The Heart of the Matter

For the first time since November 11, 2005, after my yearly nuclear stress test, last week my cardiologist told me that my heart has improved.

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Eleven years ago, after two weeks of chest pains, I submitted to my first such stress test. I was in denial that I could have a heart problem. Years before that, I’d been told after a cholesterol reading during a health fair at the hospital where I worked, “You should never have heart disease.” My HDL, the good cholesterol that needs to be high to protect your heart, was higher than she’d ever seen. Of course, her words were more memorable than the written report which pointed out that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to heart disease.

But on this day in 2005, my doctor ordered me to go straight to the hospital, even after exclaiming, “I’ve never seen anyone’s HDL be that high.” It was 101. He had no answer for my question, “Then why am I here?”

In shock, I went to the hospital’s cardiac cath lab not knowing if I was to have open heart surgery or a stent. As I lay on the table staring at the overhead lights waiting for the doctor to arrive, I asked myself, “How did I get here?”

And then I knew, “I’ve had a lot of heartbreak in my life.”

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After the insertion of a stent into my left anterior descending artery, I changed my diet and began getting more exercise, and even though the doctor wouldn’t confirm that heartbreak contributed to the 98 percent blockage, I was convinced there was a connection. A few years later, an article appeared in the newspaper titled, “Heartbreak Syndrome.”

I picked up the Energy Times magazine at Health Foods Unlimited a couple of weeks ago. In their section on cardiovascular health, they had an article titled, “Living a Purposeful Life May Help Your Heart.” According to a Psychosomatic Medicine study, “People who reported having a strong life purpose had a lower risk of both cardiac events and overall mortality.” About four years ago I got serious about writing my memoir. And that is what has been giving my life meaning and purpose ever since.

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Then this weekend, I read an article from the January 19, 2015 New York Times titled, “Writing Your Way to Happiness.” Researchers were studying whether the power of writing–and then re-writing–your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness. They found that writing about yourself and your personal experiences can improve your mood, reduce symptoms in cancer patients, improve health after a heart attack, and boost memory.

They attribute the vast benefits of “expressive writing” to the fact that our inner voice doesn’t always get our personal narrative right giving us a faulty view of the world that can damage our health. Through writing, we can reflect on our lives and edit our narratives.

James Doty, M.D.

James Doty, M.D.

Just last night, I listened to a Krista Tippett interview with James Doty, a brain surgeon at Stanford University on her podcast, On Being. Dr. Doty is the founding director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

Into the Magic Shop

His memoir is one I need to add to my reading list: Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Among a host of other things in his fascinating interview with Krista, Dr. Doty spoke about Heartbreak Syndrome.

 

In the process of writing my memoir, A Long Awakening to Grace and reflecting on the painful struggle I went through for years, my narrative changed. When I first began trying to write it in 1999, I saw myself as a victim of circumstances. In 2012 that began to change. These words emerged from my pen while writing in my journal, “Thank God for my pain…it transformed me, broke me open, awakened me to grace, infused me with trust in the inherent goodness and wisdom of life.”

Writing a memoir is not for everyone, but whatever form reflecting on your story takes, awakening to a new, more honest assessment of your life can be a healing and transforming process. It has been for me. My faulty inner voice told me for years that there was something seriously wrong with me and that is why my life was so painful. During times of stress, that message still tries to take hold. But in writing my story, compassion for myself arose as well as admiration for the strength I’d gained.

The editing process is bringing even more fruits. Seeing myself through my amazing editor’s eyes, I am finally, even though a little timidly, claiming the intelligent, insightful, compassionate, passionate, persistent, and astonishing woman I truly am.

And now I’m being rewarded with a healthier heart as well. I am in awe and need I say, full of gratitude.

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