Friday, August 23, 2013

Things My Heart Attack Taught Me: Lesson Four

Lesson # 4:

Your worst fear might come true, but you'll probably handle it better than you think.  

As many of you know, I have suffered from anxiety pretty much my whole life.  As a kid I always had irrational fears (such as refusing to take Tylenol because I was convinced it was poisoned), but I never had generalized anxiety or panic attacks until I was in college.  It was at that same time - during college - that I began developing paralyzing hypochondria.

It started in January of 1995, when I was just shy of 20 years old, and I got the thought in my head that I was having a heart attack, thanks to a random pain in my arm.  I couldn't get the thought out of my head and it began to overwhelm me.  The fear went on for weeks and ruined my 20th birthday in February.  I finally went to the health clinic at my school and ended up having my first panic attack right there on the table with the nurse practitioner.

Over the years, the source of the hypochondria would change from time to time: sometimes it would be a heart attack, other times a brain tumor, and still other times a neurological disease like Lou Gehrig's Disease.

After I started taking an anti-depressant when I was 29, the hypochondria started getting under control.  I still had fearful thoughts about my health, but those thoughts no longer stayed with me for weeks at a time, and only very rarely did I ever get anxious or have panic attacks.  In fact, it was so well controlled, that I allowed myself to gradually gain a lot of weight, eat a horrific diet, drink heavily (at least for a time), and start smoking cigarettes.

As most of you know, I had a heart attack this past March.  In every sense of the word, one of my worst fears came true.  In my 20's, when I would be in the throes of anxiety over fear of a heart attack, I would always remind myself that I had no family history of heart disease and that I was too young to have a heart attack.  I would, however, think to myself that by the time I got into my late 30's and early 40's, I'd be a basketcase all the time because then I WOULDN'T be too young for a heart attack.

Well, the unthinkable happened and I had a heart attack at 38.  Yet, miraculously, I handled it much better than I ever dreamed that I would.  My wife and mother both told me later that they feared this would "send me over the edge," and yet it didn't.  The first week was difficult, sure, but I handled it, I got through it, and I have made it into a very positive, life-changing experience for myself.

My Dad used to always tell me that even on the off chance that your worst fears come true, it probably won't be as life-shattering as you think.  He was right.  

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