If you were to ask my colleagues who Melanie was before her heart failure appeared, you would hear words like ambitious, or intense or persistent or diligent. I would have been amazed if anyone ever used words like laid back, carefree or tranquil. If they did, they would need to produce a picture of their Melanie because I swear it would not be my picture.
Nope, the recurring theme for all these people asked to describe Melanie would be that they knew she was married to her job. In other words, Melanie was a workaholic! She was like a terrier who picked up a bone and would not let it go. In other words, she devoted her entire heart, soul and mind to each project she worked on.
An interesting question to consider is what happened when intense Melanie retired and was separated from the workplace for a long time, perhaps forever? Did she become a calmer, more happy-go-lucky person? In other words, was it only the career that made Melanie so motivated and anxious?
The answer is no. It was always the Type A in my DNA that has been the issue. In fact, deep down, I realized that my fervent desire to do well created an anxiety that was not my friend. So six years ago I would have told you that I desired to tone down her personality a notch. But as I quickly learned, it seems like this would be a drawn-our process.
So the answer to whether I immediately became a blithe spirit was no. In fact, the answer was hell no.
because I quickly learned that I should always be careful what I wished for because the workplace separation happened more quickly and permanently than I could ever have imagined, creating uncertainty which is not good for an anxious person trying to turn over a new leaf.
But it wasn't just the speed or retirement that made it hard for me to become calm. As you know, the fact that within a year of my retirement when I was diagnosed with heart failure and referred to a heart transplant specialist was another point of uncertainty to juggle. When I researched heart failure, I saw the statistic that 1/3 of the patients who were diagnosed with heart failure were dead within 5 years. I mean – are you crazy? You expect those circumstances to turn an intense, often anxious person into someone who is the epitome of calm?
No, I hate to say this, but the reality was that the fear of heart failure and the ensuing consequences made me more anxious than I had ever been. Worse, it wakened a sleeping bully inside my psyche. I am not proud to admit this, but the sleeping bully was a well-known psychological disorder known as obsessive compulsive disorder. Let me be clear. Some people view a person with this disorder as someone who continually organizes and re-organizes her spice cabinet into alphabetical order. Geez – if only I had that type of OCD, my condo would look much more orderly, like a page out of Condo Living.
Nope, my OCD was the type where I could not shut my brain down from over-analyzing everyday issues. I would often invent something far-fetched to obsess over. The obsessions usually focused on doing something unintentional that caused a lot of people harm. I would lay awake for hours thinking of worse case scenarios. For example, a common OCD thought involves leaving your home and worrying that you left an appliance on, and as a result it will cause a major fire throughout the neighborhood and cause the hard to countless neighbors and pets. It is probably not a coincidence that I was diligent about making sure my home owner’s insurance policy was paid up way in advance while I was in the clutches of the OCD bully.
It took me a few years of therapy to get back to where my OCD was manageable. It’s still there, but I have found some checklists, protocols and sounding boards that help me manage the worry of the moment, and I use all of these tools to help me lock OCD into a little box when it rears its anxious head. (But I admit, sometimes like Houdini it breaks the chains and escapes from the box).
I ended therapy once I had the OCD, and the fear of imminent death due to heart failure, generally under control. I benefited so much from that time in therapy, and I think that is why I now can often be, dare I say it – gleeful. So much so, that I have made a conscious effort to make my posts as cheerful, sometimes even whimsical, as I possibly can, especially considering the serious topic I write about.
When I decided to put some of my posts into categories, I struggled to find a word to characterize the posts where I try to be a bit entertaining. Then I remembered a snatch of something that may have been prose or poetry that used the word “Lighthearted”. Google as always facilitated my memory and I found the poem where the word is used. It is a well-known poem by Walt Whitman called “Song of the Open Road”.
As I examine the following stanza from the poem, it seems to me that it is perfect to describe my new approach to life, one where I endeavor to take a vacation when possible from care, anxiety or seriousness:
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me.
The long brown path before me leading me wherever I choose.
Henceforth, I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune.
Henceforth, I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing.”― Walt Whitman, Songs for the Open Road: Poems of Travel and Adventure
Yes – the light-hearted part seems to really fit how I try to approach (emphasis on try) some of my posts. But what the heck does the word afoot mean, and does it apply to me in this stage of my life. According to the Merriam Webster website, the word afoot means in the process of development; underway. Yep – that pretty much captures where I am now in my life – pretty much a work in progress.
On this open road of heart failure, I am beginning to see the beauty in choosing where the long brown path will lead me. What do I mean by this? I can choose to either get caught up in the fear and uncertainty of heart failure. Or when the angst starts to set in, if I have to obsess about something, then I can choose to make sure that it is a positive thought that is the focus of my obsession. For example, obsessing over what to write in order to help others learn to manage their chronic condition rather than letting the condition get the upper hand.
As for being my own good fortune, well I agree with that line of the poem too. Or more to the point, my sense of humor, my common sense and my faith are often my greatest assets, and they form my own good fortune. These are the assets that help me overcome all the sad thoughts that anxiety carries in its bag of tricks.
So with apologies to Walt Whitman, I have found that being light-hearted with my heart failure is most often the best coping mechanism that I have at my disposal. When I find myself beset by anxiety now, I try to quickly find a solution, and the up side, to whatever issues are bothering me. I need all the energy I have to battle heart failure, not figments of an anxious imagination.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.