Hello readers–thanks for stopping by! Thus far I am adding a new post weekly by Saturday. If anyone is interested in subscribing, please check out the process–it’s easy!
I write about addictions treatment/recovery lifestyle issues as I am an addictions clinician. I also am interested in any topic or experience that supports my belief in transformation and healing through intentional living and keeping our minds and spirits open to the power of Divine Love.
I enjoy writing creative non-fiction but my first loves are poetry and fiction; they will be added to this site.
February is American Heart Month and Go Red for Women. Heart Disease is the number 1 killer of women. We don’t always recognize the symptoms. Many factors increase the risk of heart disease, not just cholesterol or having weight issues. I have heart disease and got it young; I was thin, exercised, ate okay, did not have high cholesterol. Below is the first post of I wrote for my blog in 2011 about my experience of being ill, getting the right help, the work of ongoing recovery and my gratitude for so much well being. If you even suspect you may have a heart problem, do not delay: seek help, be of good courage and win the battle for greater health.
I am a born walker. I love the way my arms and legs swing rhythmically and how my breathing deepens, the close up views of place and people from sidewalks or forested trails. My appreciation of walking likely started when I was a child. I rode my bike often but I walked ten blocks to school and back both alone and with friends. I took leisurely walks around the neighborhood to see friends or just to seek folks on front porches or working in their yards–I wanted to see what was going on. I spent hours in nearby Birch Woods, jumping over roots and navigating leggy plants, around birches, maples, elms, poplars, oaks, along the creek. Sometimes I fancied myself a spy and kept tabs on the crusty Benfers’ sprawling garden beside our house, or Stark Nursery’s rows of new trees where I meandered at my leisure as the sun set (and the business closed). I recall my mother walking with frightful efficiency and pace, two heavy bags of groceries in her arms, my short steps scurrying to keep up with hers. When I became a mother, my children nagged me to slow down. And one of those years I realized they were almost walking past me, well-trained.
Now I walk daily unless constrained by intolerable weather or bed-bound by illness. I hike in woods and on numerous trails around the Pacific Northwest, as nature nourishes me. I walk during the daytime in the city and at night after ten- eleven hour days at work, my spouse often joining me. We update each other on day’s events, beautiful old homes adorned with graceful gardens in our neighborhood. But mostly I walk not to be sociable or to rid myself of stress but because my legs love to move–and my life depends on it.
Almost eleven (note: the heart event was in 2001; this was written in 2012) years ago my husband and I were hiking in the Columbia River Gorge area. We had taken a well-used trail with steep ascending and descending trails that took us deeper into emerald-green of an early September day. I felt sweaty, and a bit breathless but thought little of it. I’d experienced shortness of breath before–and even since I’d quit smoking 9 months prior. I pushed myself harder, not one to shirk at a challenge. I could hear the our destination waterfall in the distance. I would rest then. As we climbed up railroad ties embedded in a hill, my legs began to feel rubbery and to weaken, my chest compressed and breath came hard. I was having trouble getting oxygen in me and it hurt each time I tried. My spouse had moved ahead of me. People passed by with barely a glance as I began to crumple. I willed my legs to carry me up the last steps. Then it landed with a vengeance: the proverbial elephant on my chest. It weighed so many tons and created such deep aching I could not cry out. I somehow–about on my knees– pulled myself over the top step to where my husband stood. Then fell forward as Bridal Veil waterfall roared in my ears, then was muted by my state of being.
It was like a hallucinogenic dream trip through the woods as I stumbled and then was half-carried by Marc to the car. Breathing was labored. An odd electric sensation shot through my chest from time to time. I felt nauseous, so exhausted it was as if I might sleep for an eternity. But once in the car we did not head to the hospital. I thought only: sleep in my own bed. We went home and I said to Marc that I would make a medical appointment to get my lungs checked. Was it the start of COPD– or cancer? Damned cigarettes. I knew viscerally I was in serious trouble. Tomorrow, I thought, and fell into a restless, haunted sleep.
When I awakened weary and anxious the next morning I held in my mind one clear thought: I had to find a heart doctor. Not a lung doctor. It was as though I had been sent a blaring message. Rather than look online at my insurance providers list, I oddly went through the yellow pages and asked each cardiologist’s office closest to my home if they took our insurance. I felt an urgency that superseded all. After a half-dozen calls, I found an office that accepted the insurance and had a physician who would see me without a referral. The nurse I was routed to was patient. Dr. P. was a new doctor in their large cardiology practice. After I described all my symptoms to a nurse, I was given a slot the next morning but informed I should call 911 if previous symptoms returned.
I shivered with fear, then calm. I had unprecedented faith in forthcoming medical help. This, despite two doctors I’d sought over the previous year who told me I had “anxiety due to menopause, take a benzopdiazapine.” I left disgusted and without a prescription. I knew there was more to it, but what? I carried on with my life, ignoring the too fast/missed beats and weird pains and uneasiness–until that hike in the forest.
I could list the tests, share the discussions we had that day but what really happened was that Dr. P. listened. He heard me–my symptoms (which included a worsening rapid heart rate with increasingly less physical exertion, feeling breathless, uncomfortable in my chest–perhaps, yes, as if anxious at times), asked me probing questions– and took immediate action. He believed I’d had a heart attack but it would be hard to discern at that point. I was fifty-one years old and had no risk factors other than having smoked for thirty years until the last seven months. He didn’t believe it was the smoking, though it was perhaps a contributor. Perhaps stress or a genetic link. But I was too healthy, overall, in good shape, and young for such an event. He seemed nearly as shocked as I did but knew my heart was ill.
Dr. P. informed me he was newer to this work but had done over three hundred angiograms–the procedure most used to determine if and how badly an artery is closed or clogged. An attending cardiologist and he would do all they could to help me not only stay alive but become healthier for the long-term. Did I trust him? Was the procedure going to reveal what was needed to help me? I asked myself as I went home to share the news with Marc. As I awaited his arrival, I stared out our big picture window and knew that I did. I was also caught in a strange state, knowing I could have been dead or might yet be, but also felt vibrantly alive, if a bit out of body as well. I also knew I was ready for whatever came next. I thought it all good enough.
On September 17, 2001 I was provided a way back to health with the first stent implant. The tiny device propped open an artery that had narrowed and was 90% closed. It wasn’t cholesterol but inflammation that was the culprit. I had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. It was not the end of it. I would have four angiograms over the next two years and another stent implant as well as changes in heart medications. I returned home each time with wild arrhythmias that sometimes still want to bully me. Tachycardia became an intimate foe, from zero to one hundred and forty. I learned that if it held to one hundred and twenty I could bear it but still call 911. But medications were changed and I went to cardiac rehab and got brave enough to walk on my own again. Ultimately, my heart became much stronger and it beat far more safely so I could inhabit a life worth living.
And so, though always an active person, I began to walk more, first ten minutes and then twenty minutes, in a few weeks forty-five, then finally an hour or two, six days a week, sometimes seven. I had taken time off from work and might have become engaged in swimming or bicycling; I flirted with the idea of flamenco. or something else exotic. But it was simple walking that drew me out of the painful sense of loss and into the world; walking that gave me a little thrill of anticipation; greater encouragement each day as I felt my heart flutter, jump, pause and startle. Walking reunited me with a life of kaleidoscopic wonders. Everything tasted, smelled, looked and felt better. My heart pumped hard, oxygen surged through me so that my mind clarified; my spirit felt more courageous, and lighter.
Oddly, my emotional heart felt more open to everyone and all I care about. I had been a tough woman for many years so that I could survive an assortment of trials, get past loves that had soured. I discovered the path to healing a heart is more challenging but richer than I had imagined. Not a day has passed that I don’t find a reason to laugh for the sheer pleasure of it: my heart became profoundly capable of more living. My emotions were loosened so I felt fully human, closer to who and what I knew as a young child.
And each time Dr. P. tells me: “You’re a star patient. You’ve beaten the odds so far. Your hard work pays off every day.”
I tell him: “You listened to me and saved my life.”
That day I walked my fingers to the yellow pages? They took me to a person who is a fine and committed cardiologist, one who has always cheered me on my journey. Maybe it was a guardian angel who left me the urgent directive that early morning. But I still walk every day out of respect for him, for myself, for this irreplaceable treasure called life. I discovered the power of a mended heart. I intend to use it well.
GO RED FOR WOMEN:
G: GET YOUR NUMBERS
Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.
O: OWN YOUR LIFESTYLE
Stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, and eat healthy.
It’s up to you. No one can do it for you.
R: REALIZE YOUR RISK
We think it won’t happen to us, but heart disease kills one of three women.
E: EDUCATE YOUR FAMILY
Make healthy food choices for you and your family.
Teach your kids the importance of staying active.
D: DON’T BE SILENT
Tell every woman you know that heart disease is our No. 1 killer.
Houses call to me. I drew them as a child and dreamed of becoming an architect. I photograph them wherever I travel. In my neighborhood are some of the most graceful, historic homes in the city. I wander the streets just to admire their porches or roof lines, the overall forms and surprising details. I have lived in many sorts of houses, from a renovated chicken coop to a house that had once had a beauty salon in the basement to a unique A-frame situated on an acre of rolling Tennessee land. Houses are magnetic to me with their stone, wood and glass and all the innards that make them work right, their mysterious stories, and their deep value as social center and family refuge. We create a life in our habitations and they help shape who we are. The mark we make on them is indelible–until the next person comes and creates a life there.
But so many people don’t have even modest houses or apartments to call their own. They live in the elements and work hard to survive. Many strive to find a place other than a makeshift or crowded shelter, a spot where they can feel secure and make their mark upon: home.
One such person is Caralynn.
She was panting from hurrying from the bus to my office. Hank, her companion dog, limped along beside her. She removed her backpack and then took out a well-used rawhide chew for Hank. He lowered himself carefully at her feet. He was a mix of breeds, black with a couple splashes of white, medium build, his dark eyes sad and watchful. “We’re both street mutts, so that works out,” she’d once told me.
Hank looked at me and then away, disinterested. He didn’t distrust me but he only ever favored Caralynn. He had her back, she had his.
“I think I got a place. A studio at Creighton Place. It will cost me a lot of money, about three hundred, but it looks pretty good.”
Her lined face was transformed with a gap-toothed smile; her eyes were clear and radiant. The new weight added softness, and her hands didn’t shake that day. The anxiety that reared up when the alcohol and heroin were left behind was a constant reminder of what she had lived and how she had endured. The depression threatened her peace of mind so often that she felt like she walked a tightrope. But she found her balance again and again.
Caralynn had come to treatment months ago with a will to hew out a new life from the remainders of the old one. She had lived on the street most of her life; her car had been her mobile home for years at a time. But today she announced a major step in the journey with pride.
“You did the work. Now you can enjoy the results,” I said, smiling back.
“But,” she frowned, “you probably know this: I’m scared. I have some money now, a place and I am taking Hank, of course, or I wouldn’t be moving in. But I’m worried. It’s a lot to have after having nothing. It’s a lot to learn. How to spend money–I want a microwave and maybe a little TV. A bed. I have to figure out how to be a permanent neighbor! How to get used to those walls. I wonder if I will be lonely. ”
“On the street, it isn’t lonely to me. I know people everywhere I go. We meet and share smokes and coffee, food if we have any. There’s a freedom. There’s good and bad like everywhere. Hard to sleep under the bridge or overpass, in the woods, in a doorway. Hard to stay warm, and dry, find bathrooms. Dangerous at times, okay? Bad times might outweigh the better ones. I was thinking I could have trouble keeping some people away. I might want to live with just myself for once. And Hank. You know I wouldn’t make it wthout him.” She smoothed his ears back, gave him a good rub.
“You have other friends now.”
Caralynn tilted her head at me. “You’re right. I got the AA meetings. I come here every week. I met a couple women at the shelter who are nice, I guess, if I decide to trust them.”
I waited as she thought about these things. Everyone had made it priority to help her find housing, but it wasn’t that simple. It was leaving one life, and entering another. There were no clear instructions for this one. She didn’t know many of the new rules.
“I might not make it,” she said, her head hanging low. “I could screw it up. Spend too much money, make enemies I can’t get away from, get crazy-bored in a tiny room. I might give up. Even take a drink. ” She sighed and for a moment it sounded as though she was going to cry. Hank stood up and nudged her hand with his nose. “But all those mights or might nots just make it hard to let go and move on. So I have to love myself and my higher power enough to hang on to a little more faith.”
Caralynn sat back and looked at me hard. Her eyes were dewy. She swiped at her nose with the back of her hand.
“You gonna be here if I screw up?”
“Have you ever been homeless?’
The question startles me. I am overtaken with images from the past. There was the college year when I was between goals and choices and had to couch-surf for a few weeks. Another year in Texas when there was little furniture and less food and cockroaches that greeted me in the bathroom in the middle of the night. There was a time I was locked out of an apt. by a vindictive roommate and I wandered and hid all night until a restaurant opened. Or when I moved back into my parents’ house for six months with two children and a husband because he could find no work.
“Well, not exactly.”
“No, probably not,” Caralynn concluded. “It’s okay. The important thing is, we both know what counts.”
“Well, I told you a long time ago that the only way I could really love myself was to forgive others, forgive the whole past. I thought that might go a long way toward keeping me sober and clean. You agreed. That changed my life. And here we are celebrating my first home.” She looked at her new quartz ten-dollar watch. “Time to go to group.” She tugged at Hank and he stood up tall.
“That’s my very first brand-new, working watch,” Caralynn said. “I might even get a clock radio to put by a futon if I can afford it or a used bed if I can’t.” She laughed. “I can’t believe it!”
I opened the door. “You’ll figure it out. Just stay clean and sober.”
“I will. See you next week with more updates.”
Caralynn hurried down the hall and Hank trotted off-kilter beside her. She was talking to him, as usual, making sure he understood what was next.
Note: The names and identifying features of the persons and dog in this post have been changed to protect their privacy. They are composites based on real persons and experiences.
Despite the sudden loss of weight the last few months, Vince still seemed too large for the office. He leaned deeper into the red cushioned chair, scratched the stubble on his chin and chuckled. I waited, my mug of tea in hand. He had just returned from a trip on the other side of the mountain with a new friend. He looked like a scruffy-feathered crane, tall and bony with a head of soft, sparse hair.
“It did or didn’t turn out like you thought?” I asked.
“Well,” he said and spread out his large, calloused hands in the space between us, “I got back alive. I was humbled. I left thinking it was going to be a nice holiday experience, over the mountains, a chance to get to know more about K.T. and his family. Instead,” he shook his head, “instead, Miss C., I’m walking into this house where chaos reigns, the radio and three TVs and everybody moving, the dogs dying to meet me, the cats chasing what looks like a smart mouse, and an older lady-his aunt?-dancing in the kitchen in sweat pants, tank top and an apron.” He crossed his bony legs and folded his hands. “I had to get my bearings. Where’s the Christmas tree? Oh, tilting to one side behind the exercise bike, next to the huge flat screen which flashes at me like an electronic billboard in Times Square. But it’s the day after Christmas, right? Things are not as usual maybe. And I’d said I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, my little house with my stereo system creating an island of peace and too damned much alone time. The only thing is, I wasn’t ready for it.”
“Ready?” I prompt.
“Well, there were the uncle and cousins racking up beer cans at one in the afternoon, and from the basement I could detect eau de cannabis co-mingling with the aroma of greasy fried chicken from the kitchen. I couldn’t figure which one made me break out in a sweat more. Smoke from cigarettes, the big fireplace and the weed made everything gauzy. Or it might have been me.
“But they were all welcoming me, the kid’s new mentor, right? We sat right down and started shooting the breeze. K.T. turned off the TV, and I started to unwind so why not go with the flow? The chicken and baked potatoes were pretty good, we played some gin rummy and his family seemed happy to have us. By nine o’clock I was tired out, but K.T. and gang were just waking up. Out come the cartons of wine, a couple of cases, and the weed moved upstairs with two teenage girls, his sisters. I pulled K.T. aside. What’s with the kids smoking dope? He shrugged and got us a couple of Cokes from the frig. I made a salad for my snack, then sat watching from the dining room table. The group was loosening up and the jokes weren’t very funny.The cats kept trying to get in on the ham pieces in my salad so I finally went out on the porch and ate. The snow floated down. I could imagine the Cascade Mountains and felt good. But by the time I got cold and went inside, the party was cranking up. Cars started pulling in like someone had sent out an all-points bulletin. Some guy was yelling something raunchy and the older lady, his aunt, grabbed my hand with a gleam in her eye as she offered me a glass of wine. I waved K.T. to come talk to me but there it was: a beer bottle at his lips. He stared back at me, then slunk away. So upstairs I went, lay down on the bed fully clothed and put in my earplugs. I wondered what he was thinking. Was I supposed to rescue him? No, I decided. The whole thing stank. And I was trapped.”
“You don’t appear to have known ahead of time that they drank and used drugs.”
“No, well, yeah. I mean, I’ve been watching over K.T.’s new sobriety, right? I knew his history but I didn’t know we were going to end up at a place that had the feel of a corner bar with some circus thrown in. I thought I was his sober buddy and we were getting away for a couple of days. I’d planned on enjoying the sights. But it was like I had chosen the wrong door and was back in 2005, with people working themselves up to bad news, the hustle on, alcohol a toxic aphrodisiac. I wanted out like a poker player with a stinking hand. I never did do great working against the odds. I always lose with drugs, alcohol and cards, you know that.”
“No, not good odds.”
He stretched his legs. He had gained some weight back since the last couple treatments for hepatitis C, but his face was haunted by chronic discomfort. His light blue eyes, however, sparked with life.
“I was so wiped out by the long drive and socializing that I actually slept, in spite of the great time they thought they were having downstairs. Until about 3 am. I could hear the TV next door. A DVD player hadn’t been turned off and bad music was in a loop. I pounded on the wall. No luck. I hit it harder. It was a nightmare of cheesy music in the darkness. I walked to the top of the stairs and heard the TV but nothing else. When I crept downstairs, there they were, all two thousand of them strewn across the floor and couches and chairs. It looked like an unholy battlefield, the place a wreck with bottles, ruined party clothes, mouths hanging open. I checked K.T. who was snoring in an armchair with a beer bottle in his hand. Then I went and grabbed my gear and left.”
“You just left, didn’t wake K.T. or leave a note?”
“What could he have to say to me? No note. I wasn’t feeling too good about anything. Can’t say I did my job very well, keeping him sober. I let him stumble into it. Well, I couldn’t very well tie his hands, could I? He knew what he was doing.”
Vince rubbed the lines on his forehead, then sat up straight.
“But wait, the good part is coming. It’d been snowing. I knew it’d be dicey. I still had the chains on the tires so I headed up to the pass, sleepy and not sure if what I was doing was stupid or smart. The truck slipped around some. No one else was on the road. I had a blanket in the back but if I ended up in the trees I wasn’t going to do too well. I got more scared the longer I drove. I fully woke up. It felt like a demon was at my back, like something was chasing me up that mountain. It was so black and still out there. I rolled down the window to smell the snow and woods and slid on random ice. But there was no question that I was going home.”
Vince leaned forward, eyes locked on mine, hands on his knees.
“When I got up to the top of the mountain something happened to me. It was like this shining moment, a moment of beauty in the horror. I realized I was home free and I got it: I’d left behind the chaos and insanity. I was safe! That’s recovery, right? It’s like some dark romance, trying to leave the old passions and searching for the new, trading the deadly pleasure of addiction for the freedom from selfishness that comes with sobriety. I’d had one foot forward but one dragging. It’s hard. I’d returned to the old den of thieves–my best years were stolen by the drama of addiction, the rippin’ and roarin’–but I got out in one piece. Five years ago I got to start over. Damn. It’s a thing of beauty, you know?”
“Yes.” My eyes prickled with swift tears and he smiled back at me.
Vince slapped his leg, looked at his watch and stretched. He got up, wobbling as he reached his full height. I looked away.
“It’s okay,” Vince assured me as he opened the door. “You’ve seen me sicker and you’ve seen me a lot better. I’m going to be just fine, Miss C.”
“I know you are,” I said and walked him out to the lobby.
(Note: Name and identifying features have been changed to protect privacy.)
I am standing in the entry courtyard of a wealthy Chinese scholar and government official. The gardens are tranquil even as people pass by me, their voices reflecting quiet pleasure as they gaze upon beauty’s various forms: an abundance of plant life, exquisite windows and graceful doorways, rock mosaics upon which I stand and muse. It is 16th century China and I have slipped through time. There is water surrounding the compound, cascading at the rockery, calm and reflective beneath bridges. Dragonfish adorn rooftops, protecting all from fire. Bamboo and pine grace the corners of courtyards and edges of many pavilions. Red patterned lanterns sway in the breeze beneath tiled roof lines.
The ornate-windowed, spacious study is a refuge where poetry could be written, calligraphy studied, books read. I see a chair from which I will peruse unfurled maps, ponder accounts of long journeys, write music or poems while fragrant tea steams at my table. My long hair is pulled up and blue flowered silk covers me neck to toe. I am full of anticipation as I find my chair.
My name is called and I turn. The spell is broken. I, a woman, would not be working in the Scholar’s Study in the 1500s. I hear a lone bell from another doorway, see orange paper fish turning against the sky. Rain falls harder and so I leave behind the Chinese Garden for home.
In the 21st century my apartment is just a base of operations, a point of entry and departure. It is not enough to hold me for long; there are so many worlds, vast, puzzling and magnetic. I settle into my reading chair close to a pile of books. Here are fiction and non-fiction about the deadly and mesmerizing Amazon, spies at work in 20th century Russia, the mighty Nile, Celtic spirituality, and 19th century Paris where Napoleon’s sister was up to mischief. And there is 1950s intrigue while looking for butterflies and love in the Grand Canyon. My own short and long stories await me as well, tales of faith and survival, demons set free and then tamed, of men who flee jungle secrets and women who dance as though their lives depend upon it.
And when Monday arrives and I return to work there will be clients, people I care to serve, who may share what has been hidden. They will open their mouths and often be astonished by what they have to say. They will seek relief and unearth the power of their own compassion. Once they ask for help, men and women who lost all dreams will design a future for the first time. They finally discover themselves in this wild territory we call life. They travel far as we each do. Their lives are composed of experience and imagination, effort and knowledge. Hope and encouragement guide them like a compass.
There are endless places of magic to enter, lives to ponder and explore. Where to begin again?
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson