Like most of us, my time on this earth has been bookmarked by a number of important “before” and “after” experiences: the way I lived my life before key events occurred, and the way my life changed after they occurred. Before and after I got married. Before and after I became a mother. Before and after I ran my first half-marathon. But one of the most profound changes has to be before and after the fateful day in the Emergency Department when a cardiologist told me,“You have significant heart disease”.
Many of us living with a chronic and progressive illness like this often view these periods of life as two parts: the normal and wonderful times before the traumatic diagnosis, and all the not-wonderful days that have been happening ever since. .
The more time I spend in this particular after period, the more tempting it is to look way back on those long-ago before days with rose-coloured nostalgia.
- I live with painful refractory angina caused by coronary microvascular disease, so I recall those before days as always blissfully pain-free.
- I live with long periods of crushing fatigue that require me to carefully plan every moment, each outing book-ended by napping like a preschooler, so I recall those before days as always blissfully active.
- I live with great difficulty focusing or being alert as the day wears on, so I recall those before days as one blissfully endless game of late-night Trivial Pursuit (during which, of course, I crushed my opponents.)
But as the writer Marcel Proust wisely reminded us:
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
The reality, if I look hard at the unembroidered truth, is that like everybody else, I experienced plenty of periods of pain, exhaustion and losing at Trivial Pursuit during my first five decades of life. Sure, far fewer periods than I now encounter these days, but I was certainly not immune to the basic ups and downs that all of us face.
It’s in that seductive rosy glow of nostalgia when I convince myself the good old days weren’t just “good”, but they were better than good.
They were PERFECT.
“Once in a while, I find myself ruminating about my ‘perfect’ pre-illness life. What a delusion! While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying fond memories of the past, it’s not the same as convincing yourself that life was perfect then – or even near perfect.
“Life wasn’t perfect before I got sick. It had its share of easy times and tough times, of successes and disappointments. When I put that ‘old’ life on a pedestal, thinking that it was perfect, I try to remember that this is a romanticized view of the past that serves only to make me feel bad about the present.
“When I find myself doing this, I try to get on with the day I’m in right now.”
There is, I should add, an alternative way to view “before” and “after” that seems increasingly popular.
This perspective suggests that a catastrophic diagnosis is actually some kind of gift from the universe that has somehow brought meaning and wisdom to my previously meaningless existence so that I can now live life to the fullest, almost as if my “after” time is actually superior to my “before” time. See also: Does surviving a heart attack make you a better person?
This view implies that the “before” was actually worse than what we’re enjoying now in the “after”, embracing the newish 1990s concept of “Post-Traumatic Growth“ as explained in the journal Psychological Inquiry:(1)
“Post-Traumatic Growth is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises. Although the term is new, the idea that great good can come from great suffering is ancient.”
I don’t personally subscribe to the theory of Post-Traumatic Growth (because sometimes “great suffering” is simply suffering, not a noble life lesson meant to inspire others (as I wrote more about here). But at the same time, I know that my tendency to idealize everything that happened yesterday is not particularly helpful today.
It seems to me, now 11 years in as a heart patient with ongoing cardiac symptoms, that it’s about aiming for realistic balance on a path toward acceptance and adjustment. There are often losses associated with being diagnosed with chronic illness; it takes time and resolve to grieve them, to aim for “What is, is.”
But as Toni Bernhard reminds us,
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that life before chronic illness was always a breeze.”
(1) Richard G. Tedeschi, Lawrence G. Calhoun. Post-traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory. Volume 15, Issue 1, 2004.
Q: Are there some parts of your “before diagnosis” life that you especially miss? Are there some that you don’t miss?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how heart patients often respond to a life-altering diagnosis in Chapter 7 of my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017). Yes, that was the chapter that the anonymous cardiologist who reviewed the book before it went to print suggested was “irrelevant to female heart patients” and should be deleted. (I objected, and happily, Chapter 7 stayed!) You can ask for this book at your local library or favourite 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.)
Read Nancy Stordahl’s brave and compelling memoir: Cancer Was Not A Gift And It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person