Duly inspired by CBC Wiretap’s “How To Age Gracefully” (a delightful farewell video letter to their radio fans, e.g. an 8-year old’s wise advice to a 7-year old), I’m sending this letter to my pre-2008 self. Since my “widowmaker” heart attack that year, and subsequent ongoing cardiac issues, I’ve learned a thing or two about living with a chronic and progressive illness that I wish I’d known BHA (before heart attack). I think I would have been a nicer and smarter and healthier person had I known these things long ago. So in no particular order, here’s my best advice to a long-ago me:
- Don’t waste time worrying about answers to every question (sometimes, we simply don’t know the answers to all questions – like “Why me? Why did this happen?” – and relentless navel-gazing can end up being not only fruitless, but crazy-making and boring to others).
- Don’t be smug (just because you’ve been a healthy distance runner for almost two decades, don’t believe for one moment that this somehow provides a magical cardioprotective guarantee against having a cardiac event yourself one day).
- Don’t be so damned judgemental (you know absolutely nothing about the life of that fat guy eating ice cream, or that mother yelling at her kids in the mall parking lot, or that heart patient who starts smoking again until you have walked a mile in their shoes (or, as in our case, in their hospital booties).
- Don’t take your wonderful family and friends for granted (you have no idea how important those you love really are until you will need them someday during a real crisis). But conversely . . .
- Don’t squander the precious and very limited hours you have left on this earth spending time with people who suck the life right out of you (you may have always believed that you had no choice in this matter e.g. people you’ve been friends with forever, or people influential for your career, or friends of friends of friends, or hurtful family members, but trust me, you’ll be far healthier if you try to keep interactions with these folks to a bare minimum).
- Don’t live to work (stop doing nutty workaholic things like going into work every Sunday for the last year before your heart attack happens in order to stay on top of all those “important” projects – trust me, nobody on their deathbed will ever say: “Wish I’d spent more time at the office…”)
- Don’t interject unsolicited opinions – until somebody absolutely begs you, in which case they’re not “unsolicited” (but your opinion is just that, an opinion – not the Capital T Truth – so try to practice resisting the urge to share unless you really know what you’re talking about). *NOTE: as my family and friends can attest, I’m still working on this one . . .
- Don’t neglect the beauty of unremarkable routine (take a longer, more scenic walk home from work, enjoy packed lunches in the staff room with your favourite colleagues, bring fresh flowers to your office – before such moments are snatched away from you. You do not have to be doing something productive during every waking moment of every day. Yes. Really.)
- Don’t be reluctant to ask for (and then accept) help from others who offer (most people wouldn’t offer if they didn’t really want to help you – and you KNOW how good you feel when you can do something kind for others in need. So allow others the same pleasure).
- Don’t let your sense of “healthy privilege” make you think you know anything at all about what it’s actually like being sick (and no, we are NOT all patients!)
- Don’t sweat the small stuff (you’d be amazed how all the inconsequential problems you like to ruminate over can evaporate when compared with being in the middle of crushing chest pain and shortness of breath that may or may not mean you’ll be heading back to the hospital today).
- Don’t ever believe that bad things don’t happen to good people (there is no fair fairy in life, so stop acting as if those who get sick are somehow “not like you” because, unlike them, you are smart enough, strong enough, fit enough, committed enough, or educated enough to outrun hurt and pain and illness. You can’t. Just try being nicer to sick people).
- Don’t forget that NO is a complete sentence (practice saying NO without any explanation or excuses required).
- Don’t try for Best Patient award (there is none – and the choices you make won’t be the same as those made by others with the same diagnosis anyway, and that’s okay. You are not them. Being sick doesn’t make you more noble or more special – it just makes you feel really bad some days and not-so-bad on some days. It is what it is.)
Best of luck to you, Carolyn . . .
Your future self,
Q: What advice would you give to your own pre-diagnosis self?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about what it’s like to suffer from healthy privilege in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, 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 20% off the list price).