I know only too well that fear can take over your life after any drama, trauma, illness or upset. But I also know that it gets better, believe me.
Here is part of my story, that I hope will help those of you struggling with fear just now.
My first heart attacks hit me completely out of the blue. I was, or thought I was, fit and strong and healthy. As a mum of three young children, there was never time to sit back and be poorly, but I was happy. My heart attacks weren’t caused by the usual heart disease, rather, a rare and usually fatal condition called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). In essence, what happened was that the main artery inside my heart that was responsible for feeding the large bulk of the heart muscle with blood and oxygen fell apart, or ‘dissected’. If my artery had just dissected in a small area, the doctors could have performed a bypass operation to save me, but because the dissection went from the top of the artery to the very bottom, the doctors knew there was nothing they could do to save me, so they simply left me alone and told my husband to come in and say goodbye.
Just as my husband Dogan came into the operating room, and I realised that I was still alive, my battle began. The next few minutes were dramatic. My body was giving up but my mind had taken control. I had allowed myself to think about the children… and my life… and I wasn’t ready to give it all up yet. It was a struggle because by this stage my failing heart and other organs had other ideas – good job I’m a strong-minded chick!
The following days 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 where 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 the 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.
When I left hospitaI, 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, 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 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! 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.
So life continued like this for a while and I suppose for that time 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 the first-year anniversary of my heart attacks 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 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 children’s 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 than I was of dying.
All this time I had been looking back and not forwards.
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 mum 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. Death didn’t seem as scary as a 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 who had demanded her hair got washed while being cared for in a high-dependency unit, and the Sally who made sure she had lipstick on even when she was on the critical list.
I felt my blood run cold and my goosebumps 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 for that I had a future.
I looked forwards 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 living whilst being afraid to live.
I had my scan and the news came back that although half my heart muscle was damaged and in failure, the other half was somehow miraculously compensating. The doctors still couldn’t tell me that I’d be OK, but that didn’t matter anymore because I now believed that I had a future and the quality of it was in my hands. I was back in the driving seat. It was still scary, if I’m honest, especially for my family, but it was my life and I wasn’t going to waste another moment.
I made a conscious decision not to allow fear into my mind, I chose to thrive instead of survive and you can do that too! When a fearful thought comes into my head, I immediately think and imagine a happy event or feeling. As human beings we are clever, but not so clever that we can feel two emotions at once. By literally replacing a fearful thought with a happy, positive one, life, step by baby step gets better and better.
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