Strange Rhythms. (Part 1)
Strange rhythms and palpitations. Lying in the darkness feeling like a fish was flopping around inside my chest, I was at times convinced I was going to die, cold fear and anxiety washing over me in floods. The episodes were typically short lived, though eternal in my mind, but I was able to endure them and eventually fall asleep or forget. Though it happened as far back as my late teenage years, I don’t know why I never went to a doctor. It’s strange the sort of denial we foster about our bodies and our fears. Perhaps that denial is simply the dread of having those fears affirmed by a professional, being told that we are in fact sick, as opposed to pretending it might be something else. Until that confirmation, we can shrug off strange sensations and pains and call them stress or anxiety or not enough rest. I have dealt with the heart episodes long enough that I actually grew so tired of being afraid that I simply accepted whatever was to come. I specifically remember a night in which I lay in bed, heart racing and sputtering, resolved that if I was going to die then I would die, but I was not going to be afraid anymore. In this resignation I was free, temporarily, from the panic surrounding the sensations I would feel. In letting go there is peace, coupled with avoidance.
I was told my father spent an entire night suffering while sitting upright in a dark living room, fighting chest pain and heart failure, refusing to go to a hospital. I have to wonder if the motivations for his stubbornness were the same as mine, if he too resigned himself to possibly die right there on the spot rather than face questions and hospitals and confirmations that yes, Mr. Wisner, you are very sick. At least in uncertainty we can lie to ourselves.
His death from heart failure when I was eighteen years old has caused me to forge a complicated relationship with my heart. I imagine that a normal person doesn’t think about their heart very much, as it should be. The silent engine, faithfully pounding away, governed on its own accord; there is nothing to think about. A healthy person has no reason to fear it will simply stop, that there will be some great and sudden malfunction, a misfiring of electricity or a muscle starved of oxygen and withering. My heart has been a constant source of anxiety, but especially since his death; I had become convinced that besides some books and a watch, my father left me a defective heart. I am possessed by a hyper-awareness of what my heart is doing; the rate, the strength of each beat, every twitch and ache, the pulsing in my temples most often being the last thing I think about before drifting to sleep.
I have managed to silently cope with all the strange behavior of my heart, having developed a dubious assortment of my own strategies to try and mitigate the physical sensations and the anxiety they produce. Breathing, meditation, imagery. Or when those failed, simply squirming on the couch with nervousness while watching a movie with my wife, trying not to let on how uncomfortable I was. I became very good at calling the fits of strange beats “anxiety”. 2004 finally found me at the doctor’s office reporting my experiences. I was given an EKG, which came out normal, followed by a pat on the back, and assurances that somebody so young and healthy wouldn’t be having heart issues. But I knew the results before they even did the test. I knew they wouldn’t find anything as I felt the sensations stop about thirty minutes before arriving. Yet I chose to believe them, because I desperately wanted to. I was told to see someone about managing anxiety and stress. I did. I was given my choice of 3 or 4 different prescriptions to help and I passed.
On a Friday evening at the end of May of this year I had a particularly bad episode, preceded by a week of more frequent episodes than normal. In addition to the rate being very high and erratic, there was a sensation of pressure I had never experienced, a tightness extending up into my throat. My heart was working far harder than it ever had before. I tried to ignore it but couldn’t; I found myself out of breath and getting slightly dizzy while trying to work. I went to the bedroom to relax and close my eyes, attempting to counter it with calm, but lying in the dark stillness only heightened my awareness of everything my heart was doing, causing even more panic. I got in the shower and started breathing exercises, doing all I could to will everything back under my control.
But I am not in control of my heart.
After three hours I decided that now was likely the best opportunity yet to get to the doctor and have them catch it. Suddenly my thinking shifts from wanting it to stop to hoping that it won’t, hoping the sensations last until I get get to a doctor and an EKG. It is a strange thing to want a problem to continue.
Events quickly turned disorienting in urgent care, a feeling of detachment and distance taking over, as if I were watching the events from somewhere up above, spectating an episode in my own life. Dr. V., a thin, long haired Indian man with wire rimmed glasses and strange calm about him called me into his office after the nurse finished my EKG and I returned from giving blood at the lab.
“My friend, you are in atrial fibrillation, and you have a potentially serious heart condition. Are you in pain, having any shortness of breath?”
I remember a ringing in my ears as I began to process what he was saying. On his desk sat a small Chinatown gift shop Buddha and I was suddenly intensely aware of the temperature of the light in the room.
“So this has nothing to do with anxiety or stress?”
“No, not at all. This is a physical problem with your heart.”
My stomach sank. Twenty years of lying to myself was instantly dispelled.
“We do not know what causes this. There’s a lot of speculation, but nobody really knows. Is there heart disease in your family?”
I explain about my father, both of my grandfathers. All male blood relatives except one have died of heart disease of one form or another, most when relatively young.
“What ethnicity is your family?”
“German and Danish, primarily.”
“Ah. Germans have bad hearts. Unfortunately, we cannot control what is in our genes. What is written in them determines far more than we know.”
My head spins as I try and comprehend where he’s going with this. I’m almost angry, wanting to challenge him and ask what the hell he’s trying to say, but I can see in his eyes and his calm that he actually speaks with care.
“I’m immediately checking you into Emergency Care and personally escorting you there.”
I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that this is not supposed to be happening and I realize that nothing is supposed to happen, that this feeling is me not wanting this to happen. I’m confused by the fact that I was fine this morning and now I’m sitting here, with this.
He gets a wheelchair and we’re soon out in the night air, crossing the street and down a back alley to the Emergency entrance, the sounds of Hollywood and traffic filling the night. It’s a long walk, or feels long, and we talk, the conversation helping ease my anxiety. Until he informs me that medicine is like art, that he has seen people walk in the doors on their own and die within hours due to poor decisions made by doctors.
I’m not sure if this man is the Reaper or some sort of monk-like Savior, but I know that I have no choice but to go with him.