Emotions of the wounded heart

by Carolyn Thomas  ♥  @HeartSisters

“We connect with each other through our wounds.”

Rachel Naomi Remen

Right after his heart attack, Dr. Stephen Parker began an impressive project as part of his healing journey. The result is a compelling series of images that the Alaska clinical psychologist created over a 40-day period of recuperation.  The 40 drawings came first, and then his accompanying commentary, which then became a blog, and the blog then became a touring art exhibit called “Healing after a Heart Attack: Images of the Psyche”, and ultimately a book called Heart Attack and Soul.

A year later, New York journalist Natalie Walsh interviewed Dr. Steve’s sister Anne Diggory about her initial reaction when finally alerted to the depth of her brother’s illness:

“She told those who had gathered at the exhibit’s opening reception that when she was first notified that Steve was having heart trouble, she felt removed from the experience:

“He was far away. I didn’t really understand what he was going through. Then I read the blog and I really understood, and I realized that I wasn’t paying attention.”

Dr. Steve explains:

“A heart attack is a deeply wounding event.

“I have been struggling with this never-ending wound for more than a year, and still it haunts me by the hour.

“A heart attack is also a deeply isolating event. Others act as if their lives will go on forever, but can I participate in this charade, knowing deeply and irrevocably that any moment could be my last one?”   

Both his colourful images and his words really struck home for me. They seemed to exquisitely capture what I had experienced myself following my own heart attack in 2008.  Dr. Steve, who still at times copes with anxiety and depression, believes:

“There isn’t a lot of recognition within the medical community of how important the psyche is.”

But he also claims that his experience has changed the focus of his work as a psychologist. His clinical practice now specializes in working with chronically ill people.

“It has transformed my life,” he said, adding that his attention is now focused on deeper issues of meaning and purpose and values.

I particularly loved Dr. Steve’s heart drawing from Day 19 and his commentary below. He called this entry: “Emotions of the Wounded Heart”.


March 4, 2007:

“I experienced so many swirling emotions after surviving this heart attack:

  • relief at survival
  • disbelief and anger that it happened
  • grief for everything that was and will be lost
  • gratitude to those who helped
  • extreme vulnerability in a previously safe world
  • fear of what the future might bring

“I had taken my vitality for granted, and assumed that I would have many long and healthy years of life ahead of me. Now, I had no solid ground to stand on. I was profoundly weak from the injury. I never knew whether or not I would wake up the next morning. I doubted that I would ever be able to return to any kind of normal life again.

“It is as if I had crossed the River Styx to the Underworld, and was allowed to return to the land of the living, temporarily, for an unspecified period of time.

“While the journey has certainly been Hellish, at the same time it has given me something important and valuable: I now have an increased compassion for the wounded, a compassion for all those who must cross the River Styx.

“While the heart attack has broken my heart, it has also opened my heart.”


© 2007 Dr. Stephen Parker

♥  ♥  ♥ 

See also:

Drawing a picture of your diagnosis

When are cardiologists going to start talking about depression?

Pain vs. suffering: why they’re not the same for patients

More drugs, less talk for post-heart attack depression?

A foreshortened future


10 thoughts on “Emotions of the wounded heart

  1. Thankyou for telling us about Dr. Steve’s upcoming talk in Victoria. I live on the Gulf Islands and am trying to arrange to leave work early to catch a ferry to Victoria in time for his talk Monday.


  2. Carolyn, do you know if Dr. Parker will be making any speaking stops in Vancouver before or after his Victoria presentation on November 5th? If not, it might be worth a ferry ride over to the island to catch him. Thanks for this.


    1. I will double-check with him, but I believe he’s heading to Washington State right after his Victoria talk. So maybe we’ll see you here on the 5th? You could make it a daytrip – catch the 9 o’clock boat back home?


  3. I struggle each and every day to honor the emotional world within me instead of sucking it up and simply rejoining the oblivious world around me. Thank you for this article and the link to Steve Parker’s work, which I found so validating.


  4. Dr. Steve sure hit the nail on the head. I try to explain to people that I am not depressed, I am sad. They don’t get it. Why would I be sad when I lived through the heart attack and look great?

    That’s the other part they don’t get. We may look great to others, but they have no idea what we see when we look into the mirror. I guess we hide fear of another heart attack well from others.

    Maybe it’s one of those expereiences that you just don’t understand until it happens to you. Not that I would want it to happen to any of my friends, but I’m sure that is the only way they will get it.


  5. The thoughts and feelings expressed by Dr. Steve are very moving because they are so right on for me. It’s hard to put into words as eloquently as he has how completely life-altering a cardiac event can be. Unless you have survived it, you have no clue. Thanks Carolyn for sharing with us these profound words.


  6. It has been 12 years for me – 12 years since this zero point in my life.

    The immensity of a cardiac arrest’s impact didn’t truly strike me until I had my daughter three years ago.

    Thank you for sharing this. I was offered depression medications 3 months after my arrest, but it was more pills and I had trouble swallowing the ones I was already on, at least psychologically.


  7. I always learn something new on this website. Thank you for telling us about Dr. Steve’s images and profound comments about healing.


  8. Thanks Carolyn….wouldn’t have made the connection with you without the wound…. the world is a very paradoxical place, where a heart attack can open up the heart…

    Steve Parker


  9. Steve should know that the University of Houston School of Nursing
    is doing a study in post MI depression and anxiety.

    As an RN and heart attack survivor, I wish that I could be there b/c like those RNs, I believe that most, if not all, heart patients experience both
    depression and anxiety and that medication for those symptoms
    should be with the discharge medications.

    I walk for 30 minutes every day and I believe it is helpful. But I
    understand the fear of another heart attack, even though it has been
    6 years.


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