The summer before my heart attacked me and after my mother died, I went soft. Body and soul. Soft like bread dough, like the down of a baby bird’s head. In truth, softer than anything I had experienced before. Life felt like a landslide, one that moved like molasses. It accumulated things along the way: sleep, spontaneity, belly laughs, security, the signage for all I’d known so well. The hours stole life-giving breaths. When I felt I had to take daily walks again or lose all perspective I had to stop often; I was drowning in tears. When I sat and tried to read or kneeled to pray, my shoulders and arms curled about me like frail, hunched up wings. I was looking for shelter, I guess. Inner protection.
Human grief. The sort that hits when you realize neither of your parents will make a phone call or send a letter and certainly not visit in the flesh. That you won’t be writing back or dialing their number, indexed in the brain since childhood.
Common but taxing experiences can send strength, joy and desire on hiatus. They also can change the physical body: face lax with sadness, eyes nearly vacant, as if looking past an invisible horizon. The body wants to conform to feelings, express them, and may seem unable to alter them despite best intentions.
I had only a vague idea how much my body was affected until fourteen years later, though I should have noted all the signals. What it knew and tried to tell me in complex ways. And today I’m not even addressing heart disease that made itself known while I hiked deep in the forest. I will include nicotine cessation. One of the best decisions I ever made was quitting smoking–five months before mom died.
She gave me tough advice when I told her I’d made it a week without a cigarette.
“Good. Don’t smoke again. No matter what.”
“But what if I have a nervous breakdown next week? I don’t even drink much caffeine, don’t drink alcohol!”
“Have a nervous breakdown, you’ll get over it. Just don’t smoke.”
“I detest this job. I feel nuts without smoking. How can I not smoke?”
“Get another job if you must, but remember work is hard by definition. Don’t smoke.”
In May, she called me a week before she died and asked me to come to Michigan. I quit the job when my boss gave me only three days to visit. But my mother left this realm for the other before I even got my ticket. That is likely when my core began to collapse on itself, when everything started to deconstruct inside and outside. When I look at pictures of my family gathered for the funeral I am still standing upright, even able to offer a smile. I am well dressed and groomed. But it was a lie. Inside I was churning waters within sand; there was nothing to hold the torrent to a good course. It spilled over the next weeks and months.
I sat still more, so unlike me. Dozed in the daytime, became intimate with night’s workings. Prayer was a steady, often non-verbal exchange with God–I hoped God heard me because who else could stand such lamentation ? Or be accepting of it? I was caving in little by little but still not smoking, not even thinking of a drink. I ate because my spouse cooked for me. Those athletic legs were turning into lazy appendages, aching and timorous. My chest felt pressed against squashy ribs. Bruised a debilitated heart. The discomfort in my neck sent electric shocks to shoulders and hands, struck my head with days-long headaches. I couldn’t figure out why so much was unravelling, but the body became a map of sorrow that looked much like protest and despair. Standing up tall was an effort akin to hoisting heavy loads. And I gained more weight as spring and summer turned to fall.
Literally heavier (ultimately, twenty-five pounds in a year). That may not sound like a gargantuan amount, but to me it meant having to push and pull limbs and trunk around. I had been thin, too thin according to some, all my life. I had once trained in body building and had been a busy, slim mother of five. Now people told me (kindly, I imagined) I looked healthier, robust. But no matter. I was unmoored by work disillusionment and new financial pressures. The grief defined by a sense of being orphaned, a strange state. With that resurfaced all other lossess, which lodge in body and spirit and wait for emotional triggers.
I never did smoke again, but other healthy messages seemed diverted from my metabolism “receiving center”. Feeling sluggish was almost normalized. Over time I no longer appeared to be the petite woman or the shorter woman who appeared taller, the woman who was energized and organized, who found more reserves. Persistent, tough of mind. While I grappled with re-envisioning my life, the taut abdominal muscles became flaccid. The emptiness within my diaphragm could not be filled. It was as if I had been punched several times and no longer could stay balanced on my own two feet. Nor could I keep my chin up as a simple matter of course–like my disciplined, encouraging parents had taught me. As I had practiced since childhood. It seemed my (annoying) pride was taking a beating.
Pride, basic self-worth or obstinacy–whatever the characteristic, this could not be a “lay down and quit” saga. I just had had enough. There is only so much misery (and self-recrimination) one can indulge in, on top of the real difficulties. I became more active at home and outdoors, called friends. Tears surged less and less. I still carried that body weight but my legs held me up and took me on more pleasant walks. Then a heart attack happened in early September 2001.
I was fifty-one and had no grey hair yet, but instantly felt far older. It scared me. The roller coaster of grief, doubt about remaining a mental health and addictions counselor, and that compelling urge to turn inward toward the mercy of God’s presence. And stay there. Now coronary artery disease insured I needed more time. Not do nothing, but avoid undue stress which releases excessive cortisol, which creates inflamation–not good in general. Dangerous for arteries.
I took a total of three years off work. Decided to finish and revise a novel. Practiced prayer and meditation daily, as that made a big difference. Get more physical and delve into more arts. After many months there was perhaps a forty percent imporvement. I had rediscovered great coping skills. Yet… it was monotonous being me. I had to be boring or irritating others. It felt narcissistic to battle even mild melancholia and uncertainty dawn to midnight. When would this end?
It was a step forward and a step back. I knew mental and physical wellness were integral to one another. It was only natural. It was what I’d taught my clients. I worried the athletic aspect of who I was might be permanently diminished. It was integral to my identity to undertake vigorous challenges. Embrace the great outdoors. Would being a heart patient forever curtail this? Had the long sadness limited my initiative? I needed to be an effective mother, grandmother and wife, friend. A counselor again–I missed it. A better writer. Cardiac surgical interventions, a streamlined diet and increased exercise should have done the magic. But implementing new directions was a journey. And I had to stay committed.
In time, I did lose more pounds. I added dance classes. Got a great job and stayed with until retirement. Creative activity saved me many times, l as ever. I hiked new places, walked every evening after working ten to twelve hours, rain or shine. Then joined a gym. I was not going to let my heart falter simply because I failed to work harder. I embraced joy more. In short: I began to make my way back. Despite the aging process being in motion as I neared the sixth decade.
Too, there had remained that odd ambiguity at the core of body and being. It felt like impotence. I didn’t know why it lingered but it was real. A liability. I tried to accept it–it was not overcome by activity or will. Time carried me as it does each of us. The dull roar of grief faded. I lived my life and sought greater knowledge to optimize functioning. Sadness was no longer examined daily. My literal and figurative heart ultimately stayed the course. Breathing felt excellent one more and I hiked withut fear. At last, I thought. But there is always another surprise, right? More lay ahead, including becoming critically ill from a standard heart medication taken for thriteen years, a statin (click here).
In 2014, somewhere between my youngest daughter being married in October and the arrival of Christmas, I developed a spot of lower backache. An anomaly. I have good pain tolerance but I slunk to the doctor. She gave me a physical therapy referral to Faye, a taskmaster who has a gift for her career. She encouraged me to talk as she examined my walk, stance and symmetry (seems I’m a bit crooked, no surprise), then instituted intense massage. I shared about the summer of 2001, thinking it might be a key.
“I wonder about that time as overnight I became ‘jelly’. I remember sitting and thinking it was way too hard to lift up my shoulders and chest. My back curved over. I felt a crumpling inward and pulling downward…I was so sad. My belly like mush. I never was the same. It’s not just my lower back on one side, but shoulder blades and ribs hurt sometimes if I stand too long. It’s been tough to reverse things.”
“You’ve developed an habitual way of sitting, moving, standing. It began with sorrow, stress, then that weight gain. Let me remind you what good posture is, how to walk or be still without harming your body, But you have to work on those lazy core muscles. That’s crucial to whole body strength, as you suspected. You might try yoga, tai chi, more dance after we lessen the pain. First, crunches.”
Bingo! The core! That was what had collapsed in grief, in the burn-out from work, after heart events that required stent implants. I had tried so hard to recover from heart disease, worked on attitude and my spiritual life. Yet all the time I felt a lack. A sense of cohesion, as the whole is comprised of many parts. Steadfast optimism, as well–I’d stopped thinking of the future much. I had gratitude for each moment and what hardship taught. But did my body get that yet? The center of my systems? All that had impact. We were given an intricate and efficient design for our human vehicles. A body superior that God came up with.
But simple answers had been waiting to be revealed.
“I’m a little embarrassed. I used to have excellent posture as a kid and young woman. I want to dance more; I’ve been doing Zumba awhile. I crave more outdoor activities. It’s so important to be strong and resilient. How did I weaken like this when I’m not even very old yet?”
Well, it had gotten harder to live in this body, carry around the accumulation of loss. Lostness. Faye nodded knowingly. She understood life had threatened to cave in awhile. Now I had more to fix, from long ago. Further reinforce the structure. Let those remaining few pounds go. I didn’t need anymore a false sense of safety, nor excuses to drift through rather than engage fully in life.
“You can’t just have your legs and arms swinging as you hike and power walk. You must move from your middle, from that vital core.” She paused. “You know emotional injury and loss impacts our physical health. So now, work harder! You can go back to the gym when you have made enough progress.”
Maybe it ought to be clear to all that core muscles have to be kept conditioned in order to hold us up, to help propel us as well as better endure discomforts. And aging, which happens sooner than you ever think it will. To give internal organs room enough. Allow lungs to take in more oxygen and expel more CO2.
So I do my isometric exercises daily. Crunches, leg extensions and lifts, and so on. They’re not so easy, still make muscles burn after over two weeks. It’s been years letting a slouch take hold, so it requires time now. Progress is liberating. I repeat rudimentaries: tuck in chin, lift chest, pull shoulders back. Gut tightened. I recall what it was to be a young dancer and figure skater, how it felt to move across the floor or ice with lightness. Power. I trained then to do what I loved. So now again: stand straight. Be at ease but strong as possible. Act like a peaceable warrior woman–“act as if” until the behavior follows the intention.
It’s how I want to live–as if I have all it takes. Humans are equipped with wellsprings and wisdom we often forget. If not convinced, reach out for aid. When weary, allow rest. When in pain, reinforce healing that body and soul already know is needed. When weakened by the vagaries of living, seek caring, drink good teas, find sustenance and camp out in serenity. Then organize resources and redouble efforts. Each day that is begun and ended God, my real energy source, is called upon. I already know this can save me from myself. Make manageable multiple losses. God can certainly help me develop that deep core to propel me the rest of the way through life.