"Become aware what is in you. Announce it, pronounce it, produce it and give birth to it." - Meister Eckhart

13 September 2013

A Wake-Up Call: Stress, Decisions and Opening Up to New Possibilities

You always think it happens to someone else -- accidents, serious illness and hospitalisation. In his poem "Ambulances" the poet Philip Larkin suggests that while we all look on with concern and gravity when we hear the ambulance siren, we're all greatly relieved that it's not coming for us.

Several weeks ago, however, the ambulance came for me. In the middle of the night I was catapulted from sleep with severe chest and abdominal pain of a sort I've never experienced. Within minutes it had increased off the scale and I felt myself go cold and clammy. "This is it," I thought, "this is how I die . . . in my t-shirt and underpants, collapsed in the hallway. . . without even a chance to say goodbye to anyone." My moans and groans woke my partner and she called 999 and spoke to someone who suspected I was having a heart attack and ordered an ambulance. To my surprise and relief, a rapid response paramedic arrived within minutes and hooked me up to a heart monitor. Minutes later the ambulance arrived. The monitor indicated my heart was okay but to be safe they rushed me to Emergency anyway.

Now having raised three sons and experiencing the odd accident, I'm not a stranger to Emergency and am used to waiting hours before being seen. But I suppose when a 61-yr-old man presents with chest pains and difficult breathing, that requires swift attention. I was rushed immediately into the arms of a waiting team of doctors and nurses while my partner gave the necessary details to reception. I had a half a dozen or more electrodes attached with all these wires hooked up to a monitor. An intravenous drip was attached, and a nurse started taking blood. Within a couple of hours the pain was subsiding but that didn't keep the medical staff from doing an X-ray and other tests. They wanted to be sure my heart was okay.

Fortunately, it was. "Are you an athelete?" a male nurse asked me.

"Why?" I replied, a little puzzled.

"Because your heart rate is typical of long distance runners," he explained.

That certainly cheered me up particularly because I'm not as keen on exercise as I should be. "I do play badminton from time to time," I smiled, "and I walk a lot." Both are true.

I was kept in overnight for observation as a precaution. The next afternoon, a doctor came and sat by my bedside. She explained that all my tests came back ok. My heart was in very good condition, she explained.

"Then what happened?" I asked.

"Probably an unspecified gastro-intestinal upset of some sort. What kind of day did you have yesterday?"

Obviously, she was trying to discover if stress had brought on this attack. I had already considered that yet I hadn't felt particularly stressed . . . no more than anyone else.

"Nothing special," I began, "I drove my partner's car to the garage to have the power steering fixed. I hung around for a few hours and went to pick it up. On the way home along the motorway, the exhaust fell off. I had to crawl under the car and with one hand prop the pipe up again."

"What happened?" the doctor said.

"It fell off again a few hundred yards later," I said, "in fact, it fell off five more times before I found a piece of string in the gutter and was able to tie it up. Took me a couple of hours to get home."

The doctor raised her eyebrows, "You don't think that was stressful?"

"It happens," I answered, "I guess it was....yeah."

"What else is happening in your life," she probed.

"Well," I paused, "we're moving."


Pause. "Hmm . . . supposed to be today." I felt rather sheepish.

"Today?!" she exclaimed, "That's pretty stressful! What else?"

I took her back seven years and told her my story. How my marriage of 25 years had come to an acrimonious end, how my subsequent life was turned upside down as I struggled to find accommodation, work (I'm self-employed) and rebuild my relationships with my children. There was more but I could tell from the gobsmacked expression on her face that I had made an impact.

"My God," she exclaimed, "I'm stressed out just listening to your story . . . and you don't think you're stressed? You've experience virtually everything on the list of stress-inducing life experiences!"

"Yeah, I guess you're right when you put it that way."

The doctor went on to explain how our bodies can cope with a lot of stress for a while but eventually something gives. I had reached a state, she explained, where I had come to consider the level of stress in my body as "normal". I just let it pile up and now it had exploded in my chest.

"This woke you up at 3am," she said, "so consider this a 'wake-up call' and start taking it easy."

Easier said than done, I thought, when you're self-employed, in your sixties, and no chance of retiring on a pension that would barely feed me. But, I admitted to myself, she had a point. I don't want to go through that sort of pain again. And I'm not ready to die.

I was released from hospital, exhausted and grateful to be alive. I went home and went to bed and slept through till the next morning. When I awoke, my partner (who'd been an angel through all of this) assured me that we could put off moving for several weeks or whenever I felt better. "No," I said, "let's go today." It was a decision I'd been wrestling with for months. I hate moving and I didn't want to go. But now, something in me had shifted. I was adamant, my mind was made up. "Let's go today," I repeated.

We packed the car that afternoon, said goodbye to Edinburgh and drove north to our new home in the Highlands. I felt content and satisfied that I had made the right decision . . . at least I wasn't experiencing any pain. And if it turned out to be the wrong decision, then we'd simply reassess and make another decision if needed.

I'm more and more convinced that not making decisions is bad for your health. Going around with such indecision for months (or years) creates undue stress in the body as well as the mind. If you have a decision to make, make it. Of course, gather the facts as best you can, but make it. Even if later you determine it was a bad decision, then make another one. It's like a captain of a large ship correcting his course every now and again. Making decisions is how we get somewhere. Not making them gets us stuck or off course and sends us crashing into the rocks of despair and ill-health.

There's more to this story but that's for another time. In the meantime, consider the unmade decisions in your life that have been hanging around for ages. Commit yourself to making them or let them go. You never know, making a decision--no matter how frightening--may just open you up to new possibilities. If you don't then don't be surprised when your body wakes you up in the middle of the night crying and cringing in agony. Don't let that siren be the one coming for you. Listen to your body now and make the decisions you know you need to make today. Your body will thank you for it.

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