid and keeping my kids safe. Especially Julius. Right before the pandemic set in, Julius got a job at a local ice-cream parlour. I did not feel good about him working there in the early days of Covid, when not much was known about the virus and how it spread.
The fact that “Cream” was declared an “essential business” drove me mad — do we really need hand-made ice cream sandwiches during a public health crisis?! Julius and I had multiple battles over whether he could continue working as an ice-cream scoop. Eventually we compromised, with pledges for him to wear an N-95 mask for much of 2020. Still, there were many heated arguments — with me overheating more than he did.
Then there were driving lessons. Because Julius was slow to get his driver’s permit, Rowena and I taught both kids to drive at the same time over the past year. This tapped into my worst fears of catastrophe, literally at every turn of our Honda Fit. The streets of San Francisco have been rated as the second-worst in America to drive in (after Detroit). It’s not just hills that makes driving here hard. It’s the large number of underserved, mentally ill people in our city who can act erratically and the many, varied other vehicles that zip around our roads.
More than once, I yelled at Julius and Skyla about potential hazards — an alarming tone that didn’t help so much as exacerbate the situation.
Apart from the driving lessons, there was navigating the two teens’ push for more independence. I didn’t feel comfortable going to sleep before Julius in particular came home after hanging out with friends at night. Since we let him stay out until midnight or 1 a.m., that meant a fair amount of anxiety over his safety.
Julius picked excellent friends, has great values and has stayed out of trouble. But he likes to wander in ways that have worried me at times.
Especially the time he pulled his “Alcatraz” escape. One night this year, I somehow woke up at 4 a.m. with an impulse to check on him. I quietly walked to his loft bed and peered in. At first, all seemed good — his shape under the covers. Then I noticed something odd about that shape.
No he didn’t. Yes he did.
He used a body-length pillow to make it seem he was in bed. He wasn’t home. I called his cellphone. No answer. I wish I remained as calm as Rowena when I woke her up. Instead, I became apoplectic. Screwed my face up worse than my dad ever did. I hissed and bellowed in rage.
Finally, we reached Julius at 6 a.m. He’d been taking photos on Twin Peaks — the highest point in San Francisco. And then met up with his girlfriend at dawn to watch the sunrise. Rowena and I picked him up, gave him a talking-to and grounded him for a spell. Ultimately, it was innocent-enough stuff compared to the trouble teens can get into. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I sent my coronary artery into a spasm during those pre-dawn hours of fear and anger.
So I’m determined to loosen the dad reins. The heart and anxiety attacks reminded me that parenting is so much about letting go. I was stuck in a highly controlling version of fatherhood more appropriate for 12- and 13-year-olds than fairly mature teenagers.
I’ve been going to bed even with Julius out with pals. And with some deep breathing, I’m mostly shutting up when he and Skyla drive the car.
In general, I’m trying to grow into the “potted plant” version of parenting that’s proven effective for teens. Teenagers want and benefit from the presence of a parent. But they’d rather have you stay quiet. Fathering as a ficus tree.
These work and parenting shifts also reflect a more mature, integrated masculinity, I think. If we only align ourselves with arrow energy, we men can work ourselves sick. When our aim and our self-worth are all about achievement and reaching goals, we will all-but kill ourselves climbing the corporate ladder.
Purely arrow parenting, for its part, is about disciplining, controlling and protecting our kids. To some extent, we must do those things as dads. But we fathers also have to release our children into the wider world. We have to trust them and trust the community to care for them. And if we want to be present for kids as well as avoid burning out on the job, we have to temper our time working. We have to make space for connecting with our children.
There’s that circle again. And now, three and a half months after the heart attack, I’m finding my way to combine arrow and circle.
One way I did so was in sharing a draft of this essay with my father and asking for his blessing to publish it. It felt scary to share that his temper had scared me so much as a child. Part of me — maybe the little boy inside me — worried he’d blow up at me. I needed arrow courage to push past this fear and speak the truth.
I also worried that making myself emotionally vulnerable would backfire. That I might be mocked for surfacing that long-ago hurt — that grown men like me are supposed to be tough enough to handle some childhood frights. I needed circle courage to open myself up to my father about how his anger had caused me anguish.
So I screwed this arrow-and-circle courage to the sticking place and called my dad.
“Pop, I want you to share this essay about my health scare with you,” I told him. “There’s a section that may be hard for you to read. It’s about how your temper scared me as a kid and may have caused anxiety in me later on.”
I held my breath waiting for his response. But it turned out I had nothing to fear.
After a short pause, my dad spoke: “You’re right that I had anger issues. I think they had to do with the fact I went from 0 to 60 in no time when things didn’t work out as I wanted.”
“That’s exactly what I remember, Pop,” I responded, relieved by his response.
In retrospect, I should have realized my dad would handle this conversation well. He’s come a long way from that angry young father — he had me at age 23. In recent years, he’s even reconsidered a host of political and societal issues. And he’s supported my work to reinvent masculinity to widen the ways we can show up as men.
Still, I was surprised by what he said as our conversation continued.
“I can see how my anger would have led to problems for you. I’m sorry.”
I thought my dad might continue speaking, to provide an excuse for his troublesome temper — as human beings so often do when acknowledging a flaw.
But no. Not another word. A pure-hearted, humble apology.
I spoke up, saying that his outbursts may not be the only cause for the anxiety I’ve wrestled with. And then I realized I was called to speak words to honor his:
“I forgive you, Pop.”
The exchange moved me in ways I didn’t expect. Not only was I grateful that my dad didn’t become angry in this exchange, but the fact that he validated my experience proved powerful. It settled something deep in my psyche. A wound kept open by doubts about whether I’d lived through something truly traumatic felt now as if it could close.
I felt loved by my dad, closer to him, and glad that I could ease his conscience. My act of forgiveness also gave me peace of mind. Any lingering anger at him seemed to dissolve.
The email my dad sent the next day, after reading the essay, was icing on this healing cake:
I have no problem with the descriptions of my temper responses. I am sorry I imposed them on you and I thank you for your forgiving me.
I am also happy that I did not have the details of your heart and head trauma. I would have probably suffered from my own anxiety attacks. I am just happy you have largely recovered.
As always, your writing skills are wonderful. I hope this essay is well received.
Love you soooo much.
My dad’s note reminded me that he has been a role model for how to integrate arrow and circle. Over the course of his life, he’s been a championship swimmer, an Army drill sergeant and an innovative, principled businessman. Yet he was willing to put his own career on a backburner to support my mom as she ascended the ranks of Catholic education. He became a “house-husband” — handling the cooking and cleaning as she served roles including superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Plus, my dad’s habit of calling loved ones “dear” is, well, dear. It is emotionally expressive, as is his signature sign off. All those “o”s in his “love you soooo much” are like the hugs he’s happy to give in person.
By combining arrow and circle and reaching out for my dad’s blessing, I gave him a chance to rise to the occasion. And he did so in a way that has mended both our souls.
Integrating the masculine and feminine also is behind the most important lesson I’ve drawn from my health scare: Be not afraid.
This statement reflects the best of manly bravery — the kind of courage men have shown on battlefields like Normandy and in less-dramatic cases of standing up to bullies or for noble causes. This is the sacred masculine putting fear aside or piercing it altogether.
But I hear those words of fearlessness in the voice of my mother. Be not afraid. I hear her singing these words in one of my favorite Catholic hymns. Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest. A hymn about the undying support of a loving God. This is the connected encouragement of the sacred feminine, promising us we will never be alone.
The truly scary thing, I have learned, is not living fully as a man. Without both arrow and circle we risk both dying early and deadening our lives.
Together, the masculine and feminine have enabled me to feel more alive than ever in the wake of a heart attack and anxiety attack.
And I suspect something similar is true for all men.
We can’t deny half of our humanity. That leaves a gaping hole.
For our bodies, our minds and our souls to heal and thrive, we need to be whole.
We need to be arrow-and-circle men.
This post was previously published on Edfrauenheim.medium.com.
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Photos by Ed Frauenheim
Ed, These are the kinds of articles that can save lives. And arrow and circle is a wonderful symbol that pulls together a lot of useful and informative help for men. There are a lot of men dealing with heart issues and anxiety issues, who would benefit from your story and perhaps counseling and guidance to help them survive and thrive.