In praise of solitude after a heart attack

18 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. 

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

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

Ever since I had to stop working after my heart attack, I have discovered that I absolutely love heading down to a 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 and stretch out 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 throughout the film 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(!)
  • take yourself out for a nice meal (don’t bring anything to read, and turn off your phone)
  • take your sketchbook to the park
  • putter in the garden, taking time to enjoy all the sights, sounds and smells

Maybe enjoying my own company 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 happily 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/work/social life and small talk seemed irresistible even back then.

So I wonder 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 journalist 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 became 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 busy outing.

It’s not that I don’t love spending time with family and close friends, but I’ve discovered that this time now needs to be carefully balanced with quiet. When a day can include a drowsy afternoon reading on a shade-dappled balcony or a solo walk along the ocean, for example, I get to appreciate my own company while recharging my batteries, and without having to think at all about making conversation.

For many heart patients, it seems that even feeling like we have to keep up our end of a lively conversation can often be exhausting.

Cardiac psychologist Dr. Stephen Parker (a heart attack survivor himself, and author of Heart Attack and Soul: In The Labyrinth of Healing) calls a heart attack a “deeply wounding event”.  As he explained:

“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.”

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 small talk 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 except for immediate family.

If you feel you absolutely cannot wait even a few days to visit a friend in hospital, do not take your coat off. Stand during your visit. Bring the patient some flowers, magazines and a homemade lunch (so your friend doesn’t have to eat that dreadful hospital food).  Keep your visits mercifully short so the patient can get back to resting and healing.

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, especially for the freshly-diagnosed heart patient. This happens when we feel the need to wear a happy face around others even when in fact we actually feel utterly exhausted, in pain or psychologically distressed. Such exhaustion can ironically drive us to embrace the other extreme: social isolation. See also: Social Isolation/Loneliness Is Hurting Your Heart.

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

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  This post was originally published here on Heart Sisters in September of 2011. Because I’ve been working on my new book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017) –  I find myself temporarily with fewer hours in the day when I’m able to write new blog articles here.  I’m hoping that revisiting some updated favourites from the archives of over 670 Heart Sisters posts will keep you informed, entertained and involved each week for a while.  Meanwhile, thank you so much for your amazing support!

Q:  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. Sharen Sleater September 18, 2016 at 6:40 am #

    I love being alone at home. Of course, I love being with my husband, too. But being by myself reconnects me with myself. I am not fond of crowds because they can be overwhelming and bring with them a cacophany of sound. Sensory overload. So, being at home, by myself, brings serenity and thoughtfulness and the opportunity to climb inside a good book. So relaxing and refreshing. Healing time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas September 18, 2016 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks for that perspective, Sharen! Is there anything more heavenly than having an open-ended afternoon to snuggle up with a good book? – instead of just snatching bits of stolen time for a quick read! Hope you have a good one on the go this weekend…

      Like

  2. Brenda Whitley September 18, 2016 at 5:47 am #

    Really found this article when I needed it.

    After 3 postponements during the year for a stent, I finally received it last Wednesday, was rested for the recommended time, dressed to go home when I felt not well. I was rushed back to the operating room where my wee heart went into ventricular fibrillation and I got shock treatment. Back home next day, I live 2 hours away from hospital and my daughter drove me up and down; I was told if this had happened on our way home, there is no way I’d be here now.

    What I am trying to say, in a long winded way is, everything in the article about solitude resonates with me. Dana Jennings piece on “physical health coming on but spirit still convalescing” describes how I feel to a tee.

    My inner self needs more nurture and quiet. Thank you and keep up the good work.
    Brenda

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas September 18, 2016 at 9:43 am #

      Brenda, you bring up such an important point, and that is especially useful for patients who have been waiting and anticipating and looking forward to finally having a procedure done. Sometimes, once the procedure is completed and we are “fixed”, we are not fixed at all in reality. In your case – luckily!! – you were immediately treated. Your spirit after such a dramatic and lifesaving event is in serious need of healing and convalescence. You’re in very early days yet, so make sure you go nice and slow, take good care of your precious self, and remember that NO is a complete sentence. Best of luck to you…

      Like

      • Brenda Whitley September 18, 2016 at 4:44 pm #

        Bless you Carolyn for those words, yes I will take it slow and say no.

        Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer - September 18, 2016

    […] loved Carolyn‘s post on solitude which resonated with the nesting instinct after a cancer diagnosis… […]

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