I continue to work my way back from the heart attack I suffered during a trail race about 17 days ago. Okay, I confess, I've been trying to write this damn post for almost 3 days, and keep getting side-tracked!
I could whine about this whole rehab and recovery thing being no fun - which is true - but I choose instead to look forward instead of backward, to focus on improving and enjoying every breath instead of feeling sorry for myself or wallowing in frustration. After all, I have much to live for, such as my three wonderful sons
and of course my fabulous wife
So I'm planning on sticking around for awhile, and in fact not just being there but also on being vital and active during the time that I am around. One step at a time, one day at a time, but with the road clearly mapped - thanks in large part to many dedicated doctors and nurses. IMHO, it's always good to have a plan.
I am now alternating my daily "workouts" between (a) visits to the cardiac rehab facility or (b) working up a mild sweat on my own.
At the cardiac rehab facility I experience something that is at once both humbling and surreal. The facility at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital is really very nice, and the staff have been terrifically friendly and helpful. But for me it's really odd to be attending sessions where I exercise alongside folks who are clearly decades older than I am and who have more than likely lived very different sorts of lives. I overhear discussions about diabetes, smoking cessation, dietary changes, and other very important topics for people who have not really taken care of themselves for decades (probably). I don't mean that be insulting or judgmental, and anyone who knows me also knows that I believe in the "to each his own" (or to each her own, I'm not sexist) approach to life: as long as what you are doing doesn't harm another person, then by all means feel free to continue. What's so weird for me is that I am surrounded by people who've experienced a serious cardiac issue just like me, but who are so significantly NOT LIKE me that it's as if I'm in the wrong place! At some level I know that's stupid and possibly narcissistic, because in truth all of us there are more alike than we are different, and everybody is trying to get better. We are a sort of club, or cohort. In fact, when one of us is finished with the rehab, the nurses jokingly refer to it as "graduation day". So we all strive together, and look forward to that symbolic diploma.
The facility is sort of like a mix between a semi-posh health club and mission control.
Actually, it's not either of those things exactly, but instead it's a series of concentric rings: in the center are the cardiac nurses who are manning banks of computers that monitor all of us via portable EKG devices; the next ring is made up of nurses and physical therapists who work directly with us, helping, measuring, encouraging; the next ring is an array of workout equipment ranging from fairly standard treadmills and stationary bikes to modified equipment that is very low impact and more appropriate for those who are less fit or possibly in fragile physical condition; finally the outer ring is a sort of track that encircles the entire encampment, used by patients to take monitored walks and to be tested on a timed six-minute walk (either as a pre-test or as a final measurement of improvement at graduation day). It all works like a well-oiled machine, and I'm there with my crew thumping away on the treadmill at 3.8 mph for all of 15 paltry minutes - wishing I could go faster and longer. Patience, patience, patience - not my strength I guess.
Conversely, when I'm exercising on my own, I've been focusing on cycling - gently - which enables me to open up my lungs, re-train my heart muscles, and to be OUTSIDE again. You never realize how much you miss the fresh air until you have it pulled away from you. Just feeling the wind on my face (and the occasional bug in my mouth) is bringing me such basic joy!
Of course, I'm only toodling along, and I'm being passed by EVERYONE: commuters with bulging messenger bags, mothers pulling kids in bike trailers, old ladies on their therapeutic tricycles, etc. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating just a bit there, but I do admit that I'm sitting in my seat, spinning a low gear, barely maintaining 14 mph and there are definitely people passing me left and right who would not have done so just three weeks ago (even on my easiest day). Well, I suppose the right attitude for me to take is "good for you, go for it". But I'm human, and mostly I just feel envy and frustration. Darn.
That time on the bike, going easy, sometimes zoning out, has given me some time to confront my mixed up feelings about this whole messy chapter in my life. Aside from dealing with anger/annoyance/frustration, feeling impatient, feeling somewhat emasculated, and whining about it all (those are the minor irritants, when you boil it down), what does bring me to my proverbial knees emotionally is confronting the reality of my own mortality.
In his seminal book The Denial of Death author Ernest Becker lays out a fascinating treatise that builds on the works of Soren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, and Otto Rank. Becker's basic premise is the we humans embark on a sort of "immortality project", wherein we can overcome the dilemma of knowing we will die by a pursuit of becoming part of something that feels eternal. Yeah, I know, it's not simple or obvious, and frankly you'll need to read the book because I am admittedly no expert here. My totally amateur interpretation is that we need to create meaning and a sense of permanence, or else we'd all be in a psychological state of paralysis brought on by thinking something like this: "I'm going to die and disappear anyway, so why bother?" From that perspective, all that we strive for, find joy in, love/desire/lose, and all other personal experiences are enabled only because we can deny our own impermanence.
Thus, when that shield of denial is pierced by, oh say perhaps having a totally unexpected heart attack, it creates a great deal of inner emotional turmoil and chaos.
Perhaps the true measure of a person is how they then cope with that disruption.
I'm also no expert on Freud, but in reading ALL of his books (yes, I went to grad school), I think I was able to glean at least a surface understanding. If anything, Freud was recommending that all of us open our eyes to ourselves, confront our defenses, admit that life is rife with conflicts and disappointments, but then just get on with it anyway! His work showed that denial and other defenses could be -when taken too far - maladjustments to life, leading to all kinds of dysfunctional mental, emotional, and even physical states.
Interesting, right? But am I just intellectualizing here? And, really, this is a blog post, so enough already! All I'm really trying to say is that it's hard, at times, just readjusting to what amounts to a sort of new life. I'm getting my feet back on the ground, moving forward, but I'm not fully recovered yet - and that means not just my injured heart but also my tumultuous psyche. I remain confident that I'll emerge from this eventually, and I wish it would be NOW, but time is an essential part of the healing process, isn't it?
If you are healing from any difficulties in your life, know that you aren't alone and that we all have to face our own demons now and then. Let's all try to be patient - but let's also admit that our task is not simply waiting for time to pass. Instead, we have to work actively at getting better, and not just physically.
In closing this all-too-long post, I just want to re-thank everyone who has been on my side and wishing me well. Every single thought matters and helps. Thank you!