Monday, May 30, 2011

The Hearts of Young Men

I have e-met a number of young men who have survived Sudden Cardiac Arrest, or come back from the dead, depending on how you look at it.  Recently, a 24 year old wrote to me after reading something I had written.  He wrote in such a way that my heart ached and I got pissed off for him - pretty much at the same time.

I was 56 the day my heart stopped; he was 23.  My primary career is behind me; I had the luxury of going to Law School at 51 and now work on interesting challenging matters for a handful of regular business clients. I have nothing to prove; all that career pressure has been spent.   I can do this for as long as I choose to work.

He, on the other hand, had more pulled out from under him than I did.  While both our hearts stopped, his situation is so vastly different, I fear they truly cannot compare.  Not only do I have a couple decades of adult problem-solving skills under my belt - he has so many more issues and dilemmas I had never really even thought about in my last year and a half.

He has to grapple not only with the standard questions that all we SCA survivors have - why me? will it happen again? will this kill me?  when?  But him - he has so many more issues - he has to grapple with the concept of getting married, does he become a father?
And then there is the career - he was a new West Point graduate when his heart stopped at age 23.  He had a career plan that flew out the window on his heartbeat.    Having SCA and an implanted defibrillator probably takes a young man out of consideration for many of those West Point grad jobs.  Certainly took him out of the running for what he had planned.

His implanted defibrillator has not been as quiet as mine. Mine has not fired.  He has had two episodes and no medical answers.  No flipping medical answers for the young man.  How is he to plan his life? How is he to plan his day?

There is a community out there; we try to help one another come to terms with all of it.  And then today,  I saw that my 24 year old who is scared, angry, reeling and struggling - had reached out to lend a hand to a 23 year old who was even newer to SCA survival.

Does a heart good.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Another Damn Life Lesson

All my life, I thought it was a virtue.  Parents pushed it, rewarded it, praised it.  Friends, colleagues respected it.  Our country reveres it.  Independence.  Family folklore is that I came home one day from second grade and announced that I no longer wanted or needed help with my homework.  Independence.

If one of the kids asked my dad what a word meant, he'd point to the dictionary or encyclopedia and maybe help you look it up.  More likely, he'd sit and wait until you figured it out on your own.  Fostering independence, a presumed virtue.

On a first date eons ago, the guy asked me to describe myself using only 10 adjectives. I should have said "difficult and done", but I didn't. I don't remember the 10, but I'm confident "independent" was near the top of the list.  A virtue.  I was proud of it.
Same guy, long past the first date, told me I was several standard deviations from the mean for independence in women.  (Yes, I dated a guy who talked like that).  But again, I felt complimented; I'm sure I said "thank you".

Independence. It enabled me to run a pretty high risk company; it meant I could tromp around Europe, Asia, and  the Middle East with a sister or two; land in the scary Cairo airport in the middle of the night. I can buy a house by myself. I could make myself dive again the day after my scuba equipment failed 118' down in Belize's Blue Hole.  I could go to Law School at 50.

But then, the bubble burst.  After Sudden Cardiac Arrest, we examine everything.  Last week, I read something on independence as an expression of fear.  That we create an armor with independence - we fend people off with it.  "Independence" is code for "I don't trust people" or "I don't trust that I am valued enough that people will be there when I need them".  We announce in hundreds of ways that we don't need people.  That what we are actually saying is "I don't deserve people".
Is this why I have always found it excruciating, nearly physically painful, to ask for help? The reason I would much rather pay someone to do something than ask for help?  Because I don't believe I deserve the help - they must  have something better to do?

All of a sudden, my self-talk and self-image went haywire.  Independence can be a bold expression of a deep belief in unlove-ability?   Bizarre.  Planet gone wobbly again. Is this frigging TRUE?  Argh.

Uh-oh.  Then I look back at my men through this lens. Uh-oh.  Perhaps we make this prophecy come true; we prove that we are, in fact, unlove-able---- by choosing to engage with the hands-down winner of the "emotionally unavailable" contest - the alcoholic.  And I have engaged with more than one, more than two, more than....  Trust me, you will always come in second.  Every single time - second.

I  must say I am getting pretty damn tired of all this food for thought, all these life lessons.
Difficult and done indeed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My New Heart

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) changes everything.    At first, in my I-love-denial way, I  insisted that the SCA had little impact on my life.  In retrospect, clearly insane.    People like me have SCA when their risk of developing heart disease in the next 10 years hovers at 1% (Framingham).     But you wake up one day and some doctor is telling you that your heart had stopped, three shocks with the paddles, and it could happen again (or not).   Oh yeah, by the way, we are putting a defibrillator into your chest wall with wires into your heart.   Your actual heart.   And I am to see myself as lucky.  
 But me – I decide that nothing had really changed.  I may be brave, but I am nuts. 

It changes everything;  bit by bit, you examine everything.    And as we wind through that slow gentle upheaval,  we tell ourselves the truth about things we have long avoided.  Or perhaps it’s the lifting of clouds, fog and veil.   And I had grown very comfortable with my  fog and veil when it came to relationships.  I didn’t want to see what I could have seen.    I had adopted a persona and self-image I could live with.  Now, it’s a new heart and it’s a new life and that comfort slides away bit by bit.   There is discomfort, there is excitement, there is fear, there’s a sense the planet went wobbly --- but there is a certainty and a peace.  An uneasy peace, but peace nonetheless.  I won’t settle for what I had settled for; I won’t repeat what I had already repeated.   

Every relationship in my life is now different; some slightly and some enormously.  What I will look for, what I give, what I will accept, what I seek  – all different.  And I have come to terms with some of the nasty, sharp, jagged truths about my past choices.  I am guilty of what I blamed others for – they are, after all,  what I chose.   I chose those with whom I did not have to risk the most terrifying of all our states - intimacy. They were incapable of it; I was off the hook.

No more.  Not with this new heart.  I may be nuts, but I am brave.   I will have what I should have.  Me and my new heart.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Religion and Me - Lost in Translation

Religion is a tortured subject for this raised-Catholic.  I have a longstanding love/hate relationship with the Church. (Yes, if you are raised Catholic, Church gets a capital c).  At best, and I mean at very, very best, I could be described as a cafeteria Catholic - take what you like and leave the rest.

As an adult, I have had decades with zero Mass attendance and then bursts when I was a regular.  I resigned from one parish in the aftermath of a pedophilia episode.  And now I have joined another.  This one is on the beach, and the beach environment and population seem to invade the church.  Or at least I hope so.

It is an understatement to say I have struggled with faith and religious practice, but I have comfort with core spirituality.  I grapple with the meaning of faith, the concept of sin; I battle with rules, with Church as authority rather than conduit and community.
(At one point, I decided only to say the parts of the Nicene Creed at Mass that I 'believed in', and had a crisis when I got down to saying only one sentence.  Seriously.  Not joking.  One sentence.  That precipitated another spell of absence from church and Church.)

Since the SCA and a couple other life events, I have accepted that "faith" is not ever going to be that absolute certainty for me that I once wished it would be.  And I have accepted that it is fine to carry my tortured version of faith and spirituality into any old church I choose.  Including a Catholic one on the beach.

Example of newfound approach to faith: I was talking with a friend a few months back - a friend who shares some of the questions. (But he may be worse - he blurted out at Christmas to his very, very Southern mother - "my Jesus is brown".  Caused a family ruckus.)
We talked about the Virgin Birth as an example - no way do I believe that.  Sorry.  And even worse (or better), I honestly don't understand why anyone cares.  My friend said he had long ago written that one off to a translation problem.  That in the ancient days of either the Old Testament and/or the New one - someone wrote "virgin" instead of "young unmarried girl".
I decided why the F not. This could be the true explanation.  My newfound approach to faith --- "could be true" is enough.  Close enough.
Life should be this simple.  Of course, if my priest reads this, I am doomed.  Literally.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Expiration Date

Yes, I would very much like to know when I will die.  My very own expiration date.  I understand many people prefer the uncertainty, but not me.  I would like to know.  Once I survived Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA), my  mortality shifted from being an interesting, distant, fuzzy, philosophical concept to a reality that has taken up residence with me every single day.   Every day, I have at least one thought of it - from the meaningful musings on life after death to the banal "How do I keep people from reading my journal if I leave it out and then die in my sleep?".  Or - "pick up those dirty clothes; that will be embarrassing if someone has to come in here and find that."  I know it's weird; I would have thought this could become grim, but it is simply a fact of my new life.  Mortality is a boarder here now;  mortality dines and sleeps with me every day;  mortality has taken up residence.  Mortality has its own chair.

These are not depressing thoughts; they are oddly dispassionate.  It's just the practical reality.  We all face mortality; having your heart stop without warning just makes it a tad more real - less of a concept, more of a fact.

And why do I want to know my expiration date?  Mostly it is about spending money - I would like to know how long my money has to last - or put another way - exactly how extravagant I can be.  I think I am going to go on an adventure-type trip early next  year - to a place I've always wanted to go.  I'm cheap; spending money like that is tough for me.  But if I knew my expiration date, I could plan those trips with comfort and confidence.

And probably even more importantly ---  I could leave dirty clothes on the floor.