Over the past six decades, I have been adversarial towards my body as well as its greatest ally. Especially since I have so far outlived the prognosis given me at age fifty-one. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of coronary artery disease and I get check-ups every year–and as needed.
So I recently had my yearly treadmill stress test with an EKG and heart ultrasound plus a new one (to examine carotid arteries along the neck) two weeks ago. I got the results Monday. My brilliant, effusive heart doctor arrived with his usual intense focus. Technical language rolls off his tongue like a romantic foreign language. He quickly but carefully explained each test result, the whys and wherefores of a couple of anomalies and the improvements. The results were encouraging–over fifteen years, I have had mostly good news. Despite two carotids in my neck starting to clog up a bit, one moderately so at 50-70%.
Wait a minute. I sat forward. What did he say?
But he wasn’t particularly alarmed.
“There are six of them feeding the brain– a great delivery system God provided. You can manage fine with a couple not entirely in prime shape for much longer. Plaque builds up gradually in everyone’s carotids as we age, not just yours. We’ll check next year unless you call me first with any complaints. Something will be done when it is necessary, but not that soon.”
And that one stiffening valve noted the last two years?
“Gone. I see no evidence of it now.”
But what about the slight enlargement of one heart chamber noted last year?
“I almost suspect it only looked a bit larger for a number of reasons…it’s showing nothing more, it operates beautifully, and you have a small rib cage so parts of your heart can appear bigger at different angles. In short, I make note of all but nothing concerns me about this, either. I will keep an eye on everything, of course.”
We talked a bit more; I am a patient who asks many questions. But since he had been up since four in the morning and he was in scrubs (hospital conveniently next door), I went easy on him.
“So. I’m holding my own, still–I will just keep on keeping on. Live with the arrhythmias as best as I can, as before.”
“Cynthia, in truth, you somehow have the strong, hard-working heart of a fifty year old woman, rather than a sixty-six year old, despite coronary artery disease. But the heart disease is still a reality. You have done amazing things by staying nicotine-free, exercising so much daily, eating healthily, taking great care of yourself. You know you’ve outlived life expectancy–and you’ve even reversed a few things! You look fantastic.”
I think he really meant my heart, but I blushed a little, anyway. I had gotten up way before my usual time to get to an early appointment and felt bleary, more so due to feeling some anxiety about these visits. But now: relief. He extended open hands to me with a warm smile and I reached back. We are a partnership and he is just as responsible, no doubt about this, that I still stand and well enough. He listens and he takes excellent action at the right time–so far so good.
“How much do you exercise now?” he asked reaching for the doorknob.
“Still about 2-4 miles a day; I tend to power walk those. On week-ends, I hike up to two hours or so at a time. I love both. One recent fun time I walked through a nature refuge for nine miles. I could have gone more–I was not that tired–but I was hungry and my husband felt done long before then.”
“That’s great work, Cynthia. You’re a star patient, as ever.”
As I exit, out flows a long fast breath, tension ebbing once more.
It significantly delineates my life, this yearly meeting. It is a marker, tells me if I succeeded in staving off further damage one more year, keeping the disease from progressing, maybe making it recede a bit. But right after I underwent the first medical intervention, I was terrified to walk more than a block by myself. I envisioned my glaring lack of health and nearly sabotaged my progress. Then I thought: I will either die on the sidewalk as I walk around the block or I will go on living and my heart will get stronger again. I better get going.
Dr. P. had been the only cardiologist able to see me the day after my heart event. It had happened on a hike in the Columbia Gorge; I was brought to my knees by chest pressure and pain. After Dr. P saw me, the hospital and stent implants to prop open an artery 95% occluded. I came out of recovery and thought: At barely fifty-one, what will I need to do to get back?
So when I got out of this week’s appointment was I more than relieved? One finds happiness comes with a dose of caution regarding heart disease. I found myself thinking of that carotid artery being more than 50% closed. Then I just let it go. I trust him. And I trust my own body to tell me when I need to get help.
I didn’t always trust it. I tried to ignored it. Too often took poor care of it, even disrespected it. I thought it tricked me, perhaps hated me many times. And this was long before I was fifty and headed for a fatal heart attack. It has been a long run of challenges. Yet, truly, I remind myself how fortunate I am every day, even the hardest days. I know my life could have been another tale told, one that was far more intolerable and ended early.
In the illustrious and checkered annals of history, no one will note much less recall this woman’s tiresome battle with and burgeoning love for her own body. For one thing, we all have body concerns and issues, beginning perhaps from that initial burst and flow of oxygen into lungs at birth. How easy is that, to be expected to step forth and embrace another sphere? We are built for it, and yet it seems an uncertain thing desired since infants often require encouragement. The new body is smacked, the breath is sharply taken in and a cry erupts, the arms and legs tremble and tight fists punch the air. Bigger arms of newly appointed guides reach to embrace. Welcome to life on earth.
Unless, possibly, one is born as my youngest daughter, via the LeBoyer Method, quietly. Into a large basin of room temperature water, in a bedroom, with classical music flowing about our ears. She doesn’t remember this but she was an unusually happy, peaceable baby. I do. She made her way up my abdomen and chest like a part-water creature, making friends with air and gravity. But neither do I have memory of my birth; I am sure it was quite ordinary.
But the following complicated times shared with a cantankerous, wise and spirited physical body? I recall them well. So do you, I am sure. We inhabit this compact gateway to life that carries most all we need to operate (I suggest spirit or soul, whichever you prefer, also has mighty input). Such a marvelous system of sensory information. The mind incorporates diverse bits and pieces to create a comprehensive understanding of what is happening at any given moment. Chemicals, hormones, neural pathways–our brains thrive when given what it needs. And we are meant to get up and go. To set ourselves into motion, no matter shape or size or gender.
But it gets more complicated. Our flesh, muscle and bone do not just comprise a convenient vehicle with which to roam and interact. Our bodies are part and parcel of our identities. Which, I have often wondered, comes first? Most all parents are powerfully drawn to their new creation, such wondrous flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood. Beyond basic nourishment, the manner in which they react and engage with that infant goes a long way toward determining how the infant grows–and grows up. Our personhood appears to develop the moments we are cradled or not, picked up or not, spoken to and sung to, or not. We are born with all essential equipment–if we are fortunate. And then we have to figure out how to live comfortably within its confines, with and without our caretakers’ adequate assistance.
And that has been an undertaking frequently felt as defeating when I got started on my journey, before getting anywhere close to halfway along the path. The other side can look like the same place as where you started if you have chronic fear or stubborn self-doubt, combat spiritual, emotional and physical pain. Because I think it can be helpful to others who’ve suffered, I haven’t kept it a secret here that as a child I was sexually abused for a few years by a man (not of my blood family). And then lived through attempted rape and beating along a railroad tracks beside a park as a young teen, an actual rape five years later, and more abuse as I became an adult. I began to feel like a target for anger or hate by then.
These leave a deep imprint on body and soul; they can go a long way in defining who you think– then believe–you must be. Or are no longer. It spreads in your being, stealthy, silenced, potentially deadly.
It took some years to face the damage squarely, to bit by bit heal the gaping rawness of those hidden wounds. But if there was one thing that motivated me, it was first an angry resolve that nothing and no one would stop me from living more of the life I wanted. There would not be lasting defeat. I would not give up rightful ownership of my own true self due to crimes committed against me. The past would not dictate my present or future. Even when I was on my knees praying through tears, body aching, mind spinning, my soul overcome, I believed I would get through it all because the alternative was not part of my deepest desire: death or sentenced to lifelong pain and misery. I needed to live a rich life with optimistic curiosity. Fearlessness again. I could feel this stirring, still.
But before that could come about I experienced adolescent breakdowns–due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder undiagnosed until age twenty–abused alcohol and drugs, and developed dangerous alliances. Teetered on the thin edge of a lifestyle that eventually cost me dearly. It becomes easier to live recklessly when you are not longer clear about how to live and stay safe.
I gave up high academic goals (though I attended university later), lost opportunities, including a possibility of becoming a professional singer. My dreams fell apart. Moment by moment, I sought any minute flickering light within darkness. It seemed each time I got to it there was something else to blot it out for some years. I began to suspect this was going to be life as I knew it, with no more good chances.
And yet there remained a soul-deep longing for a fulfilling life and so I held on to what hope could be mustered. It was centered on God, Whom I had still known and loved. God was yet moving in my life despite my sneering, my new hardness and that subterranean despair. But it was also the person I still yearned to be, calling me forward out of the muck and disarray and a long-buried outrage against merciless perpetrators who had derailed my life. How to recapture what I once knew? There remained, somehow, a slim belief that I might deserve more. That I was born into this mean and beautiful world both worthy and cared about.
That I would one day not be–or feel–so unsafe. That I could rest without nightmares awakening me from the moment I closed my eyes. That I could walk on a busy street or quiet forest trail and not be readied for a fight every other moment. That every man did not seem an enemy in disguise–I had brothers and a father who were honorable, trustworthy, so why did it all have to come to this?
That I could count on body, mind and soul to hold my life up like a colorful flying flag, not a pathetically broken thing.
I recount these times for a good reason so bear with me. I found some excellent, useful solutions, alternatives to a cheerless life.
I have always thought these were at the core of my earlier childhood: vivacious engagement physically, a happy abandon to the many offerings of daily life, fearless exploration of my communities, (neighborhood, church, school). I was not afraid for many years. I was cared about, for I had family and friends who were there day in, day out. But I think, too, during my growing up, that my own physicality had a hand in my survival and process of healing.
Since being very small I felt strong and confident inhabiting my body. I felt sturdy on my feet, felt free within my skin. There was perpetual delight in movement: dancing, climbing trees, riding my bike and doing tricks with it, ice skating, tobogganing, playing Kick the Can and Red Rover, badminton and volleyball, swimming, track and field games/competitions, softball, water and snow skiing, a bit of boating and sailing…well, the list goes on. There was little I did not have an interest in at least trying out, then practicing if I liked it. If it involved the body in motion, count me in. There was such excitement and satisfaction in it. Heart pumping, I was off . I got right out there and played some pick up football with the boys, prided myself on outrunning them. I wasn’t much conscious of any gender divisions. At home we were all encouraged to be in sports.
It wasn’t that I was only an active girl. I was able to be still, was introspective. Books enthralled me for hours and I liked to study for the most part. The passion for story and poem making started by age seven; I could focus for long periods. I loved making art, making up plays with neighbor kids, sharing music with family and at school. So there was a variety of activity I enjoyed.
But the allure of physical activity was magnetic no matter where or with whom I lived, or what was happening in my life. If for some reason my choices were seriously curtailed, I would find boring cleaning to do and, with music, I could dance about as I worked. Anything to get blood coursing, limbs reaching. There would be a car to wash, a closet to organize, a dog to walk, a yard to mow, loads of laundry, wood to split for wood stoves and fireplaces I’ve enjoyed (and sometimes relied on for heat). Sitting and doing nothing did not and still does not agree with me–unless reading, which is, arguably, activity of another sort even when mostly sedentary. But body and mind in a better balance has translated into greater well-being.
Years later while counseling others affected by addictions and the traumas that fed them, I increasingly observed something interesting: if they had little to do, they stayed sicker longer, and often more helpless about getting better. It’s tricky, as depression and fear can paralyze. But with strong support and ample ideas, a person can learn skills to overcome paralysis. Having one small goal accomplished, an activity explored, an ordinary hobby taken up–these can rouse a person enough to enable them to begin to perceive differently. Then they can reconsider more matters. As this positive momentum increases, it can trigger real changes for the better. After all, the human brain–that lively master planner and doer–manufactures chemicals and hormones that it needs, even if they seem to be flagging. We, ourselves, can trigger dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and Adrenalin production to heartily aid in a good fight for health–by taking more and vigorous action. We can begin to slowly reprogram our brains, our very neurology, how we respond to stimuli within and without us. How we determine our lives this very moment. It is nothing short of miraculous once you experience it and find it holds up time after time.
Personal experience certainly does show me this works out very well. I have had options to engage me at any given time; I have a variety of interests and am glad to seek more. Many require little to no financial investment so that is no excuse. And I know the longer I participate in them, the more well-rounded a person I become. More relaxed and present. Open to others. This has a ripple effect in all my doing and being.
Once when I was in residential treatment for a hidden and damaging alcohol problem, my therapist suggested two things:
1) that I get back to paid work, any work I could find, 2) that I become more physically active again.
I was flabbergasted. Wasn’t I moving all the time? I was raising five children, ages ten to sixteen. I was running all day long and into night, my husband was often gone with a career that required long hours and travel. Plus, I was still under-qualified for much more than what I did, I thought. Still, she asked, weren’t these the two things that had not been put into full-throttle action? For just myself, no one else, by the way. They might make the difference. It rang a bright bell within me, as if being reminded of what was already known as truth. I prayed it was so. Little did I know.
First I found a bare bones gym. I was short on weight and energy. I ignored the muscle-bound men and phenomenal women. I just tried all machines, then asked for suggestions. In a couple of weeks I felt some improved. And gradually I discovered more serious weight training. Several times a week, I worked with free weights as well as machines with guidance from a good trainer. The regimen revved me up yet relieved stress. I started to eat better with more protein. The work outs challenged me, bolstered stamina and I developed more bulk. I was too thin most of my early adulthood, and now I gained weight with the muscle, looked better. Was actually stronger.
More than this, I felt more confident. Less skittish in the world. More self-possessed. All senses became even more responsive but in a calmer way; my attention was focused more clearly. I observed pleasant alterations emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. I found the workouts meditative as well as invigorating. It was a perfect combination for me at the right time in my life.
We bought weights to put in our basement so I could train there; my husband joined in as he could but cheered me on. My children were impressed and even, hilariously, liked to show off my significant biceps to their friends. I have to admit my abdominal muscles were excellent while my legs powered me better than ever. I was fitter than I had been for years, ate better and had more sustainable energy. And I felt satisfaction that I had regained some coping skills and this had improved all.
I stayed with weight training for about four years but when I felt I was getting too muscular, I backed off and then eased out of it and got into other exercise options. But after two decades, I still have free weights and I use them from time to time when to doing other exercise.
And I found it wasn’t nearly so hard to refuse a drink. I wanted to maintain better health. Then to my surprise I was hired to do what I found fulfilling– helping the frail elderly and disabled, and a new human services career took off well, leading to a managerial position. My life was back on track in a way that it hadn’t been for too long. Taking action worked; I worked harder because of that.
Remember the recent visit to Dr. P? And that he informed me I was to keep on doing what I was doing because it has worked so well? I stay alive by doing what works. If I find something with helpful results, I am persistent about the practicing part. I don’t like to lose out on good things. I don’t really like to lose, period. But most of all, ever since childhood, I have appreciated the thrills as well as practical benefits received due to being in motion, actively engaged in a silly game or a serious goal. This coming year I want to take dance classes again (tried and loved flamenco last time). And investigate kayaking. Ice skate more. Swim–how I used to love to dive! Who knows what is next? The choices are mine to make.
So let me move and count the miracles of sinew and bone. My body has lived many tales. We have had an adversarial relationship in the past. It has at times been bitterly betrayed. But it is forgiving. It is resilient. Mighty in its healing capacity. Its natural wisdom guides me, takes care of me, tells me things my intellect sometimes misses and that my soul can forget. It is braver than I ever imagined it to be, rallying when it falters. It is my home on earth. I am thankful for this shelter in which I reside. For the opportunities it provides as my heart keeps pumping, carries me forward into the next moment. May I ever tend to it with respect and gratitude. Praise its Divine Creator. Eventually, though I hope not soon, this vital and repaired beating drum of my life will slow, pause, be silent, and I will take my leave. Until then, I am staying in motion as best I can, celebrating all the years left.