Eight days ago I had a heart attack. I wrote about it at great length in an earlier article. Since my heart attack happened late at night, and I only got into the catheterization lab after midnight, it’s actually only about a week since the whole thing happened. About the time I write this it is a week since I finished the critical care stay at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) and was getting rolled down to the regular cardiac unit. I got home a few days later and have begun the recovery process.
I’ve learned a lot in those few short days. Not all of it has been good news. On the other hand, not all of it has been bad news, either – and I am still alive, which is surely the best news I could want. Since I am a writer I often feel most comfortable sorting out my thoughts and experiences through the written word. In this case it means others can travel some of this road with me. It will be candid and might make some people uncomfortable, but it’s life and the risks to it being discussed, so it is what it is.
Read on if you like. I’m OK with sharing this experience, and welcome you to be part of it here.
One of the changes I have to get used to is a change in routing. The most obvious change is the need to constantly be aware of my medication schedule. I have to take certain drugs daily; some more than once a day, and some at specific times of day. The pill organizer my wife bought for me looks very full and when I examine it it makes me feel very frail. It is a reminder that the changes I have to make in my life are forever-changes, not the kind of thing you do for a week and then put behind you.
I have to take these pills early in the morning, after lunch, and late in the evening. To keep myself on schedule I have set alarms in my Android phone for all three times of day. I don’t get to sleep in any more; I have to get up and take the medicine every day. I can go back to bed if I like, but it will always be there as an interruption in my morning. The mid-day one is not too bad, although the alarm is loud enough to be a bit startling. The evening one happens after my wife has usually gone to bed, and I worry that it will wake her.
These pills have side effects in addition to their helpful ones. Some of them can make a person drowsy, and they do. I feel fatigued or tired a lot of the time. Whatever part of that comes from having recently suffered a heart attack is compounded by the medication. It’s slow-going getting used to it.
The blood thinners also make me feel cold a lot of the time. I spend my time wearing much more clothing than I otherwise would. In my own home I would normally get by with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt while relaxing. Now it’s usually sweatpants, thermal socks, an undershirt and a long-sleeved shirt or sweatshirt over it. It’s given me a new appreciation and understanding of the challenges faced by older people who wear a lot of clothes to stay warm. I feel embarrassed that, as a younger man, I failed to understand the simple truth that challenges like these are forced upon people by their heath needs.
The other side effects from the medications I take seem bizarre. One prevents me from using salt substitutes, something I did not even know existed. Another prevents me from eating grapefruit or grapefruit juice. It’s stunning to think that medicines that have such powerful positive effects come with such seemingly unconnected side effects and prohibitions.
I walk every day. The distances I can walk, and the lengths of time I can walk, are much shorter than I would like them to be. I’m trying very hard to deal with the perception that I am weak, and the impact on my self-image as a man. Men are taught that we must be strong and capable, and right now I feel a lot less strong and capable than I did half an hour before I had my heart attack. There is s sense of resentment that comes from being physically limited. I feel betrayed by my body.
I have to get over that feeling, though, and accept the truth. If there was betrayal it was on my part against my body. It was an act of abuse of my physical shell to eat badly and fail to exercise. The blame for this falls squarely upon my shoulders and it is a struggle to remind myself of it. It’s painful to realize I did this to myself, and equally hard to accept that truth without also feeling like it made me a bad person. The fact is that I committed no evil act. I didn’t set out to cause myself harm. I simply had bad habits that led to a bad outcome – and now I have to break those bad habits.
That is harder than it seems. Before having a heart attack I would have assumed that having one would suddenly give a person total clarity that everything has to change. It does do that, but like all shocking moments of clarity it does not last. Memory of pain fades quickly and old habits tend to creep up on you. There’s a desire to live in denial and act like nothing happened and try to go back to living as before. The urge to see yourself as something other than a heart attack victim is a powerful one.
It turns out that these drives, the old habits, the desire for denial, and and passage of time all conspire to make a person likely to fall off the wagon, so to speak. It takes a great effort of will to stay true to the plan, to walk more, to eat better, to take the pills. I can completely understand now the crushing weight of the mental obstacles to staying on plan, and the colossal amount of willpower a person has to muster to stick to a recovery strategy.
It would be a mistake for me to think that my willpower and good intentions will always be up to the task. That’s why I use support systems. Those alarms on my phone are an example. It would be unwise for me to rely solely on my intention to take the pills on schedule, assuming I would never forget. Those alarms are my artificial and perfect memory about when to take my pills. The pill organizer is my artificial and perfect memory of which pills to take at which times.
The best support system I have, however, is the group of people who want me to survive. My wife is here with me all the time, urging me to walk and eat well. Other family members, and many friends, have been right there with messages of support and reminding me that I am important to them. People are the sources of positive reinforcement, and that may be the most powerful support of all.
I’m walking, breathing, and down 0.2 pounds today. Things are looking up.
Photo via Flickr photo stream here.