We survive it – but do we ever recover from a heart attack?

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥   @HeartSisters

Out of the chaos surrounding my heart attack emerged one overriding obsession: to just be normal again. I was desperate to feel like my old self, all the while feeling that nothing around me felt remotely normal any longer. I was tired of being “sick”. I wanted my old life back.

And I didn’t want to be a heart patient anymore. One day, in fact, weeks after I’d been discharged from hospital, I marched around the apartment gathering up all the get well cards and bouquets of beautiful flowers that filled each room – and trashed them all. (It didn’t work, by the way. I still had heart disease, albeit along with a tidied-up home!)

What I really wanted was some kind of guarantee that I’d recover perfectly one day very soon.  But according to psychologist Dr. Lisa Holland, promising patients living with a chronic illness that we will “recover” may simply be setting us up for a situation that’s essentially unattainable. Instead, she warns, what we can do is rebuild our lives and move forward.

When I read her essay called “Forget Trying to Recover” and the unique story of her own childhood electrocution at age 8, I was thunderstruck by this statement:

“For years afterward I tried to be her – the one they remembered.”

I understood immediately, as few others might, the stark reality of trying to live like this.  Since my heart attack, I often feel like I’m carefully observing myself from a few feet away almost every time I’m around other people. I remember how I used to be, and now I “try to be her”, as Dr. Holland says.

I try to laugh like the old Carolyn used to laugh, I try to talk like the old Carolyn did, I try to listen and nod and smile when around others in the same familiar way that the old Carolyn would have done. I try not to wince when I experience distressing cardiac symptoms, or to avoid outings that will worsen the crushing fatigue that so often comes on with little warning.  I’m just trying to be her, that long ago me embedded somewhere in my muscle memory, long before a serious cardiac event dissected my life instantly into the ‘before heart attack’ and ‘after heart attack’ halves.

But Dr. Holland helps to explain how, even though we may look and sound exactly like our old selves, we have not “recovered”. She writes:


”    We may not like where we are, what we are feeling or whom we’re with. But when we get sick or something tragic happens in our life, all we want is to be who we were before IT happened.

“The emotional push-pull of situations like this one can make you feel crazy, leaving you wondering if you’re ever going to be happy again.

“In a lifetime, we can bet that something unexpected will happen – and when it does, it will change us.

“I’ll use myself as an example; that Friday, a few months before my eighth birthday, I climbed up onto our ungrounded washing machine and dangled my feet under the running water, I set off an electrical chain reaction that stopped my heart. It erased my memory of myself and left me and my family with the new girl – the one no one knew.

“For years afterward I tried to be her – the one they remembered. Why? Because I knew they loved her and I wasn’t sure they would love me – the new me. It turned out to be a painful ride. In 1997, when I read my old hospital chart notes, the words: “Lisa should have a full recovery” sent my stomach into a spin, but I couldn’t stop reading the words over and over.

“It made me think about that word ‘RECOVER‘. I realized that telling a patient they’ll recover is not the thing to do. It’s just a word, you might say, but here’s my thinking based on what I know and have learned.

“When people are vulnerable and in search of anything that offers hope, telling someone ‘you’ll recover’ sets them up to search for a status that’s unattainable.

“Whether you are the picture of health or not, you cannot be who you were yesterday. Why? Because you’ve lived another day of different experiences, insights, thoughts and conversations.

“It’s hard for me as a therapist to tell patients they won’t recover, because I know how desperately they want themselves back. But I also know that truth is healing.

“So instead, I  focus on:

1. what they see themselves doing, moving on in life, getting to treatment, smiling, welcoming visitors

2. what they used to be afraid of, and now aren’t (yes, fear is a major factor!)

3. what they once avoided that they now welcome

4. what they once wouldn’t let themselves feel, but now feel

“My hope is that they will begin the next chapter of their lives.”

© 2010 Lisa Holland, Ph.D.  www.lisahollandphd.com

♥  ♥  ♥  ♥  ♥  ♥

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about the physical and psychological road after a cardiac diagnosis in my book  A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease.  You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

The Myth of the Heart Disease Cure

Survivorship Bias: When we Focus Only on Success

You Look Great!” – and Other Things You Should Never Say to Heart Patients

Hope For the Aching Heart, also by Dr. Lisa Holland


8 thoughts on “We survive it – but do we ever recover from a heart attack?

  1. This is an excellent post that really hit home for me. As you might know, my experience is with breast cancer. I do find myself many times looking for the “old me”.

    No matter who we are, we can’t be who we were yesterday. If we look at this the “right” way, there’s comfort in that too, not just sadness for things lost.

    Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel similarly about “new normal,” a phrase so many heart attack survivors use as a benchmark of recovery. Just the idea of it mourns the loss of a state of being that may or may not reflect who we are (or were). The “new normal” implies a negative state that the patient is forcing herself to embrace.

    Acceptance of ourselves “warts and all,” as you say, is a lifelong challenge in itself!! Surviving a heart attack definitely heightens our awareness of who we are and how we want to live.

    As always, enjoyed your thoughts, Carolyn, and insights of Dr. Holland.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Katherine,
      For me, “new normal” is actually an accurate term to describe my life now compared to my life, BMI (before heart attack). There is no doubt that what I’m able to do now is far different, so “new normal” is not so much a benchmark of recovery, but a simple statement of reality. I could grieve those daily losses (and admittedly sometimes do!) but it seems healthier (physically, mentally, emotionally) to just try to accept this “new normal” – as Buddhists say: “What is, is.”


  3. I had a heart attack on May 31, 2011 while on my usual morning walk. Pressure on my chest and numbness down both arms continued without abating. Since I had no family history, I kept telling myself “this can not be happening to me”. I am 55 years old, great physical health. Eat well, don’t smoke, don’t drink, 120 lbs. I have had all the tests. Arteries are clean and healthy. The most puzzling part of this is that the Doctors do not have a clue why this happened. They are as puzzled as myself. Today, it is frustrating to live without knowing why the heart attack occurred and live forward.


    1. Hello Marleen and thanks for your note. Sometimes the ‘why me?’ question cannot be answered. And it seems every year we learn about more risk factors that now seem linked to heart disease (things like pregnancy complications, sleep breathing disorders, chronic stress, hormones, etc). Because so much of current cardiac diagnostics and treatments have been researched on men, we still have more questions than answers when it comes to women’s heart disease.

      Good luck to you,


  4. “Sometimes it’s not just about being good to ourselves, it’s about paying attention to our time…”

    I agree with Lisa Holland. It’s about living mindfully, whether we have a serious diagnosis like heart disease or not. Why does it have to take a traumatic wake-up call before we “get” this?

    Love your website – thanks as always for sharing your own wisdom and the wisdom of so many others you share with us here!
    JB in NYC

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “…I try to laugh like the old Carolyn used to laugh, I try to talk like the old Carolyn did, I try to listen and nod and smile to others in the same familiar way that the old Carolyn would have done…”

    Boy, this is uncanny; seems so perfectly true for me, too. I find myself trying to be “like her”, that old pre-open heart surgery ME. It’s like that Beatles song: “Yesterday… all my troubles seemed so far away…”

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Carolyn, I don’t know if this is the thing to do, which is probably why I’ve hesitated making a post about your post about my post…whew! Anyway, here it goes…

    Thank you for your comments on “recovering.” When I mention my take on this to groups and clients, I can almost see them stop mentally in their tracks.

    When something happens to change our lives, something like a heart attack, we decide that we must have the very thing we’ve paid little attention to up until now; that thing is life.

    Now, we like this life, warts and all. It’s ours and we want it back, and we promise to be good to it this time!

    Sometimes it’s not just about being good to ourselves, it’s about paying attention to our time.

    I applaud your humor and your continued efforts to help women pay attention to their hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

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