Today is a special “birthday” of sorts – it’s the 5th anniversary of my heart attack. A good friend of mine recently celebrated 21 years of sobriety, and she says now that her sobriety birthday almost outweighs her actual birthday because it’s the day she really started living. I truly relate.
So first I’m going to tell you about my heart attack because I feel that its important to be of public service about this, especially for women. (Did you know that more women die of heart disease than breast cancer?) And then I’m going to tell you about how it has helped me to really start living.
Five years ago, I took a car ride with the grim reaper, literally. My heart attack started at 75 miles an hour, singing my head off to Bonnie Raitt, out on dark road coming out of DC when I had just lost cell reception. I went from full bore chorus to an elephant sitting on my chest in one short breath. Somehow, I kept my head, kept on breathing, and got myself to the hospital next to my home 80 miles later.
I went through all of the classic symptoms (which for a woman, is not usually how it goes… our cardiac events tend to be silent). First, the indigestion, which I rationalized away because of the homemade meal of pasta carbonara and rhubarb crumble and perfect English tea that I had just eaten with friends. It was so good I had seconds of everything.
Next up was the aforementioned elephant. It’s the weirdest feeling. It wasn’t until it was over that I could actually describe the intensity of the pressure. Damned nasty stuff. I didn’t really understand what it was, so I still didn’t think it was a heart attack. Adrenaline came with the pressure, covering me in sweat. Then the pain started. Down my left arm, a sharp, deep ache. This was the first step in giving up denial… by the time the pain went up the side of my face I had my head in the game and I thought, that’s it, I’m fucked.
I kept on driving. I didn’t feel faint. Despite the pressure I was actually breathing fine. The road to the hospital had no other civilization on it big enough to send out an ambulance, so I figured I would just keep going, keep breathing. By the time I got close, I knew I would be faster than anything they sent to meet me. So I just kept driving.
By the time I got to the hospital, the pressure had let up, and I almost headed for home, thinking that if it all turned out to be nothing, then I would be embarrassed to be a bother. Let me repeat that: I WOULD BE EMBARRASSED TO BE A BOTHER. I see you shaking your head at me, as I would be if I read this about you. But this is what gets us DEAD. We don’t advocate for ourselves out of some sense of embarrassment. Or we decide we can tough it out (I’m eyeballing you fellas on this one). We don’t go to the docs because we think we can’t leave our desks for a couple of hours. Right. Ask any doctor… they would rather send you home with a clear EKG and a prescription for antacids than pull the sheet over your face. You are NOT a bother. You are absolutely WORTH being checked out. And your job can damn well wait for a day.
Turns out, it was a pretty big bother, if I had gone home I wouldn’t have made it through the week. I have two rather rare genetic issues going on in my heart, and the treatment of one exacerbates the other, making management of this a constant balancing act. On any given day, I have to choose between pain or a modest endurance. If overdo it (which in my case is a healthy flight of stairs) I get the pain. If I keep the pain away with meds, my endurance it shot to hell. The best solution is a new heart but I’m not there yet. And the longer I keep out of that game, the better the technology will be when I get to it.
Yes, this has stolen a lot from me, and I had a tough couple of years working through the grief. Making art about it helped a ton. I’m slower than I want to be and I still get pissy about it at times. Inclines of any size are challenging, so I’m always looking for the hills and elevators. I don’t have the breath to sing anymore – now it leaves me panting. I used to travel alone a lot and now I’m scared to because I know I can’t outrun anything (probably couldn’t back when I thought I could, but still). I’ve modified my diet in a way that works for me but makes me a bit of a pain to feed. Think When Harry Met Sally, right before the big O and without the wheat, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, etc. The biggest thing it has stolen is peace of mind. It’s never more than a moment out of my thoughts. My cousin (who’s heart is as screwed up as mine but in a totally different way) said that the luxury of worrying about the little shit is gone. Word.
But let me tell you about what it has given me. First up, less of that little shit. I’m better at letting it go than I’ve ever been, and improving on it daily. I no longer hang out with people who stress me out or drag me down – I just don’t have time, and I just can’t give my precious energy to it. Rather than racing to my next deadline, I’ve had to slow down. And guess what, things got simpler. There’s stuff I just can’t do now, and when I finally, finally, FINALLY decided it was OK to embrace these imperfections and ask for help when I needed it, my life became richer. A gentler me has made for a gentler, sweeter life. The idea that I could ever be perfect is such a myth, but it took a real punch in the chest to teach it to me. I love dozens of wildly imperfect people, and finally, FINALLY get that I’m lovable in my own wildly imperfect way too. I get that I’m worthy of a trip to the docs when I feel wonky. And I get that, while what I do for others is important, it doesn’t trump taking care of myself. My priorities are much more in order… me and my son first, every thing else when I can manage. It’s because it is always on my mind that I am so much more present to taking care of what really matters. What a journey!
It has also given me precious time. Time to work on having the best possible relationship with my son, and to see him bloom into one cool guy. Time to hang out with great people. Time to see more beauty. Time to say important things. Time to fix important things. Time to let go of things that must not stay in my life a moment longer. Time to make more art. Time to experience deep gratitude. Time to say thank you.
That saying about life being short? It is. It could be as short as tomorrow. We never really know our end date… I’m just lucky enough to have peeked at mine and been given a few more years. I plan to make them special. And I really hope you do the same. You’re worth it.
All artwork made by me – see more of it at samhunterart.com And I helped make the handsome fella standing next to me too :-)