In praise of solitude after a heart attack

22 Sep

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters


“Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”

This wise counsel is from Dr. Ester Buchholz, author of The Call of Solitude.  She describes solitude like this as “meaningful alone-time” – a powerful need and a necessary tonic in today’s rapid-fire world. Indeed, she maintains that solitude “actually allows us to connect to others in a far richer way”.

She likely didn’t write that as specific advice for those of us living with heart disease, but it struck me when I read her words that, although they are probably very true for all women, they are especially applicable to heart patients.

Indeed, maybe our heart health would actually improve if we were more determined to carve out more ‘me-time’ during the average day. 

I remember, for example, when I was a young Mum at home with both a newborn and a toddler, trying to find 15 minutes per day to practice the relaxation meditation I’d been studying. How absolutely maddening to realize back then that I honestly couldn’t seem to find even 15 minutes of uninterrupted ‘me-time’ for that.

Some of us are more comfortable enjoying our ‘me-time’ than others are.

I recently surprised my son, Ben, by way of a very small example, when I told him that one of my very favourite pleasures these days is to go to the movies by myself.

Ever since I had to stop working after my heart attack, I have discovered that I absolutely love heading down to the weekday matinee at my favourite theatre, where it’s quiet, uncrowded, and deliciously cool in summer. I pick the mid-theatre centre row seats with the railing in front (for lots of leg room) and stretch my legs up along it. From there, I can spread out all my stuff, settle in and enjoy the film – with nobody whispering to me or wanting to share my popcorn.

This accidental pleasure hit long before I read this list recently from Laurie Erdman in her Chronic Wellness Coaching essay called Get Comfortable With Solitude.  Laurie offers these suggestions for how we can use solitude to create peace in a crazy life:

  • read an inspirational book
  • engage in a solitary ritual
  • see a movie by yourself!
  • eat out by yourself and don’t bring anything to read and turn off your phone
  • take your sketchbook to the park
  • putter in the garden, enjoying all the sights, sounds and smells

Maybe this was fostered for me during all those years of business travel on my own when I worked in corporate PR, which then seamlessly morphed into gorgeously solo leisure travel, too (France, Spain, Hawaii, Belgium, among other destinations). The siren call of ‘getting away’ from those mad rush demands of everyday family and social life and small talk seemed irresistible even back then.

So I wondered if enjoying my own company means that I may actually fit into a category described by the British writer Angela Hurth like this:

“If you could appreciate being left alone as a child – and I don’t mean neglected, but happily entertaining yourself for a few hours – then you’re less likely to have fears of aloneness in grown-up life.

“Indeed, you can discover that solitude is another country with many unforeseeable rewards.”

In the past century, the way we have handled being alone has changed dramatically, according to Laurie Erdman:

“The word ‘alone’ did not always mean an absence of others. The word was coined in medieval times, and originally signified a completeness in one’s singular being. In religious terminology, ‘solitude’ typically meant the experience of oneness with God.

“Yet all current meanings of ‘alone’ imply a lack of something. Invariably, solitude meets with social questioning, if not censure. Perhaps most striking, solitude conjures up pangs of loneliness.

“The very idea of solitude may evoke deep childhood fears of abandonment and neglect, and cause some people to rush toward connectedness. Surprisingly, it can also tell us that we are not taking time to be in contact with our inner selves – to be alone.”

Laurie suggests that learning how to enjoy time alone can bring the “ultimate in peaceful moments”. Solitude, she explains, is when you can shut out all the responsibilities, obligations, duties and chaos of life and create a sanctuary of healing calm. She adds:

“Psychology is only just beginning to distinguish aloneness from loneliness.

“People inside a tight-knit nuclear family can be just as unknown and lonely as those living on their own. Attachments are not automatically fulfilling relationships. In some cases, attachments are maintained only at the cost of extreme personal compromise: people speak of being shackled and held hostage in a relationship. Certainly there are well-made marriages, but if we are primarily social animals, why would bonding prove so arduous?

“Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest.

“Alone-time is fuel for life.”

This positive description of ‘me’-time doesn’t only make sense to me, but it may also sound reassuringly familiar to those living with a serious illness.

For example, Dana Jennings is a New York Times reporter who in 2008 began writing columns about life as a patient diagnosed with a form of aggressive cancer. Here’s a look at the solitude that’s now become Dana’s “agreeable pal”:

“More than ever these days, I want to shrink the world to the couple of rooms in my house where I’m most comfortable. I’ve been declining requests for my time, and the social whirl is less compelling than it ever was. To me, a perfect evening often means stretching out in the den and vanishing into a good novel. It’s part of the healing process, of coming to grips with my new vulnerability.

“I want to nest. I’m doing well physically, but my spirit is still convalescing. I take pleasure in the most gentle rhythms of daily life: walking the dog, meeting a friend for breakfast, getting a haircut.

“I’m still reinterpreting myself in the face of illness, and that takes time and quiet. It can’t be rushed, and I can’t do it successfully if I’m caught up in our huckster culture’s unrelenting ruckus.”

Like Dana, I too want to nest. My own days living with heart disease are categorized now as what I call “one-outing days” or “two-outing days” or (rarely) “three-outing days”, with lots of quiet downtime in between each outing.

It’s not that I don’t also enjoy spending time with family and close friends, but when my afternoon involves a drowsy nap on my sunny balcony, or a lovely solo walk along the ocean, for example, I get to appreciate my own company while recharging my batteries. It doesn’t even have to be a long time on my own – but regularly scheduled ‘me-time’ helps to balance the entire day for me.

No matter how enjoyable any outing with others may be, the best part of each one is coming home to the luscious me-time that home now represents. As cardiac psychologist Dr. Stephen Parker (a heart attack survivor himself, and author of Heart Attack and Soul: In The Labyrinth of Healing) once told me:

“After a deep wound, rest is needed. Depression after a heart attack, for example,  essentially forces the person to rest, to take time to re-evaluate one’s life and the road that led to the heart attack, to use all available energy and resources for healing (both physically and psychologically).

“I personally recommend being very depressed after a heart attack, sleeping a lot, taking it easy, not expecting much of yourself, be lost for a while.”

And, movie matinees notwithstanding, as Jane Austen once wrote:

“There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”

For many heart patients, it seems that just the simple act of being around even our favourite people can often be exhausting.

That’s why I caution recovering cardiac survivors to limit visitors in the early days.  Recuperation needs rest and quiet, not sitting up in bed valiantly trying to make conversation when you’d rather be sleeping. This is especially important in hospital, where I have long believed that visiting hours should be extremely restricted, if not ended entirely. If you feel you absolutely must go and visit a friend in hospital, don’t take your coat off. Stand during your visit. Bring them flowers, magazines and a homemade lunch (so your friend doesn’t have to eat that hospital food).  Keep your visits mercifully short so the patient can get back to resting quietly.

As Nicholas Lockwood describes in his University of Montana research on heart patients, the recognized psychological concept known as “emotional labour” can feel utterly overwhelming for us sometimes.

Originally identified by researchers in 1983, this concept is described as the suppression of feelings to provide a welcoming outward appearance.  (Sound familiar, heart sisters?)  This is widely experienced by heart patients who tell me they often feel compelled to put on their best ‘game face’ so as not to worry the people around them – no matter how they may actually be feeling.

Heart patients may feel the need to wear a happy face around others even when in fact they actually feel psychologically distressed about their cardiac condition.

Although our outward face serves to make other people feel more comfortable, when heart patients exhibit this emotional labour, explains Nicholas, the outward expression of emotion is not always genuinely felt. This emotional dissonance – meaning that we feel one way, but act another – can result in stress, frustration, and even impaired health.

No wonder blissful solitude can feel so appealing to us . . .

Do you have a special form of ‘me-time’ solitude that you enjoy?

See also:

6 Responses to “In praise of solitude after a heart attack”

  1. Ann September 29, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    I have read many blogs but this is the first one that I have related to in such a unique and inspiring way. I too have heart disease and had a heart attack 4 months ago.

    Actually it is very peaceful to be alone. For me it is a time to reflect, de-stress, and meditate. Thank you so much for writing this blog.

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas September 29, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

      Hello Ann – thanks for sharing your perspective here on the joys of reflection, de-stressing and meditation.
      Cheers,
      C.

      Like

  2. Vetia September 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Hi Carolyn,

    This is a subject I’ve been waiting to hear about. Everyone wants to label me depressed because I want them to go away. I have been in need of some ‘me time’ since I left the hospital. Sometime I feel alone but that is something that my heart sisters help we with but I am never lonely.

    I use to love getting up early in the morning around 4 o’clock, make a cup of coffee and sit on the porch and watch the sun come up. It’s so peaceful that time of the morning and the air smells so fresh, even in the city. That was truly some good ‘me time’. Now if I move early in the morning they think I’m sick, family is always around you and you can’t breathe.

    They didn’t even let you rest in the hospital, the nurses would wake me every hour for the first two days. Then one told me she was going to let me rest that she would come back for two hours, but that wasn’t as bad as the blood pressure cuff that thing went off every 15 minutes. I asked if it could be turned off or the time made longer but they said my pressure was to low. I was so glad they let me go home so I could rest I didn’t know what to do. But family was as bad as the nurses, if I went to my room they would call me so I tried sleeping on the sofa in the den, they would just wake me and ask if I was all right.

    Right now ‘me time’ sounds so good.

    Vetia

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas September 24, 2011 at 7:38 am #

      Thanks for your comment. I too love to get up early to watch the sunrise, listen to the birds, enjoy that first cup of coffee. Heavenly…..

      Like

  3. U.K. Lass September 22, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Hallelujah! – at last a vote for the beauty of solitude amid the hustle and bustle of life. So well said. Thanks for this Carolyn.
    PS Like you, I have also discovered the joys of an afternoon matinee at a mostly-empty movie theatre!!

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas September 23, 2011 at 8:17 am #

      Shhhh — don’t tell too many people about those movie matinees or the theatres will get filled up. 🙂

      Like

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