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