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Coping with the Fear of Not Knowing

dr-margaret-rutherfordIt happened two days after my son’s graduation from Vanderbilt, a joyful event in his life and in our midlife.

We had helped him move out of his apartment, watched him say good-bye to great friends and to a college life he had loved. We made ourselves — available.

I noticed that I didn’t have the energy I normally did, something that had been plaguing me for months. I had to stop and rest going up a flight of steps. I was having back pain when I walked, my chest would feel tight. I snapped at my husband one day when he asked again, “Did you sleep okay last night? You look tired…”.

I was tired of people asking me if I was tired.

My grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack. My first cousin died in Times Square of cardiovascular problems. My dad had his first heart attack in his mid-40’s.

I didn’t want to have cardiovascular disease.

So I told myself… I was tired.

We were about to leave the hotel to go to the airport when I knew I couldn’t get on a plane. My heart was racing faster than I had ever remembered. I felt sick to my stomach.

The taxi driver drove like a banshee to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, my husband trying to stay calm.

My blood pressure was 230 over 170 something. To say I felt faint would be an understatement.

I handled all of that okay, trying to be polite so the nurses would see me as a person, not a heart attack waiting to happen. It wasn’t until they started a Heparin drip, with two of them needing to perform the procedure “because it’s too dangerous,” that tears came to my eyes.

I was now a cardiac patient.

When my son entered the room, I tried to look brave.

Two days later, I was discharged. After a heart cath and other testing, it turns out I have “coronary vasospasm”. They are arterial spasms in your heart, more rare than the muscle spasm of a heart attack. I’m on meds, one of which provides a thudding headache most mornings. But I’m lucky, and that goes away. The symptoms are better, although I could now employ the fact that I have “heart palpitations” in order to get my way.

I doubt it would work, but I could try.

Since being home, I’ve read some articles on my new disorder, what’s also termed “Prinzmetal’s angina.” If you have it, there’s a heightened risk for heart attack. But I’ve not wanted to focus on it too much.

Yet I’m aware that something is shifting. Someone was being supportive the other day about a project I’m working on. “Oh, you’ve got plenty of time…”. Most of me nodded.

Another, very tiny voice murmured, “Hmm…… remember that heart thing?”

I don’t want to listen to that voice. It’s a bit annoying. But it’s part of who I am now. I need to notice and accept its presence. It’s a reminder of what I felt in that emergency room.

Maybe it will help me take better care of myself, something I tearfully promised my son I would do.

By the time we get to midlife, we all have something. Whether it’s a troubled marriage, a child on drugs, unwanted pounds, cancer, chronic disease, financial problems, depression, a bad hip, or simply fear that your life is too good, and you might lose that status, we all have something.

Living with ambiguity, of not knowing what’s going to happen in life,  and thus coping with our own fear, is a skill. And that skill becomes more needed, the older we become.

How do you cope with fear? With not knowing?

You can practice answering the question, “But what if “x” happens?” You figure out what you’d do. You stick with it, until you discover your own answer. It might not be everyone’s answer, but it’s yours.

Then you stop asking the question, and root yourself firmly in the present. If you struggle with that, if you find yourself worrying a lot, or becoming afraid of getting older, you can seek help.  Talk with friends, a pastor, or a therapist. Just don’t isolate. That’s the worst thing you can do.

I’ve added cardiovascular disease to my list of somethings.  I’ve got more than my fair share of wonderful stuff to balance that out.

That tiny voice will not govern my life if I have anything to do with it.

One more thing.

Please don’t ignore the signs that your heart is struggling. For women, even jaw pain can indicate symptoms. I was lucky in many ways. Denial can kill you.

My gratitude also goes out to the medical staff of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I was treated very well, and want to thank them for their expertise and kindness.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford has been in practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over 20 years. She began blogging in 2012 with the website “NestAche”, and following with in April 2014. Her work can be found here on Midlife Boulevard, as well as the Huffington Post, Boomeon, WeWantMore, BetterAfter50 and Arkansas Women Bloggers.

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Debbie Joslin

Monday 17th of October 2016

Thank you for your inspiring words, Dr. Margaret. Thank you to the people who commented on this post. I'm glad to learn your trick used to un-stick your mind from repeating negative thoughts over and over. I will try it too. Blessings.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 19th of October 2016

You're so welcome Debbie. Believe me, I practice and practice and practice... lol... thanks for writing!

Bryce Warden

Sunday 16th of October 2016

Glad you were able to get the help you needed in time. I had a health scare at 35 with my first pregnancy could have easily killed me. I appreciate experiences more now and it shaped my life choices. Now I need to schedule some doctor appointments - thanks for the reminder.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Monday 17th of October 2016

I'm lucky, that's for sure! And you're more than welcome for the reminder... I'm so glad you were alright at 35, and somehow got through it Bryce. Thanks so much for commenting.

Joyce Brewer

Sunday 16th of October 2016

This is so on-time for me. My weight and my family's finances have been weighing on me. Stress from them can contribute to heart problems.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Sunday 16th of October 2016

Oh I"m glad it was good timing Joyce. I was working very hard to stay in denial, and I confront denial for a living! (Heal thyself....). Good luck on you confronting your own version of honesty with yourself.

Roxanne Jones

Sunday 16th of October 2016

Thank you for this post. Like you, my father had a heart attack in his forties (but lived to 80), and I was diagnosed with micro vascular cardiac disease (more common in post menopausal women) in 2009). I so relate to the early denial, and that fear of "something bad's going to happen because things are going too well." While this is breast cancer awareness month, heart disease kills 11 times more women each year, and we need to pay attention, especially since the symptoms often present differently in women vs men. Your post is such a vivid reminder of this! So again, thank you for the affirmation that I'm not alone, and your always wise counsel on how to deal with the emotional side of this type of diagnosis.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Sunday 16th of October 2016

What kind and wonderful words Roxanne. Thank you. I'm hoping that women who read will pay attention to what's going on with their bodies. Thanks so much.

Claudia Schmidt

Saturday 15th of October 2016

Margaret, I'm so sorry to hear this, but as the others above have said, I know you won't allow this to govern how you live your life going forward. Thank you for the post -- my dad suffered from heart disease and I've often thought I might be a likely candidate, so I will be very aware if I ever experience similar symptoms. All my best, Claudia

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Sunday 16th of October 2016

Thanks so much Claudia. Please do!

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