The Emotional Journey

I was just 36 years old when I suffered my first three heart attacks. They came completely out of the blue.

Besides the physical journey to recovery, the emotional journey had the most impact on me.

On the one hand I was desperately upset and shocked by what had happened to me, on the other hand I almost felt invincible and that I had survived the un-survivable. I was determined to be positive and to do everything I could to make sure I survived, but this kept being blocked by my grief and sadness at what I had been through. It’s a confusing time that’s for sure.

You will, most likely feel tearful and upset and you won’t be able to explain why. You may also feel angry that this had happened to you. Or you may be someone who feels detached from the process, almost as if it’s happening to someone else.

My best advice to you is to be gentle with yourself. Don’t try to fight any of the feelings you are having. It will all settle down I promise you, but it does take a little time. If this is your first brush with a heart event, it will have forced you to look at your mortality and that’s a dramatic thing for any of us to have to do at any age.

You WILL feel better again. You WILL feel happy again, and in time, the memory of your trauma WILL fade. I promise!

I feel angry

Anger is a normal reaction after a heart attack. As is thinking ‘Why me?’

Loss of control over your body can make you feel helpless and hopeless. You may be angry with yourself for not taking better care of your health, you may be angry with your family if they are not supportive enough or if they are smothering you and not letting you be yourself. And you may be angry with the medical staff for not diagnosing and treating you in the way you would like.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of all of these feelings. Again, this will pass and calm as time goes by. Your body has been through an enormous trauma, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have some adverse feelings about it, would you?

It may sound silly, but simply counting to 10 will help you stay calm and always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. They may be fussing around you and ‘stressing’ you out, but if the roles were reversed, how would you be behaving if your loved one had just had a heart attack? Its difficult for everyone and no-one really knows what to expect in the beginning.

I have often talked about the dramatic moments during my heart attacks, but what happened in the following days and weeks afterwards is probably of more interest to you at this point.

To be honest, the days following my heart attacks passed in a bit of a blur. I couldn’t move, talk, cough or cry without my heart going into melt down. The nursing staff were struggling to understand what was happening to me. The monitor that I was constantly hooked up to couldn’t recognise the rhythms that my heart was getting into, yet it kept coming out of all these little episodes, still ticking! After a few days, I demanded that they wash my hair. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had no chance. I couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom at this stage, so a hair wash was completely out of the question. Lets just say I have great powers of persuasion, and with a team of doctors and nurses on stand-by ‘just in case’, I was shuffled on my back to the end of my bed, with my head just tipping off the end and my hair was washed. It felt amazing. When my mum arrived bearing my lipstick the following day, I knew I had to continue with this approach to have any chance of a normal life again. It felt wonderful to assert some control and be myself again.

But it wasn’t so easy. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional journey at all.

A few years after my heart attacks, my lovely mum was diagnosed with cancer and just a short nine months later she died. The grief and sadness we all suffered was at times unbearable and overwhelming but at least we knew what to expect, so could begin to prepare ourselves. We knew that mums’ journey from this point had a beginning, a middle and an end. I remember very vividly the day she was told it was terminal. We all had a big cry and a little quiet time and then arranged a big, happy party for all our family and friends to get together the following weekend. Looking back now, how crazy that seems. Mum spent the final two weeks of her life in a wonderful hospice near my home and my dad and I spent every possible moment with her. Those two weeks were the most precious weeks of my life. Although unbearably painful, we all knew and understood what was going to happen and my mum accepted it fully, I think. This didn’t make it any less traumatic or painful but it did mean that we knew what we had to do. My mum even managed to make her own funeral arrangements, being bossy about what we were allowed to sing, wear and eat!

In contrast, after my heart attacks, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I hadn’t been told I would definitely die but I also wasn’t told that I would definitely live. Because my heart condition is so very rare my cardiologists couldn’t find any other survivors that I could talk to. So, I was sent home without any positive prognosis for survival, just a continuing feeling of impending doom and uncertainty. I was scared of everything in the beginning. Absolutely everything. I was afraid to laugh, afraid to cry, to get angry or upset, afraid to shout and love. I was so scared to move too quickly, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t play with my children or go out with my friends. I was afraid to go out of my front door and at the same time afraid to stay at home. I couldn’t seem to find a way out of the prison that was now my life.

Although my family and friends were happy and pleased to see me back home, they didn’t really understand what I was going through. I don’t think I helped the situation, as I was a great pretender! When I got a little stronger, but was still struggling to cope with day-to-day things, I would go through a great long process to appear normal to those around me. My eldest son was five years old at this time and he was desperate for me to pick him up from school just like the other mums, but I couldn’t manage the walk around the block to walk him home as he wanted. So instead I would spend the entire day getting ready. Washing and drying my hair was a three-hour process including all the rests I needed in between. Then I would get my mum or husband to drive me round the corner to school, long before any of the other parents arrived. I could sit quietly on the bench in the playground to get my breath back. When the other parents arrived I would smile happily and give everyone a big wave. I could see them wondering what all the fuss was about. They had heard that I was gravely ill, yet here I was looking fine and waving like the queen! If only they knew. So my super little chap would run out of school and I would be able to stand up and throw my arms around him and hear all his excitable babble from his day that just had to come out the moment he saw me. Mission accomplished. I was a normal mum for my five-year-old precious boy. I would then sit down while a friend walked Tarik home, and when everyone else left the playground I would quietly be helped back to the car and be driven home. Exhausted.

They say that beauty is only skin deep, but sometimes so is the rosy picture of good health that we present to the outside world because we don’t want to worry our nearest and dearest.

My Tipping Point

So life continued like this for a while and I suppose for that while I accepted that this was as good as it was going to get. Then I was lucky enough to reach a tipping point, which changed my life again, forever. I had just reached my first year anniversary and was due at one of my regular check-ups with my cardiologist. He told me that I needed to have a special scan to detect a possible problem in my aorta. (Because my main heart artery had dissected from top to bottom, it was thought that this dissection might have started above in my aorta, causing a life threatening aneurism.)

This was a potential problem all along apparently, but as nobody imagined I would survive a year it seemed unnecessary to worry me further. But as I had reached this point, there was a strange air of urgency to deal with the problem.

They were going to pull a team together to perform the scan in three weeks’ time and if they found the aneurism I would have two choices; either live with it, until it killed me, or operate, without great chances of survival. Not the best choices in the world. I felt like I’d been given another date that I might die. During the three weeks leading up to my scan, I was incredibly agitated and felt I had to keep myself busy.

When I wasn’t crying, I was making arrangements, again, ‘just in case’. I got all the childrens’ clothes organised for the following season and gave my girlfriends instructions on where to buy their clothes if I wasn’t around. I taught Dogan how to plait my daughter’s hair, how to measure out the children’s medicine and sign up at school for parents evening appointments. I spoke to his friends and told them not to let him turn to the bottle if anything happened to me – and he wasn’t allowed to get involved with any big boobed blondes who weren’t right for my children!

Dark days passed. The day of my scan dawned and for the first time in three weeks I was calm – just like the weather.

You see the night before I had realised something that blew my mind. I realised that I had got myself into such a state that I was more afraid of living forever in fear than I was of dying.

I was more afraid of living than I was of dying.

All this time I had been looking back and not forward. I had been trying to come to terms with what had happened to me and was just surviving, not living. Now I was facing the day that my life might end and, it sounds crazy, but it was almost a relief. I suddenly realised that I just couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t continue to live with this constant fear. I didn’t want to live if I was afraid of life. I wasn’t being the mummy I wanted to be to my children, I certainly wasn’t the wife that my husband had chosen to spend the rest of his life with, ‘Till death us do part’. Death didn’t seem as scary as life of fear at this point.

I thought long and hard about my life, or lack of it, and then thought back to the Sally that had demanded her hair got washed while being cared for in a high dependency unit, and the Sally that made sure she had lipstick on even when she was on the critical list. I felt my blood run cold and my goose-bumps jump. OK, if today was the day my life ended, then so be it. Bring it on! I was ready. If I had to die today, then that was my fate. But if there was any chance that I didn’t have this horrible problem in my aorta, then look out world because I was going to get back up and kick its ass! I had suffered a fright, many people do, but I was lucky that I was still here and still breathing. At that moment I made a pact with myself that if I could get through today, I was going to start living again. But this life had to be one without fear or I wasn’t interested. I allowed myself to imagine for a moment that I had a future. I looked forward and imagined that I did survive another ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years. And do you know what the most frightening part of that daydream was? The scariest part of my future was not living with the fear of dying but being afraid to live.

I’m scared that it will happen again.

Of course you are. And this is a fear that all heart patients share. Every twitch you feel, or chest ‘bump’ you experience, your mind will fly back to your trauma and you may very easily start to panic.

You will have a heightened sense of awareness in your chest area and you will be very tuned into every little bump, jump and pain. You will probably have experienced these feelings before your heart attack, but wouldn’t have been aware of them. Now your attention is drawn to everything going on in your chest, but this will settle down after time I promise you. Be kind to yourself and if you are getting stressed about this, practice some relaxation techniques.

To help with your anxiety, make sure you understand exactly what has happened to you. What procedure has been done, what arteries have been affected, what is the blood flow like now?

Knowledge is power and power builds confidence.

It could well be that you are physically in better shape now with less risk factors than before your heart attack. If this is the case, keep reminding yourself of this.