Shortly after my heart attack, while I was lying around at home on the big red chair wondering when I was ever going to feel like my old self, my real self, my fun self again, I went online to seek help from a cardiac support group I’d just discovered (the WomenHeart online community at Inspire). All I had to do was type in the question “Does anybody else out there experience this?” and I knew that many of the 32,000+ other women members living with heart disease would have an answer, a handy tip or just some virtual understanding for me.
What was happening to me? I had turned into a person I no longer recognized. That person I used to be – the one who was the last to leave any party, the one everybody else could count on, the one who thrived on juggling multiple deadlines with ease – seemed to have disappeared. How could I get her back? Ongoing cardiac symptoms and an as-yet-undiagnosed coronary microvascular disorder meant a much slower pace that I did not like one bit. What should I be doing to speed up this annoyingly slow recovery business? I posed these questions to my online group, and among many replies, this one arrived from an anonymous sisterly soul who, like me, had been going through much the same awkward transition. A self-described recovering Type A personality, she wrote me the following:
“This is NOT going to be helpful to your question, because I have not yet figured out how to recover as a Type A myself. I’m sharing strictly in the interest of Type A solidarity.
“My heart attack occurred two weeks after starting a new job. I ended up being out of work for six months, because no way was I returning to the scene of the crime.
“What a relief it was to learn that there is plenty to obsess about in recovery! I stayed in touch with my Type A inner child by furiously studying nutrition and learning to prepare ultra-heart-healthy meals. Instead of resting, neighbours would find me frantically freezing individual portions in little Ziploc bags like the “I Love Lucy” episode with the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory. I still do this on Sundays. I also went through 10 years of Cooking Light magazines, tore out the truly low-fat recipes (a lot of them aren’t) and put them into plastic sheets in a binder.*
“Then cardiac rehab! More great stuff to obsess about! I timed my workouts to the precise degree of my energy level. Rehab is an obsessive-compulsive’s paradise because they constantly monior your blood pressure and heart rate. The cardiac coaches called me ‘The Machine’ – and I don’t think it was a compliment. Every single day, on schedule, I walked my neighbour’s new puppy. I’m not completely sure, but I may even have smelled a rose as we whizzed past at high speed.
“I also became addicted to daytime television and would become irritable if I missed ‘my shows’. Friends got really sick of talking to me, since my end of the conversation went something like, ‘It’s incredible! This woman lost 350 pounds!’
“Needless to say, Carolyn, I hope you succeed in relaxing better than I have. But if you just manage to redirect your Type A tendencies toward slightly healthy pursuits, you can still recover fine (and maybe even write a cookbook!”
*Those “truly non-fat” recipes are not necessarily heart-healthy. What we now know is that heart patients can indeed eat fat – but it’s the right kinds of fats that matter! As reported by Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation, “the confusion around fats and their impact on our health has led to a proliferation of processed foods labelled ‘low fat’ on grocery store shelves. While these products may indeed be lower in fat than some others, that doesn’t necessarily make them healthy. In fact, these foods are often highly processed and loaded with calories, sodium and refined carbohydrates, including sugar.”
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about recuperation after a cardiac event (no matter what kind of personality you have!) 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 when you order).
Q: Are you a recovering Type A too?
WomenHeart: The National Coalition of Women with Heart Disease not only offers its free online support community, but also offers free in-person support groups throughout North America, as well as free virtual support groups online. Find out more about how to find any of these options.