These days, whenever I tell my audiences about the hours leading up to my hospitalization for a heart attack last year, I ask them to guess what I would have done had those horrific cardiac symptoms been happening to my daughter (or my next-door neighbour, or even a perfect stranger) during that endless cross-country flight back home to the West Coast. Would I have patted her grim, sweaty face and whispered:
“Just try to hang on, honey. We’ll be home in nine hours…”
No, my Heart Sisters, I would have been screaming bloody murder for the Air Canada crew to get help immediately, even if it meant turning the damned plane around. But since these attacks were happening to me, and not to somebody else, I chose instead the unwise and potentially fatal option of just slinking down in my seat, very still, hour after hour, and trying not to make a fuss.
Dr. Barbara Keddy of Nova Scotia is a woman who probably understands why I and other women would react in this inexplicable fashion when it comes to getting our own needs met during a crisis. The retired Dalhousie University professor emerita and author of Women and Fibromyalgia: Living with an Invisible Dis-ease has suffered from this chronic and debilitating condition herself for over 40 years. During the process of interviewing others with fibromyalgia while she was writing her book, Dr. Keddy experienced a profound ‘aha’ moment that led her to what she now considers a highly likely explanation of why fibromyalgia occurs primarily in women.
She now believes that this chronic illness tends to hit what she calls the “highly sensitive person“. This is the woman who senses what other people are feeling and takes on the emotions of others as though they were her own. She describes some women with fibromyalgia as people who are like “toxic sponges“.
The highly sensitive person (mainly, but of course not solely, women) has the personality characteristics of being self-sacrificing, ‘doing good for others’ (what Dr. James Rochelle calls ‘goodism’) and ‘giving yourself away’.
Dr. Keddy points to Florence Nightingale as the ‘goodism’ poster child:
“Florence Nightingale suffered from fibromyalgia, and I think of her as a primary example of self-sacrificing.”
The highly sensitive woman, she adds, is keenly attuned to the needs of others, and can become almost immune to what she needs for herself.
Her theory is astonishingly in synch with emerging cardiac research that suggests one of the reasons that women have deadlier outcomes than men do during their heart attacks is that most women wait far too long before seeking help for themselves. Oregon researchers have even identified six distinct treatment-seeking delay behaviours in women who are having a heart attack. (See Knowing & Going: Act Fast When Heart Attack Symptoms Hit.)
Women who insist on putting their own needs last are also less likely to deliberately carve time out of their busy day for heart-healthy activities like daily exercise, nutritious food or stress-busting ‘me-time‘. Prime example: those of you who are mothers are no doubt familiar with the shopping trip for new shoes that ends up with no new shoes for you – but bags filled with stuff for the kids instead.
Not only do some women put their own needs last before they are diagnosed with heart disease, but a study in Iowa revealed that even women recuperating at home after a heart attack tend to behave much differently than their male counterparts. While male survivors reported that their days back at home were spent resting and recovering, women reported an almost immediate return to a full housekeeping workload.
Not even a heart attack can keep us from scrubbing that toilet.
We live in a culture that preaches ‘others above self’ as a badge of honour. Dr. Keddy cites organized religions that claim doing for others is exemplary – even when it means giving more to others than to ourselves. She warns:
“This cannot be the essence of good health for those with chronic/invisible diseases.
“How about if we look after ourselves first?”
Ironically, Dr. Keddy survived a heart attack in January. Best wishes for a peaceful and uneventful recuperation, Barbara. ♥
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about treatment-seeking delay in Chapter 2 of my new book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University, 2017).
Q: Do you think that you might be suffering from ‘goodism’?
- In Praise of Solitude After a Heart Attack
- Are You A Priority In Your Own Life?
- Women Heart Attack Survivors Know Their Place
- Listen Up, Ladies: 16 Things I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You