Jeff Breece – What I Wish I Knew
Jeff Breece is a heart attack survivor turned runner who blogs at JeffBreece.com. He is also a volunteer moderator on the Support Network and champion of My Research Legacy, a project of the American Heart Association designed to gather health data (stripped of personal information) from volunteers to help identify patterns in heart disease.
Heart Month has me thinking about something I would like to have known three years ago. I had a surprise heart attack in 2015 a couple months into my 47th year. I would like to have understood the value of having a coach in my life. Someone to work with me toward getting my head and heart straight.
This became clear at the annual Christmas party my husband and I host for our family and friends in 2017. It's our tradition. It was on that day that a friend and former colleague, Stephanie, and I compared notes over a glass of wine. Her new experience with chronic pain and my own post-heart- attack struggles with anxiety and depression. When I told her what I asked the therapist to do for me, which was to challenge my way of thinking, Stephanie smiled, leaned in and said “that’s what a coach does.”
As a tech entrepreneur who offers Agile methodology coaching to large enterprises and small companies alike, Stephanie has a great deal of insight. She told me that insurance companies are usually reticent about paying for coaching, so I would have to find this service in a creative way or pay for it outright.
I hired a therapist who was in my health insurance network. When she asked me what I wanted to get out of the work we do together, I told her that I need her to challenge my way of thinking. I wanted her to guide me to see beyond my biases and internal dogma. To remind me that we really have no control of anything. To get me to focus on living within the span of a 24-hour period rather than hold too rigidly to a future that is not guaranteed.
Of course, everyone needs to plan for the future like they have one, but it's not about that. It's about the feeling that life would be over if something changed, like a second heart attack that would prevent me from running. I wanted this specialist to challenge my fear.
My original post-heart attack therapist gave me the space to talk about my anxiety, he did some coaching of his own in some regards. I found other coaches on the AHA Support Network, a place where peers help peers think in more productive ways that lead to positive outcomes. This, of course, can be found within our families and friends if we are open, honest, and take the risk of sharing. But there is a shorthand that comes with people who have traveled the same path: They get it.
As a newly forged heart attack survivor, I poured over volumes of books about heart disease. One day, I stumbled across this gem: "There is a 25% chance of a recurrence." Shit. My husband Eddie watched the anxiety wash over my face, then he said what I needed to hear: "That means you have a 75% chance that it won't happen." His words broke my train of thought long enough for me to relax a bit and focus on possibilities instead of fear.
As a person living with persistent anxiety for nearly three years now, I've leaned hard on breathing exercises, meditation, running, healthy eating, travel, and intimacy. The goal is to fill my life with the good stuff and keep the bad stuff at bay. Spending time with my AHA coaches and seeking support from my network of friends kept me on the right side of anxiety. I had to learn to be vigilant, though, or else I would find myself in a full-blown depression, laid bare, a beaten figure on the mat. When I got to this point, a coach would show up in the ring. They would challenge me to fight back against the negative self-talk and the fear. It's a Hell of a lot of work, but having more positive days than negative ones is worth it. It's where I would find meaning in life. What is the point of being a heart attack survivor if we don’t take every opportunity to create reasons to enjoy the festivities of life? Every single damn day.
Anxiety/depression is the exact opposite of that idea though. In the months after my attack, I wish someone would have said something more than, "it's common for heart attack survivors to experience depression." Whoopee. So I’m normal. How exactly does that help? In my mind, what I experienced was nothing less than being pinned to the mat by several guys, 2x my size, unable to breathe. Today, I view these painful moments as battles in the war that is heart disease. Now I have allies on the battlefield – coaches, peers, work, family, and friends – to help me navigate my life in the direction of meaning, enjoyment and fulfillment. The good stuff.
I write this in hopes that it will inspire someone who is struggling with defeated questions like "When will I feel normal again?" or "What if I have another heart attack?" Believe me, I am all too familiar with that inner dialogue. I fell into a depression at the end of 2017, as Winter fell on me like a gray Ohio sky. My best friend had a stroke, and I broke in the process of caring for him. This is when I decided I would do what I could do. Hire a second therapist, call my cardiologist for an early check-in, then try to let it all go because I could not control anything outside of that. I could choose to be kind to myself, forgive myself for having feelings I knew were harmful, and move on.
Is my life different since I was diagnosed with heart disease? Yes. But it does not have to be less than what it was. It just takes courage to try, to make mistakes, and to be brutally honest with myself and others. Because, in the end, it takes this exchange of ideas and feelings to come to new normals.