Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Heart of a Woman: Women and Heart Disease

Welcome -- and welcome to a new decade! It's hard to believe that "The Heart of a Woman" was written nearly TEN years ago! There remains only one chapter you have not yet seen, and then decisions to be made: other than this blog, my work is unpublished and do I continue to blog?? Updates abound, of course... I have also been meaning to tell you that the site does not italicize, but I have: anything I consider crosses the line from journey to self-help is in italics, so use your imagination and enjoy!
By the way, look for Go Red For Women, headed by my cardiologist, MaryAnn McLaughlin. The annual luncheon is on February 26th and will be well-represented. What a cause it is! You can google it (and me) to obtain more information.

Personalizing the Millenium: Love, Laughter and Reality

New Year's Eve 1999: Nearly fifteen months had passed, yet I could barely make it a mere four blocks - uphill, at night, chilly head winds - to a party I attended with all three generations of my family. It was the first time in many years that we were all in the same place at year's end, and it seemed particularly fitting. We were so busy down-playing this major event with all its international hype that we almost missed it! There was the ball dropping in Times Square, throngs of people from all over the world cheering, Dick Clark, who must be three hundred years old by now, doing his annual schtick, turned up a notch for the turn of the century. I think it was three days before it finally hit me: I was so "lucky" to be alive! Why shouldn't I be celebrating wholeheartedly! I had to laugh at myself! It is so easy to forget to appreciate what is, go on about our business as though no one day matters. Because every day is precious, we should act accordingly, but do we? I was eerily aware that I still was not consistent enough in practicing what I preach and called myself up short, resolving to greet each day with enthusiasm, pride and plans, not as simple a prescription as it sounds, as we all intrinsically know.
I keep going back to the importance of social contact, a healthy, universal need. You may be the type of person who is always surrounded, or perhaps you have one special friend and a few people on the periphery of your life. Even if you are a loner or non-joiner, hopefully you are exercising or enjoying special interests with people who are like-minded. The intellectual and emotional stimulation you both give and receive while in the company of others adds to your physical and mental health. Make wise choices, of course, continuing to put yourself in the midst of positive, supportive, fun-loving folks, welcoming their thoughts and ideas and cherishing the mutual contributions to one another's lives.
My journey was no longer dramatic, the heart-related symptoms having become routine, along with pill-taking and exercising, the highlight of each week's schedule. I still marvel at my friend's prognostication that I would come to love it, but he could not have been more endearingly and enduringly correct! If you are a non-believer - or, more likely, a non-exerciser - allow me to proselytize once again, just for a bit. Not only will exercising increase your physical tolerance, it may well increase the number and strength of your collateral vessels. While exertion on the various pieces of equipment may not be thrilling at the moment, the results are astounding. Most of us leave radiantly red-faced, perspired, inspired, almost giddy. Our blood pressures and heart rates are better controlled than ever and we are intentional, purposive, intense and consistent about our program. If anyone had told me a year ago that these words would come from me, I would have laughed heartily (pun intended) and sent them on their merry way. Okay, I don't love every minute of it and when the class is small enough so that I can monopolize the treadmill for a half- hour I have to force myself to stay on it, but what an accomplishment! My friends no longer have to ask if they need to drop me off before they park the car. I can walk briskly or climb a flight of steps without becoming winded - and that is with only 70% of my heart working! If you were never in particularly good shape, you will be so surprised at the benefits of a reasonable program targeted for cardiovascular fitness. Don't look for weight loss or muscle mass, but do expect to work hard - they don't call it working out for nothing - and then you can fully expect to reap the rewards. Now, how can you resist?
The dawning of the new year provided yet another opportunity to continue on a clear, positive track. I paid particular attention to the blossoming of new friendships, choosing not to focus on my impending divorce. When you hear the voice of the optimist hesitate, it is the realism coming through, which is neither negative nor positive; it is just an indicator, a challenge of some sort, a green flag. For me, reality was based on being able to separate the provocative from the productive. You have the power to control your reactions, which are based on your unique interpretation of events. I have chosen to use that power to study life's seemingly difficult moments and then compartmentalize, carefully weeding through the emotions, coming to terms with the parts of the equation over which I may not have control. You need to neither overreact nor fall prey to the inevitably disabling inertia which is best defined as choosing not to make choices.
The issue of control, or more aptly withdrawal from the need to control, challenges me and probably always will. You will know from the reactions of people around you if you have become more "laid back", easier to be with, emotionally quieter. It will be a great feat if you were the typical Type A personality we all know but do not need to be, and it is gratifying and exciting to make the switch! Achieving this kind of growth is energizing, as opposed to the debilitating results of having to know everything, be everywhere, be everything to everyone. There is no loss here, just pure gain. I giggle at what I do not know that less than two years ago I would have been crawling through walls to uncover. We often think that there is a payoff in control, that it is empowering, but I have come to believe that it just makes us seem anxious and relentless. Think about it this way: is it logical, convenient and desirable or, in all honesty, is it intrusive, irritating and counterproductive? Bearing in mind that we repeat behaviors that work, that seem to end in a payoff, what is to be gained by the drilling and grilling and accumulation of drama generally associated with those who seek to control? Why would anyone knowingly subject him/herself to the grueling task of controlling people or situations when the alternative is to be peacefully aware and engaged, but not on the alert or on one's toes? If you need to confront your behavior in this area and modify it, you are guaranteed to feast in the payoffs.
Here are a few carefully chosen "givens":
- we all fear rejection and crave acceptance; we need approval and have difficulty fielding criticism
- fulfillment and gratification are essential ingredients in our lives
- plateaus are reached by devoting ourselves to thriving.
I am not suggesting that there is nothing you need to control and you should go through life under anesthesia! You and only you can control your reactions and your behavior. The good news is that you therefore have the power to re-shape the aspects of your life that you decide you need to address. After all, if we label surviving as a challenge, then thriving defines itself as the ultimate achievement. Another in the inevitable, remarkable series of turning points in my physical and emotional recovery surfaced when all the hoopla of the new millenium died down and I found myself wondering what was next in the saga. No longer dealing daily with the initial denial and having achieved a higher level of acceptance, I knew I had to embark on something meaningful, but what? When I first had the idea for this book, my thoughts ran the gamut from how dare I to how could I not share my story? But I was so tired: tired of being tired; tired of how hard it was to keep moving in the direction in which I believed; tired of the pill-taking, the doctors' visits, the side effects of so many medications. Logic dictated that I take a new direction. This was tantamount to an admission that I had not yet arrived, one of those situations when the good news and bad news are the same: I could take command, but only if I granted myself some leeway, gave in to the fatigue when necessary, cut myself some slack so that the continuation of what is in fact a life-long journey could be broken down into paragraphs, not unwieldy volumes. If you are one of those people who expect and demand too much from yourself, you are accustomed to tempering desire with reality. If you expect too little from yourself, then you will need to recognize that as a pattern which disables you, and redouble your efforts toward improving the quality of your life. How you do it will depend in large part on how you conquer your fears and ensuing moments of immobilization. There is nothing superficial about our journeying and it is by definition not simple. On the other hand, are you complicating it by staying on the fence, in a neutral position? Are you allowing yourself to settle for what is instead of moving forward, even in the face of some natural anxiety? Are you either over-analyzing or not thinking enough about where you are, relative to where you want to be? Again, you may benefit from keeping track of your thoughts through writing. You may want to make a list of what you have accomplished thus far and then another list of the challenges you wish to incorporate in the immediate future. You can knock yourself out of the race by being too smothering of yourself, just as you can thwart yourself by being unrealistic.
I am not a person who is constantly driven; I can lay back, pet the cat, watch mindless television, but there always comes a point that I encounter unmet social needs or am dissatisfied with staying still. Sometimes you will be able to capture a vision of yourself with that movie camera in your mind's eye and become excited by what you see, as I did when I conceived this book. Trust yourself to get started, use your resources to jump start you if that is what you need, but make friends with your thoughts, your frames of reference, your goals, plans and desires. The focus cannot remain on your illness - you will bore yourself to tears! How many times do we hear people exclaim: "I just knew it was time to move on!" Try Iyanla Vanzant’s method of rewording your messages to yourself to formulate an action plan and then kick-start yourself. Believe me when I tell you that the pride and courage you demonstrate will feed on itself and keep you highly motivated to remain on your chosen path.

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