Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The expression dates back to the early 1900s, from the description of hearing the loud ‘thump’ of an upstairs apartment neighbour loudly dropping one shoe onto a bedroom floor. It’s that state of suspended focus. Waiting. Waiting. Not knowing when that other shoe upstairs will finally drop so that you can roll over and go quietly back to sleep.
But you can’t know exactly when or even if you’ll hear that second ‘thump’. You can’t predict that outcome, any more than we can predict the emerging outcomes of our current COVID-19 virus scare. And waiting for outcomes can feel exhausting. .
How this feels for me is not unlike how I felt in the early days and weeks after being discharged from the hospital, post-heart attack. Every new chest twinge sent me into a tailspin. Was this something? Was it nothing? Should I call 911? I became pervasively hypervigilant, waiting for that other shoe to drop.
If you’re a freshly-diagnosed heart patient, you too may recognize that feeling. See also: Cognitive Dread: the Painful Uncertainty of Waiting
Back then, I was also learning many scary new facts about a diagnosis I’d never even thought about until then (mostly because I mistakenly believed that heart attacks happen only to old, fat men – and certainly never to me).
Yet I also learned some other realities along with the scary stats: for example, women are more likely to die during the first year post-heart attack compared to our male counterparts, but the reality is also that most women do NOT die during that first year. This year will mark my own 12-year “heartiversary” since my own heart attack and subsequent bonus diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease. And I still seem to be very much alive – despite those scary statistics.
Many things about my life are of course very different now (my wonderful 35+ year public relations career ended with a whimper, most notably). Still, it’s amazing to me that I seem to have somehow adapted to ongoing cardiac symptoms – all while needing to learn the fine art of p-a-c-i-n-g. See also: “The Day I Made Peace with an Errant Organ
Eventually, I found that ruminating on my imminent death was simply too exhausting to maintain, and I gradually began to accept that I might as well live my life as best I could each day, for as many days as I have. Which is, by the way, how every one of us, heart patients or not, should also be living.
It’s true that I MIGHT die of another massive heart attack this week, but I also MIGHT get hit by a bus today while I’m out for my morning walk. Yet I waste essentially no time at all worrying about death by public transit.
This is where I am this week while now contemplating the rapidly changing environment around the Corona COVID-19 viral pandemic.
As I like to do, I look to credible sources to learn as much as I possibly can about what I need to know: scientists, researchers, physicians – not uneducated politicians.
And as the World Health Organization reminds us:
“Facts can help to minimize fears.”
Experts in infectious diseases tell us that about 20 per cent of those who are diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus will experience severe symptoms; about five per cent will become sick enough to need hospitalization (that is still a crazy-big number of people, by the way!) But 80 per cent of infected patients will experience a relatively mild case of the virus and stay at home under quarantine until they are no longer testing positive.
I felt overwhelmed and scared when I first started learning about this virus. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: heart patients are apparently at higher risk of 1. being infected and 2. being hospitalized – which is why staying ferociously determined to adopt every preventive precaution available is even more important to us than to non-heart patients.(1) . See also: Heart Patients Warned of Risks from Coronavirus (COVID-19) from The American College of Cardiology’s CardioSmart patient report.
But the more I learned, the more I understood that I have no control over what lies ahead – other than what I can choose to do personally to maximize my own chances of staying healthy. I have absolutely no control over how long this pandemic will last, over how much toilet paper is at the store, or over those self-centred idiots cramming Florida beaches this week during their Spring Break.
All I can do now is follow strict community health guidelines that will help protect me and my family from becoming infected: wash my hands, stay home, wash my hands, don’t touch my face, and wash my hands.
Heart patients must learn as much as we can about all recommended precautions – and follow each one as if our lives depended on them. Because they do!
Sandra Pawula lives in Hawaii, where she’s a writer, a teacher of mindfulness meditation and, as she likes to say, an “advocate of ease”. (And couldn’t we all use a little more “ease” in life right about now?)
As Sandra warns on her insightful blog, Always Well Within:
“Remind yourself: You can’t control the outcome.
“You can’t control the outcome of the coronavirus pandemic. You can’t control what other people do or don’t do. Worry, anxiety, and fear won’t make one bit of difference. They only harm you by keeping you in a state of chronic arousal or plunging you into numbness or depression.
“When stress starts to arise, remind yourself that you can’t control the outcome.
“Instead, take whatever proactive steps you can to protect yourself and those close to you. Focus on what you can do. Taking positive action can reduce stress, and make you feel safer.
“It looks like we’re in this for the long haul because we may not see the end of infections for some time, and COVID-19 has impacted the economy dramatically.
“I believe, in time, the world will recover from the novel Corona virus crisis. In the meantime, you’ll need to take conscious steps to keep your stress levels down.
“There are many ways to care for yourself in stressful times. Take a moment to make an inventory of the attitudes and practices that help you reduce stress and stay calm when you feel fear or anxiety.
“Gather together your own personalized stress tool kit and use your self-care practices everyday. The more you reconnect to your calm center, the more you’ll be able to be there for others, too.”
And finally, here’s what the World Health Organization suggests to help yourself and your family stay calm:
“Minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information only from trusted sources and mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones.
“The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried. Get the facts; not the rumours and misinformation.
“Facts can help to minimize fears.”
And, oh – one more thing – did I mention?
“Wash your hands!”
1. American College of Cardiology, CardioSmart, “Heart Patients Warned of Risks from Corona Virus“, March 13, 2020.
.NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how patients can manage many types of change brought on by health crises 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. (Spring Book Sale! Use their code HTRY to save 30% off the list price).
Q: What’s been most helpful in learning to accept that you cannot control outcomes?