Advice from the Trenches: Getting Back

motherDear C;

My mom is in her early 60s. She’s always been a “Type A,” not letting anything stop her, but last year she had a heart attack. In the hospital, tests showed her health had gone downhill and she was put on multiple meds for blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. The doctors say she’s recovering, but she doesn’t feel like herself anymore and keeps talking about “getting back to where I was.” She’s pretty much stopped going out because she’s “too tired,” and sits at home watching TV most of the time. She isn’t following the physical therapy she’s supposed to because “I never did that stuff before, and I was fine. I’m taking the damn pills!”

I’m afraid she’s going to have another heart attack if she keeps going like this. I just don’t know what to do about it. Her doctors want to put her on antidepressants, but I am not sure more medication is going to help. Got any ideas?

Whitney at Wits End


Dear Whitney:

This is a common problem, not just for Type As, but for anyone who lives most of their life in relative health, then has that first crisis in mid or later life. They are used to powering through problems and being in control. When something like a heart attack or cancer stops them, all they can think of is getting back to where they were before. The problem is, the way they were before is probably the very reason they ended up with a major health crisis. Going back to old habits is the worst idea ever, and those pills are not a magic cure-all.

Heart problems and heart disease tend to be chronic. Mom has to learn to live with them. The key to getting her life back is to adjust to the body she lives in now. Her heart became damaged over a long period of time, and it’s not going to magically turn back into a young, undamaged heart because the doctors put her on meds. She is never going to be able to push herself endlessly and burn the candle on both ends like she did when she was working up to that heart attack. Her body needs TLC, not a gallon of coffee and a bottle of Xanax.

This is personal opinion, but I think that one of the reasons we have, relative to healthcare costs, so many unhealthy and depressed people in our country is because of our expectations. Doctors will seldom tell us the truth – that there is no magic bullet or miracle cure that will restore us to radiant health, and it’s anyone’s guess whether any pills or procedures they try will work. Most of the time, every medical procedure we go through and every pill we take is simply exchanging one problem for another. Fully 75% of our illnesses are chronic, not crisis in nature, and yet the medical means we are offered to deal with them don’t address the reality – that these illnesses are never going to go away and the best way to regain life is to take really good care of the body we’re walking around in. But then, this is just my opinion.

Your mother is never going to get back to where she was before. At a time like this, the AA serenity prayer will do her as much good as her medications: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Mom is unlikely to address this stuff on her own. There is still a lot you can do to help her, but it’s best to start slow. First: exercise. Ease Mom back into movement by getting her a stationary cycle, elliptical or treadmill, and setting it up in front of her new friend, the TV. Let her watch her programs. Just get her to start putting in a small but steady number of minutes to get her circulation going. After she’s moving, move her out of the house. Being in nature is very healing, and research shows it can help speed her recovery. And there’s no better hobby than gardening. Forget about antidepressants: The soil contains little microbes that have the same effect on your neurotransmitters.

But don’t put all the burden on yourself – find a support group for recovering heart patients. No one understands the problems she’s facing better than someone who faced them, too. A support group will give her the encouragement she needs. And she’s probably going to hear something from those people that will surprise her – the people who have managed to get their lives back see their heart attack as the best thing that ever happened to them. Why? Because for the first time in their lives, they are actually living, instead of just trying to keep up with the stinkin’ rat race. None of them want to “get back.” Hopefully, after some help, neither will your mom.

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