Just shut up and listen!


by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters    March 25, 2018

A Heart Sisters article that I first ran here five years ago is called When Are Cardiologists Going to Start Talking About Depression? 

As you can imagine, it’s a serious subject. And it’s an important subject, given how common – yet pervasively overlooked – the situational depression associated with heart disease is. A freshly-diagnosed heart patient who becomes depressed is not only miserable, but this is a person who’s significantly less likely to take meds, exercise, eat heart-healthy foods, quit smoking, follow medical instructions – and is generally at significant risk for poor cardiac outcomes.

Dozens of my readers shared their moving and vulnerable stories about their experiences in response to this post. For example, this comment from a reader named Christie, sent to me nine days after her husband survived a heart attack: 

“My 40-year old husband biked his way through a heart attack involving 100% blockage of the LAD on January 2. We’re both in this weird “How did this happen?” questioning stage, and we’re definitely both sad at what could have happened, the life we had that now has to change, and the thought of what is more likely to happen now that he’s experienced one heart attack.

“I’m not sure exactly why I’m posting this as I have no real point.

“I can tell you that I find it incredibly difficult to fall asleep. I keep checking to make sure he’s breathing, as if he might expire quietly in the night as a result of said attack. And I’m deathly afraid of preparing a meal that’ll kill him because of the salt or bad fats. We’ve already ordered an American Heart Association cookbook… We’re still working our way through this.”

My response to her comment empathized with her life-changing news, and recommended another post called How To Cope When Your Spouse Is The Heart Patient” which has some links to helpful resources for her and other worried spouses in her shoes.

Fast forward five years.

A new comment appears out of the blue responding directly to Christie, this one from a reader named Garry. This is all it says:

”  The AHA approach to diet and eating is not scientifically based in key areas, particularly their obsession with low-fat foods. The best way to drive down cardiovascular disease is to focus on eating real foods, look at food labels and ingredient lists, and avoid highly processed carbohydrates and added sugars that come out of factory processes and quickly spike insulin and drive fat accumulation and the associated release of harmful cytokines (IL-1 IL-6, TNF-alpha, etc) and turn on the chronic, low-grade inflammatory process that turns cholesterol linking the arteries into plaques and blockages. The food industry is a business and explains why we have crazy non-foods all around us that make us sick.”

If you dozed off halfway through that non-sequitur lecture on food and lipid science, I do not blame you.

But I didn’t doze off. Instead, I got mad.

In response to an overwhelmed young woman’s very personal narrative, Garry’s awkward reaction was to pick up on only one thing: to inform her of his own expert opinion of the American Heart Association’s dietary theories.


When I first read Christie’s comment in response to this article about depression and heart disease, what I observed was a scared and overwhelmed reaction – likely what you would expect to feel, too, if your own (very young) husband had faced a catastrophic medical crisis just nine days earlier.

What Garry saw, however, was an open invitation to share his oh-so-brilliant expertise about the release of harmful cytokines (IL-1 IL-6, TNF-alpha, etc.) And please note: whether what he said was scientifically accurate or not is irrelevant to my point.

All that was required to be motivated to take the time to reply to Christie was to recognize just one or two words she had written.  That’s all it took. He didn’t need to bother with the rest of her words, the ones that were actually THE POINT of reading this blog post.

In my family, we describe people like Garry as “people who have never had an unexpressed thought”.

There’s another description for this kind of tiresome communicator: a mansplainer. The New York Times even featured the noun mansplainer in its list of “Words of the Year” for 2010, defining it as:

“A man compelled to explain or give an opinion about everything –  especially to a woman.”

(Yes, by the way, women can also be guilty of mansplaining, as I wrote about here).

But while we may have lots of swirling thoughts in reaction to other people’s stories (e.g. differing opinion thoughts, interrupting thoughts, side-tracked or off-topic thoughts), most of us learn by the time we reach adulthood that not every single thought that pops into our heads unbidden means an opportunity to start bragging about how much we know.

Sometimes, we try listening! We try to focus on the meaning of the words, and even on the emotions behind the words. We don’t need to solve The Problem, and we certainly don’t need to boast about our superior knowledge of a subject – especially when that subject isn’t the issue at hand.

So my initial reaction upon reading Garry’s mini-lecture to Christie was to simply hit the ‘delete’ key.  My inside voice was saying, Really, Garry? Seriously?

But every so often, usually when I haven’t quite yet achieved my maximum daily allowance of being aggravated, I decide to click ‘approve instead so that I can respond directly to a comment.  I wrote:

“Garry, I’m curious about your answers to these two questions: Did you even read:

1. this blog post about post-heart attack depression?
2. Christie’s comment about her struggles with serious concerns since her husband’s cardiac event just nine days earlier?

“I’m guessing NO.”

Not surprisingly, no response yet. Garry may have simply moved on to find others who need his enlightenment.

Q: Am I being too hard on mansplainers like Garry?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  My book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease reads like a “best of Heart Sisters” blog collection. You can ask for it at your local bookshop or public library, 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).

See also:

The concept of ‘mansplaining’ explained for you . . .

Just not listening – or “narrative incompetence”?

How not to be an audience troll

But what about the men?

Oneupmanship: you think YOU have pain?

What (not) to say when you’re visiting the sick

Empathy 101: how to sound like you give a damn

And here’s more on the situational depression associated with heart disease:

The New Country Called Heart Disease

Depressing News About Depression and Women’s Heart Disease

“I’m Not Depressed!” – And Other Ways We Deny the Stigma of Mental Illness

10 Non-Drug Ways to Treat Depression in Heart Patients

Depressed? Who, me? Myths and facts about depression after a heart attack

A Heart Patient’s Positive Attitude: A “Crazy, Crazy Idea”?

How To Be a “Good” Patient

Is It Post-Heart Attack Depression – or Just Feeling Sad?

When Grief Morphs Into Depression: Five Tips for Coping With Heart Disease

How We Adapt after a Heart Attack May Depend on What We Believe The Diagnosis Means

28 thoughts on “Just shut up and listen!

  1. I don’t think you’re being the least bit hard on Garry! This is an all-too-common occurrence in spaces carved out for women-identified folks to share their experiences & support one another thru illness… Dudes like Garry coming into the space, missing the point, offering a lecture, and then disappearing (probably while patting themselves on the back for the “wisdom” they bestowed).

    I’m tired of it. And yes absolutely “not all men” etc. But the point is, a LOT of them do this, and we can only read so many responses in the same vein before hitting our own personal limit and no longer being able to give the benefit of the doubt (where I’m at, personally).

    Hot tips for folks like Garry:

    -READ CAREFULLY. Did she ask for advice?
    -ASK. Before unloading information, try asking “Were you looking for additional help or advice on best cooking practices?”
    -READ THE ROOM. Is this a space prioritizing women-identified voices? If you don’t identify as a woman, do you feel your comment is of value to people in the space? Are you talking over anyone?
    -KEEP QUIET. You have a virtually-unlimited amount of space on the internet. It’s ok not to leave your mark everywhere you go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your opinion, Chase, and also for some very useful tips for improving social media commenting in general.

      What I didn’t mention in this post is this under-appreciated reality of running a “women-identified” space: whenever I write about a major academic report or scientific statement or other newsworthy announcement about women’s heart disease, it’s virtually impossible to do that without attracting immediate comments from male readers asking me some version of this question, over and over: “But what about the MEN? When are you going to start writing about MEN?” I honestly find those questions so tiresome that over the years, I’ve stopped trying to defend WHY I’m writing about women’s heart disease, and just don’t publish them.

      (Or, as my friend Laura Haywood-Cory likes to respond to those questions: “Honey, it’s ALWAYS about the men!“)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. oh my goodness, i can only imagine. it must be so frustrating! & i certainly don’t blame you for opting not to publish those kind of statements – in fact, thank you! i don’t want to read that nonsense! good grief.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep… at first, I used to carefully answer these commenters’ questions, until I realized from their subsequent replies that there was no question, just more pontificating. It’s almost like they saw my news updates here as a zero-sum game (if I’m writing about women’s health issues, that’s not a good thing because less attention is paid to men’s health issues?)


  2. Dear Carolyn

    FYI, my husband, who agrees with you 100% re responses like Garry’s, just told me: It’s ironic isn’t it that Carolyns now being criticized by Meghan who objected to her criticizing Garry?

    One of my early nursing professors used to quote this, I think it’s from Teddy Roosevelt: I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care. That’s what was missing with Garry’s reply to Christie. Zero empathy.

    I really enjoyed your thoughtful article and I get why you’re frustrated. I have already shared it with several friends and colleagues at work (and of course my husband). I learned long ago that no matter how smart we are, people just can’t take in our important clinical information unless we take a moment to let them know we really see them as whole human beings first.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Carolyn, I agree with Lyn and in answer to your question, yes, I think you’re being way too hard on Garry. I’m grateful that men like to fix problems — don’t know where I’d be without the men in my life that have helped me. I feel for Christie too; my husband and I are both heart patients and the future is very scary to me. She was trying to understand how to live with her husband’s diagnosis and was starting by working on their diet. Garry read her comment and obviously something she said struck a raw nerve with him and sparked his response. We don’t know his motivation and maybe his response seemed insensitive, but I do think he was just trying to help. Can’t we just believe the best about him, thank him and move on?

    And what about the arrogant, insensitive responses here to Garry’s comment, all of which can be read by him if he so chooses to come back? Are they any better than his response to Christie? I’m quite shocked by this whole thing. What he said perhaps was wrong, but I honestly think your reactive response to him and then writing a whole post about it was even worse and was rude to a visitor to your blog. As I have taught my kids for years, two wrongs don’t make a right. I have noticed a lot of comments in your writings that are negative toward men and I have to ask the question — if Garry were a woman, would you have responded that way? I suspect not.

    I applaud what you’re doing, love this blog, loved your book, but I do have to say that this is the most unhelpful post I’ve read here. I’m sorry if I’m being too blunt, but I have heart issues, my husband has them too, and I need real answers and help — not to read man-bashing posts. It just isn’t going to help anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Meghan and thanks for your “blunt” perspective here, which you do have a perfect right to share – just as I have a right to express my own frustration. By comparison, one of my Twitter followers (who happened to be a man) sternly scolded me recently because I’d retweeted a political opinion I happened to share, warning me: “I’m following you to be updated on heart health news, NOT on your political views.”

      But that’s the nice thing about writing a personal blog: it’s not academic, not organizational, it’s just me, one person, writing about what interests me, whether it’s political or psychosocial or heart stuff – or pictures of my grandbaby. The beauty of this is that, unlike in my 35+ year public relations career, no boss or client or editor now dictates what I can say or not.

      Sometimes you might agree with me, sometimes not, and either way, you’re free to weigh in with your opinions. I’m very glad that you have enjoyed my blog and my book so far.

      PS I’m an equal-opportunity crank, by the way, and YES I have in fact also taken issue with women, not just men who have left (in my opinion) equally annoying comments!


      1. Hi Carolyn, thank you for your too-kind response to my too-critical post. I do apologize for being so blunt. It’s not really like me and after posting I felt guilty about it all week. Frankly, I’m dealing with my own depression and anger following my new diagnosis of a-fib in early March (I have 2 stents too) and really not wanting to take a blood thinner as my dr wants me to. But I should not have vented on you. I apologize.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hello again Meghan – I appreciate your generous apology, which means a lot to me. You have also helped to remind me that when somebody snaps at us, we never really know what’s going on for that person that may have prompted that angry reaction. I do know that a new AFib diagnosis (one more thing you didn’t need!) is very stressful, and I hope you and your doc can work out a good treatment plan that works for YOU. Best of luck to you…


          1. Thanks for being understanding, Carolyn. I constantly try to remind myself that there is always another side of the story that I don’t know whenever someone snaps at me. I know a lot of reactive people who are really deeply hurting inside and I usually have compassion for them. Maybe heart patients fall easily into that category too?


        2. Hello Meghan,

          I am sorry to hear that you have A Fib, as well as stents. In 2012 I was diagnosed with A Fib. I am on a special blood thinner that does not require the regular monitoring. It is covered by my health care insurance, except for the deductible. I haven’t noticed any difficulty with the bloodthinner, which I take twice a day, except when I need surgery. Then I stop taking it for a few days prior to surgery.

          For years I took my pulse and blood pressure each morning. Now, it’s so “regularly irregular” that I don’t bother. Just one less thing to do. This very minute the pulse is 73 and the BP 111 over 76. Very normal for me. But not in sinus rhythm. I now see my cardiologist every six months. He isn’t concerned about it, so neither am I.

          My cardiologist has saved my life twice. Once from Congestive Heart Failure. I have had a cardioversion (Shock treatment to restore normal rhythm) but its effects were shortlived. The week after the cardioversion I went on a Caribbean Cruise with no problems.

          That said, I am tired all the time. Sleep does not relieve my fatigue. But I pace myself. I am learning to say “No” and I do things that bring me joy.

          I am also recovering from Stage 3 Cancer (and its full treatment) and two bereavements: my husband from Pancreatic Cancer and my mother.

          I wish you well. Here’s just to say that you can live, and live well, with A Fib. These days I hardly think of it at all.

          Honey Bee


          1. Hi Margaret,

            Thank you for your kind words. Good to know that the blood thinner isn’t causing you any trouble. My husband was on coumadin following a car accident that left him with blood clots in his broken leg and around the time they were going to take him off of it anyway he started bleeding internally. My doctor isn’t prescribing coumadin but I guess that experience and the possible side effects of a blood thinner do scare me. I was on Brilinta following both stents and the last day I took it I had a terrible nosebleed that just wouldn’t stop. Hubby was ready to take me to the ER but we did get it under control after awhile.

            So sorry about your other diagnoses and about your bereavements, that must be so hard for you. But glad with you that the A-fib isn’t causing concern. Thanks again.


        3. Meghan, That was a courageous apology & I wanted you to know that I understand…

          I struggled with heart failure and then A-fib which my doctor refused to treat with an ablation, so for years it continued…meds weren’t helpful long term and so my heart failure worsened….stress over that Afib issue caused me to over-react several times over the years.

          We are indeed heart sisters in so many different ways! I hope you will forgive yourself as you realize you are reacting to a new heart stressor in the best way you can…we are human together and I’m sending you a hug through my message……

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you, Sunny. We are indeed heart sisters here. I lead a cardiac support group and in my email signature I wrote “Only a heart patient understands how another heart patient feels.”

            Hug appreciated and received! Thanks again. Wishing you well with your own A-fib and other heart diagnoses.


  4. I think Garry could have done better expressing care but the fact he even tried to help is noble. Some people, women as well as men, are truly just trying to be helpful. Not everyone knows the perfect formula to help anyone and everyone feel better but I think Garry was trying the best he could.

    Lots more people just read on by or ignored Christie. I have heart problems and the coinciding depression and I can’t possibly try every remedy everyone suggests. However I do graciously accept that people who share their advice and stories of aunt so-and-so’s experience are people who care to help. Garry could have been less blunt and added some kind words to Christie but Garry did try to help.

    I love the people who try to help. They keep giving my heart reason to keep beating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lyn – you may be right (and generously so!) I have often thought that when advice based on aunt so-and-so’s experience is offered, it’s because the listener might feel that saying something helpful is mandatory, but not knowing exactly how to do this by just listening, this is their very best shot at saying something!


    1. Thx WN – you may be onto something. In linguist Deborah Tannen’s landmark book You Just Don’t Understand (about the differences in how men and women communicate), she wrote:

      “For most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships… For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence, and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order.”


  5. Too hard on Garry? Hah! Not hard enough! Telling the truth is not being hard…but he seems obtuse…” Uh, I don’t get depression as I am not in touch with my own feelings, let alone another person’s feeling….so….I will turn to what I think I do know…that’s my comfort zone…lecturing others.”

    I say, “Zip it, Garry, just zip it! “

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sunny – I think you’ve hit upon a great secondary point here. What Christie was talking about (not being able to sleep because she felt so afraid her hubby might die overnight, for example) might just be incomprehensible to him….


  6. Absolutely not! If anything, too easy, but then he isn’t listening to you, either. You’re female! My brother is this way and I finally had to unfriend him on Facebook when he told me I had no authority to express my own opinions on my own darned feed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gee, Pat, you know women are getting uppity when they start thinking they’re allowed to express their own opinions on their own social media sites…. 😉 Reminds me of one of my blog readers who, in response to one of my rant-posts, wrote: “Carolyn, who cares what YOU think?!?!”
      Ha ha ha ha ha ha….


  7. Good God no – you weren’t too harsh on ol’ Gar. I mean, really!! Annoying hardly begins to describe it.

    I know the Garry situation is different, but there is one mansplaining scenario that your readers may recognize or may want to be aware of. It’s a frequent refuge for those men who are caught unaware and overwhelmed by the serious condition of their partners. The emotions are too scary, so they switch to the other side of their brain and try to use all that knowledge to “fix” the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point, Deborah – The Problem-Solving gene: VERY recognizable…

      And even beyond partners: I recall this scenario with a former male colleague when I ran into him a few months post-heart attack. When I told him I’d had a heart attack and was on my way to my cardiac rehab class, he absolutely froze for a weirdly long time, staring at me. You could almost hear the wheels in his brain turning in slow-motion…. Then he seemed to click awake in time to switch to that other side of his brain to advise me on what kind of specific gym workouts would be best for me now! (Never mind that he knew I was on my way to a cardiac rehab class where experts who knew what they were talking about would be supervising me!) He looked SO uncomfortable that I felt uncomfortable, too! I wanted to immediately change the subject and say, not to worry, I’m fine, just fine!


  8. Are you being too hard on mansplainers like Garry? Hell no! I think it’s important to call people out on rotten, insensitive and hurtful behaviour. *Hug*

    I love this blog, by the way, and I really appreciate you for writing it and giving women with heart disease a voice. Thank you for everything you do. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

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