I woke up a little bit ago—in the wee hours of the morning on Monday, June 11, 2018—with an almost fully formed article in my head. Not true to form, I am going to go back to sleep and will wait until daylight to write it. Tomorrow, June 12th is my 4th Cardiaversary…the day when everything changed.
I am blessed to have so many people in my life who loved me back to health. Some continue to kick my butt…in a good way and remind me to slow down. Some insist that I receive since I tend to feel all “gived out” at times. Knowing that life is unpredictable, I do my best not to miss out. I slurp the juice noisily from the bottom of the glass. I let people know what they mean to me. I sing, dance, sweat, play, hug and listen to the messages that come through. I engage in miracle mindedness. My heart is happy.
Thursday, June 12, 2014 began “normally.” I had donned shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers and headed to Planet Fitness—The Judgement Free Zone—where I had gone five or six days a week for my workouts, which I referred to as “playouts,” to make them seem more fun. I completed my one-hour round of cardio and weights, jumped into my Jeep and drove home to shower and prepare to see several clients in an outpatient drug and alcohol rehab, where I had worked as a therapist for two years. On familiar roads, something unfamiliar and unexpected occurred.
Imagine someone grabbing your jaw and gripping tightly so that you couldn’t move it. Then sense torrential sweats, long after having cooled down post workout. Beat-skipping heart palpitations, lightheadedness, nausea, and searing heartburn pain followed. I knew immediately that I was having a heart attack. Call it oxygen deprivation, but I didn’t go straight to the hospital. I drove home, called to cancel with my clients and then had the thought that I was sweaty and needed to take a shower. Common sense kicked in…but only to a point. I said to myself, “What are you doing, woman? Get yourself to the hospital.” I didn’t call 911 as I should have. Instead, I got back in the car and drove myself to my local hospital which was about 10 minutes away.
I stumbled into the emergency room and informed the woman behind the desk that I was having a heart attack. Within moments I was whisked to the cardiac cath lab where a stent was inserted via my wrist which was a blessing, since the other option was that it be threaded through the groin.
A humorous moment preceded the surgery as the nurse who prepped me for it, told me, “You’re going to hate me, but I’m only going to shave you on one side (in case I did need to have the less pleasant procedure).” I asked her, “Can’t you do a landing strip?” She volleyed back, “You’re on your own for that when you get home.” That told me that I would indeed survive.
An hour later, I was greeted by the cardiologist who showed me what my fully occluded artery looked like (a broken tree branch) and how it appeared once the stent was present (as if the branch had popped back up). He cautioned me about my condition that had multiple causal factors. Family history (my mom died of Congestive Heart Failure), elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as the highly stressful lifestyle I admitted living. I had been working 12-14-hour days and sleeping perhaps 5 or 6 hours per night for likely two years. Both parents had died within a 2 ½ year period and I had suppressed my emotions since I had been the social worker who interacted with hospice, I was also the minister who officiated at their funerals and my mother’s Power of Attorney and executor of her estate. The grieving daughter had no opportunity to mourn.
This experience had been preceded at the end of 2013 by shingles that showed up on the anniversary of my mother’s death, which was the day after Thanksgiving of 2010. No surprise that my body was telling me something that I ignored. Turns out I was not alone. Many women ignore the symptoms as I did. I erroneously believed that menopause was the cause of my sleeplessness, dizziness, and arrhythmia.
As I lay in the hospital bed, I was bombarded by thoughts of, “What if I don’t bounce back? What if I am incapacitated? What if I have to rely on other people? Holy sh*t, I’m only 55.” Well-meaning family and friends told me that I had to take a few weeks off from work to recuperate. I went into panic mode, thinking that I couldn’t afford to miss work. My boss informed me that he would not allow me through the door and that my co-workers would hold down the fort and take care of my clients. All was handled. My clients survived my absence. They welcomed me back and reminded me of the importance of self-care. You know you have done an excellent job educating them when they start schooling you! I also learned that I am not responsible for anyone else’s recovery but my own.
I came to understand that I had an addiction too, called workaholism. In most cultures, it is the only addiction that is encouraged. There is a difference between a solid work ethic and nearly working yourself to death. Although the statistics bear out a perception that men are more often workaholics than women, I can vouch for the reality that women can also shoulder multiple responsibilities in the home and workplace that have them falling under the weight.
In addition to the aforementioned caregiver tasks with my parents, I became a single parent; my now 31-year old son, Adam was 11 when my husband died of Hepatitis C in 1998. Flying in the face of the impossible adage of needing to be ‘both mother and father,’ I blessedly found male friends to be Adam’s mentors and one became his surrogate father as part of the village who helped me raise him. Phil filled that role beautifully until his death on July 31, 2017, a week before Adam’s wedding. He and I were to walk him down the aisle together, but instead, Phil’s wife Janet accompanied us. Another heart-opening experience.
Even so, it wasn’t sufficient to keep me from attempting to do it all and be it all. Defying the odds, I kept us in the same house, paying the bills by working multiple jobs. Adam is now happily married to the love of his life, gainfully employed, looking for a house and planning a family of his own. Job well done, mom and kiddo!
Fast forward and in the past few years since the initial cardiac event, I have overcome other health challenges, including two bouts with kidney stones, adrenal fatigue, and pneumonia. On the flip side, I have done a 5k, continue to go to the gym, my annual cardiology check-ups show improvement, and a week ago, I returned from my dream of a lifetime trip to Ireland where I was able to maintain stamina and keep the pace with the tour group. Even more importantly, I allowed myself to slow down and drink in the magnificence of the experience without rushing through it. A piece of my heart and soul are still on the Emerald Isle.
The heart attack was more than physical. It was emotional and spiritual as well. It showed me the areas in my life where my heart was shut down out of fear and a sense of self-protection. Having been widowed almost 20 years ago, I have been in short-term relationships and have had lovers, but not a committed union. I have pondered the reason since most of my work is about relationships. Each time I contemplate a partnership, I question if I can allow a man to take care of me as I have taken care of them. As I look back, I see that I have taken on that role of emotional caregiver. It is a power position that puts the giver in charge since we get to decide how much, when and what to offer. When in the need-to-receive position, we are vulnerable. For the longest time, I have mostly only asked for what I thought someone would agree to do. When in the throes of the various illnesses, I have, of necessity, been on the receiving end. Male and female friends came to my aid, providing food, money, hands-on care, transportation, shopping, and cooking. I gratefully accepted it and was relieved when I no longer needed it.
The questions remain: Am I willing to be in receptivity mode with a man even when I am well? What would it mean about me if I allowed a man to be there for me and with me? Does it mean that I am any less an independent and powerful woman? I have models for that type of relationship among the people I know now and from my parents who sustained a loving and balanced relationship in a nearly 52-year marriage.
I am willing to discover the answers as I embrace life and love fully and allow it to embrace me.