Viv, one of my long-term clients, tossed her long fire-red hair off her shoulders and narrowed her eyes at me, then shook her head. At fifty-two, she looked good, her face transformed by new-found health, her brown eyes lively. Only her missing front teeth might give her away: she survived forty years of addiction, a life in the farthest reaches.
We had been talking about her new studio apartment, the money that finally came through, the skills she was gaining every day now that she had been clean and sober for a year. I held back my happiness for her; Viv kept her feelings quiet even when she knew exactly what they were. Too much from me could create more reserve in her. But she was clearly feeling good. I asked her what I had said that warranted “the look.”
“You ask me how I get enough sober support when I don’t go to any AA meetings or have many sober friends. You know I don’t count on people to keep me going. What actually helps the most is that I’m nobody special. I’m invisible. It don’t matter what I do anymore. I can walk into the grocery and buy anything I want with cash–I’m not the one running for the door with my pockets and purse stuffed. People aren’t staring at me because I haven’t had a shower in a week. I’m not taking heat from the cops, doing what I did before in an empty building or alley. I can go anywhere I want and no one notices. No one knows where I have been, what’s going on inside me. I was such a badass once; now I get scared of all this change. But I’m starting to just blend in. That makes me free.” Viv raised her arched eyebrows. “Get it?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I’m glad for you.”
She smiled back at last. “Thanks. Me, too.”
Viv’s words had struck a chord and they echoed in my mind all week. I thought how, despite our differences, we had something in common.
I’m a person who, due to genetics, got a couple helpful and not-so-helpful traits. I have tended to look younger and perhaps more fit than I am. And I got the heart disease that runs in my family, although a good fifteen to twenty years earlier than others. Both facts have presented me with challenges.
The day I was given the surprise diagnosis at age fifty, I looked out my living room window at the brilliant street. There were people bicycling, walking briskly with their dogs, running in pairs. I tried to imagine how they felt, lungs easily expanding and compressing, hearts thrumming, legs powered by strength and steadiness. They had dependable bodies, hearty and whole, that took them places without a thought.
Heart disease research doesn’t tell you what it feels like after the major heart event stops you in your tracks. That is the part where you learn to live with things you never imagined. I didn’t climb the stairs to my second-floor apartment without stopping two or three times. Even walking from the bed to the chest of drawers could bring on tachycardia. Carrying laundry would leave me breathless. Sleeping became erratic, as I awakened with new and haphazard heartbeats that threatened to lift my heart right out of my chest. I felt this organ, my heart, was taking over my whole body and mind like an intruder. What had once been the unobtrusive powerhouse of my energetic body could turn on me any time. It could become my mortal enemy at worst. After the stent implants, things got better but progress was like moving slowly through a maze in the dark. I had to learn the organic ways of the heart for the first time.
Looking in the mirror that first year or two was confusing. I saw a woman who did not inherit the early (as early as late twenties) white hair gene. My shoulder-length hair was brunette and wavy. I had always been of muscular build even as I put on a few pounds in my late forties. My skin had few lines and my eyes were still a clear blue. All I had to do was get dressed and go outdoors and no one would know that the walk down the block took all the courage I could call forth. I hesitated at the door each time. What would happen if my heart took off racing, if I couldn’t catch my breath when the crazy palpitations grabbed hold? What would happen if no one was around to help me when I got dizzy and faint? If my new cell phone my husband insisted I have didn’t work? Leaving the apartment got harder the less I left, so I just pretended I could do it and walked out every day, going as far as I could, to the stoop, to mailbox, then around the corner, to the neighborhood park, to the store for a very small bag of groceries. I gradually walked harder and faster and checked my pulse often, terrified of the one hundred twenty marker. After that, I was lost to the runaway heart rate and would have to sit down and wait, sometimes pray. But I didn’t stop. It was either move or lose out on the rest of my life. Better to be struck down on the way to the park than on the couch.
And success! I survived each ordinary adventure. And no one knew I was filled with trepidation, or that my heart was banging against my chest like a mad thing again. Passersby just saw a casually dressed woman who was going about her business with a smile and a friendly nod. They greeted me in neighborhood shops as though nothing was different from what it had been six months, then a year before. I moved among them and wondered what they went home to, what they were thinking about behind their composed faces, and began to feel like one of the crowd again. I even envisioned having to ask for help if that day came again–and imagined getting it. I stepped more hopefully into a world that had seemed too much to negotiate. And each step forward helped me believe my heart was healing: I would, indeed, live. This, despite the ambulances and angiograms and dangerous fear that came and went.
There are times I have shared the fact I have cohabited with coronary heart disease for over ten years. I might become privy to others’ physical challenges and we gain a new connection. Most of the time they are surprised, even disbelieving, as I am a person of many passions, and do not live that quietly. I am blessed with expansive energy and a busy mind that keep me engaged in work and play throughout lengthy days. And I may still look just a bit younger than some my age, with a little help.
But I know where my life has taken me, and how it has worn away some of the inside places, leaving them with a grainy sheen that only I can see. Like everyone else in the world, I carry this singular life forward, day in and day out. It resides right here in my body, mind, spirit. It gives my heart its depth and breadth, maturity that it didn’t have when I was a daredevil youth and thought I had the world on a string. My beating heart has paid a few dues. I longed to be unique then, whereas now I am more content to be a part of, rather than apart from, the vast scheme of things. I am just another face in the crowd. And meanwhile, the secret lives of our arteries go on, wholly invisible. We each hold our lives close; they are in our safekeeping.
The next time I see Viv, I will tell her a thing or two, like how proud I am of her. She was a cocaine-addicted, desperate, angry woman who fell long and hard into a vortex of loss, then began anew. You might see her somewhere buying flowers for the first time in years or getting Thai take-out. She may capture your attention in passing but you won’t look twice. I must tell her that I hear her words; I take them with me. How miraculous that she feels free again. I do know how sweet that is.