“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell
The Heart of the Matter
The last few months have been a whirlwind of doctor appointments, tests, more tests, and more doctor appointments.
So much for ‘winter break.’
My father, grandfather, and uncle all died of heart disease. In fact, my dad had his first heart attack at the age of 50; he died of a massive coronary at 76. At 54, the long list of symptoms I incrementally developed finally wrested me from my stupor and got me to go in for a check up (lethargy, peripheral edema, arrhythmia, high blood pressure). At the behest of my primary care physician, I went to see a cardiologist reluctantly. However, I was pleasantly surprised to be cared for with candor and compassion (as opposed to given a lecture on family history and the obesity epidemic, which is what I expected).
My doctor sat across from me after reading my preliminary test results and said, “The reason we are here is pure and simple: you treat yourself like shit.”
Alrighty. A truth teller in a white lab coat.
He went on to tell me that he was ordering a series of tests to ascertain just exactly what might be wrong. These included two different types of stress tests (physical and nuclear), a resting test (nuclear), an extensive ultrasound of the heart and the assignment of wearing a portable heart monitor at home for 24 hours.
As I shuffled from appointment to appointment, I admit, I worried what he might find.
In the end, he found just one major symptom of heart disease: thickening walls on my heart. (The symbolism wasn’t lost on me.)
There were no blockages or problems with the way the heart works. It worked too hard (the story of my life) and didn’t beat with as much regularity as it should, but he told me all these things were “reversible” with exercise, changes in diet, and eliminating most, if not all, stress in my life.
He gave me the all clear to exercise three weeks ago, which I’ve done with actual gusto, for the first time in my life.
I eliminated a few things from my diet (mayonnaise & full octane coffee; sorry to see you go) and started to take medication for high blood pressure and heartburn.
My peripheral edema is now under control. I got a blood pressure cuff and support hose for Christmas. (Yikes, I am getting old). I set up a standing desk (with the help of my Buddha-bud, Jon) to eliminate the sedentary nature of my teaching job. Now, I stand when I work and write.
Even in just a short time, the difference is palpable. (I’ve lost ten pounds, to boot.)
Adrift, not asleep.
But there was still the matter of the fact that I couldn’t sleep. At night, I simply couldn’t sleep.
I’ve long wondered if I had sleep apnea. My last boyfriend complained about my snoring to the point that I slept on the couch rather than listen to him bitch. Everyone who was ever around me at night complained about the snoring, but no one suggested it might be a medical problem.
And I didn’t know it could be, either. I should have listened to my body and gotten my ass to a doctor.
No rest for the weary.
So, for the past twenty years (conservatively) I haven’t gotten much, if any, sleep. I fell asleep all the time. I was chronically exhausted and sucking down an ocean worth of Diet Coke and coffee. But real, deep sleep?
Nope. Haven’t been there or done that, in decades.
A Study in Sleep.
After an almost three month wait, I finally got approval to do a sleep study. Last Saturday I spent the night at my neurologist’s sleep study office. This entails going to a complex in the middle of nowhere (for me, at least) and being hooked up to a computer via tiny wires and sensors attached to your head, jaw, heart, and chest. Sensors are put on your throat, and you wear plastic wire sensors across your lips and nose. Straps are wrapped around your chest and abdomen. When fully set up, you look like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
While you sleep, a technician monitors your blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves and breathing. They watch you via night vision cameras and listen to you sleep over the audio feeds in the room. Once you are all hooked up and dialed in, you crawl into bed in the sleep study complex, and ostensibly, drift into dreamland.
Uh. No. Even the pictures of elephants in my room (which I love deeply) didn’t calm me or help me sleep. (Although I was glad to have them there. It felt like a good omen.)
I thrashed and tossed and turned and gasped for the first couple of hours.
Suddenly the tech was there, ‘waking me’ to put me on the Continuous Positive Air Pressure machine (CPAP).
I do, in fact, have pretty severe sleep apnea. And he likely woke me because I stopped breathing while I slept.
He attached and velcroed and adjusted the head piece and put the nozzle over my nose. I imagined it would be onerous to have that contraption on my face. Wrong-o.
Within minutes, my whole body calmed down, and I fell deeply asleep. Deeply.
I didn’t awaken for the rest of the night, something that hasn’t happened for as long as I can remember.
The Heart Sees the Truth. The Heart Sees What’s Real.
Yesterday I got confirmation from my insurance that my CPAP machine has been ordered and is fully covered as a part of my benefit package through my job. Next week, a technician will come out to the house to show me how to use it.
Then, I will be able to sleep again. I haven’t really slept since I was, perhaps, 32-years-old. That’s twenty-two years ago.
During that time, I over-ate and I used stimulants like coffee to fuel my life. Otherwise, I had no energy to do anything.
The reason sleep is so important is that many of our health problems as a society are likely due to the lack of sleep.
The neurologist told me that not sleeping deeply causes a host of problems: heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure among them. If the body never rests, the brain never rests. If the body never rests, the heart never slows and rests. This can be catastrophic for one’s health, long term.
What’s My Heart Trying to Say?
The whole time I’ve been navigating all this sickness, I’ve wondered what its message was for me.
I dreamt the other morning, just before waking, of a baby born into water, still encased in the amniotic sac, floating like a perfect starfish, unaware its first breath was just seconds away.
There was a blood transfusion bag feeding into the mother’s left arm, which dangled like a white birch branch, over the side of the bathtub where the birth took place.
The ‘mermaid’s purse’ (the name for this birth within the amniotic sac) glowed and the child inside it sucked its thumb.
To me, the dream is about rebirth. About comfort. About being able to breathe again. About feeling transfused, sated, safe.
It took me too long to get here — to this new place inside my life — but I got here.
Now, I can only wonder what’s next.
© 2015 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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