I Don’t Know How She Does It . . .

“She,” in this case, being Joyce Carol Oates, who has lived with a diagnosis of tachycardia for the past 40+ years. I recall reading an interview with her a bazillion years ago in which she mentioned that the heart condition could kill her at any time, and that the knowledge of that potential sudden death helped her get over any anxiety she had about writing.

But maybe I’m misremembering that last part. Since getting out of the ER last Friday, I’ve been on a rollercoaster. The heart/lung symptoms that prompted the ER visit changed by the beginning of the week; the “weird fluttering” is gone, but I found myself having episodes where I was yawning repeatedly, almost compulsively, never quite able to get enough air. I’ve got a cardiologist appt. early next week, and I’m hoping to get confirmation that whatever-this-is is stress- and/or allergy-driven, and that my heart and lungs are fine.

It’s been a very difficult stretch for me, especially because I spend so much time alone. If I’m not talking to other people (or the dogs), I talk to myself. I’ve spent much of the past week with two voices in my head: one yelling, “You’re a hypochondriac!” and the other yelling, “You’re going to have a heart attack and die tonight!”

(There’s a third voice, actually: my dad’s. He’s been calling every day to see how I’m doing, which is kinda astonishing. At first, I was short with him, because I didn’t want to compare our respective conditions, or because I’m too cool, or because I didn’t want to let him in to see the dread that I’m experiencing. It took me a few days to really get the notion of, “This is your father, man. And, sure, his behavior in your childhood was a big part of the reason that you developed all that guardedness and anxiety, but he’s calling you because he loves you and can’t bear the thought of losing you, even if he can’t say that.” Tomorrow, we’ll go to the Chabad service so he can pray for his parents’ souls. I shouldn’t be writing on Kol Nidre, but I want to get this out because I haven’t really addressed how I’ve been feeling.)

All that anxiety magnified the severity of my symptoms, making it feel like I’ve got a time-bomb in my chest, making it more difficult for me to draw a solid breath and feel at ease, making me believe that the end is nigh. Is my right hand going numb because of an aneurysm or because I haven’t eaten for 8 hours? That crick in my neck from sleeping badly or is it an artery about to go? That stabbing sensation in my chest? Oh, wait, that’s just the itchiness from the hair growing back where they had to shave it for the stress test.

But when I could just talk to people about quotidian stuff, it would take me out of myself and I’d feel just fine. Either the symptoms would abate or I just become less aware of them.

As long as I don’t think about it, I think I’ll be okay.

So one part of me has been trying to maintain my routines and act as though nothing serious is happening, while another part is trying to total up all the things I should’ve done in my life and what I’ll still have time to do. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Quit work and go to an ashram? Be calm and carry on? I’ve got people out the wazoo telling me to relax, not to stress so much, but none of them offer to do my work for me. (And it was a lot of work, with a 150-page issue that had to go out by Wednesday in order to print and ship in time for a big show in Germany that I’m supposed to attend in a few weeks.)

On Tuesday night, things got so bad that I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it through to morning. I found myself regretting, of all things, that I wouldn’t get to read the newest issue of Love & Rockets. I’d heard that Jaime Hernandez had a monumental story in it, and it saddened me that I wouldn’t see it.

There weren’t a lot of other regrets that occurred to me on Tuesday night. I regretted being sharp with Amy during the drive home from the train station that night, but I knew she understood how shaken and scared I was. Once home I decided that, if this was to be my last night alive, then I’d go out with a little joy: having a fine gin & tonic and watching some baseball.

And if it turned out that I was being a hypochondriac, then I figured the G&T would relax me a bit. And I’m a long way past getting worked up about a Yankees game.

I felt fine on Wednesday morning, and pushed on with a positive outlook most of the day. When I got home from the office (and that work-stress from the first three days of this week didn’t help me any), the annual issue of L&R was waiting for me at the door. I took the dogs for a walk around the block, then fed them and lay on the sofa with the new book. I cried like a baby at the final pages. It was that good and I’m that emotionally raw.

Now (Friday night, just about one week from when I left the ER) I’m feeling a million times better. I still get short of breath/yawny on occasion, but I’m almost certain it’s due to anxiety. Among the lessons I learned this past week, the big one is that my anxiety is so much more vast and subtle than I ever imagined. It’s one thing to actively think, “I’m going to die,” and trigger a fear-reaction. But no: I found myself falling into those thoughts only after these episodes began. I got a real taste of how dread works behind the scenes, the chimera obscura. The longer I went without talking to someone or opening myself up to something like music (even when the iPod in my car thought it would be funny to shuffle up Breathe or Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?) or a good podcast or some silliness with the dogs, the more this dread gathered.

Walking the dogs around the neighborhood last night, I wondered what it would be like if I could get those two voices in my head in harmony. What if I could be reconciled that I’d been worrying over nothing, but also retain that immanence unto death? Would there be some way to use it, like Ms. Oates did, to let that specter pervade me, guide me past my dissipated routines, let me face the fear of the end and shatter all this anxiety?

Can I write like there’s no tomorrow?

2 Replies to “I Don’t Know How She Does It . . .”

  1. The Leopard is good company during a time when one is contemplating one’s mortality. Pink Floyd not so much.

    I am sorry to hear that you have been going through all this. What you are experiencing is hard and a night in the emergency room would not have made it any easier. When I had to spend a night in the ER a few years I was lucky to have morphine in my system.

    As for anxiety, I have found that the right medication, if one can find it, is helpful. Having lorazepam around when I need it has been a godsend. It isn’t morphine, but opiates are hard on your system and one doesn’t want to end up a wastrel in some back-alley opium den in Hong Kong after all.

    I should probably insert an inspiring quote from Marcus Aurelius here instead of encouraging anti-anxiety medication, but whenever I read him (and I dip into The Meditations from time to time), I cannot help but wonder if it is easier to be a Stoic if one has a retinue of servants to take life’s daily cares off one’s mind.

  2. Yeah, I’ve been re-reading that second to last chapter (not to give anything away to the multitudes who haven’t gotten around to reading it yet). Boy, what a wonderful book.

    And this “Breathe” was actually Telepopmusik, not Floyd!

    It seems that Chris Hitchens offers up Philip Larkin as “perfect for people who are thinking about death.” So, yay.

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