Mysteries of the Heart

Learning From Heart Disease

Women Caretaking Men, Part 2

Men need to put their relationship first to heal from heart disease

When the squeamish onset of mortality for a couple facing heart disease arrives, the pair either share it or deny it. Often, the mortal coil infantilizes them: in response, they isolate, they wish it away, or they farm it out. They don’t know they can get through these grimmest times as a couple. Why should they? Everything is new about this crisis; it’s hard to know what to do.

One way couples practice denial is to use hospital appointments to govern their lives, which soon overwhelm them with choices and decisions. In addition, the couple may join a support group where laundering their why-me complaints and medical options takes over. Partners think they’ll grow closer by concentrating on treatment and group sharing. But, the irony is, this avalanche of information supplants their emotional growth. Info often just masks their vulnerability.

Mortality’s arrival—the coming of our last act—may also conjure a couple’s parental patterns, either their own or those unconsciously mimicked from their parents. Suddenly, they’re an old married couple. They order each other around. They ladle out concerns like an annoying, self-obsessed child or adolescent might. At the onset of my disease, when I had myself convinced that the ailment was mine to endure, I treated Suzanna as a meddler. Which made me feel petty and her unappreciated.

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For the couple, a heart attack usually means the relational space is redefined. Generally, women create the relational space and value it—and men don’t notice it or take it for granted. With disease, a man snaps awake to this space. He’s fortunate to have a place to curl up in: post-heart-attack, he learns his new role is to become a co-nurturer and co-creator of his and his partner’s worry. We might call it the sanctuary of worry they share.

In the end, Suzanna and I were tutored by my illness. To survive we had to communicate more clearly around my symptoms and her fear. If I felt bad or frightened, Suzanna did, too—with and not just for me. As a result, we uncorked the rawest of emotions, ones which many in the throes of pain delay or banish, rattled as they are by the emergency of heart trauma. Our intimacy grew because we let such emotions erupt.

How did we do this? Through a combination of things. First, after each of three heart attacks, I had to give up those long-lived or sudden protocols in which I didn’t deal with illness, and just let my unconscious patterns imprison me further; Suzanna also had to relinquish her own fear-based patterns of relating. Second, our discussions, we learned, could only happen when we both felt good, which ruled out tired evenings or driving home from a hospital appointment: the best time was a newspaper-placid Sunday morning or during a walk. Third, I woke up to the most patently obvious thing of all: my hastened or slow demise would mean misery for Suzanna, and, in turn, my health would mean less despair for us both. 

Sensitive types, we feel lousy when we’re not relating. I, the thinker, she, the feeler, it’s easy to polarize, costume these roles, and over-think or over-feel any malady. Heart disease was an opportunity for us to reconnect to our core neuronal attraction, piqued by each other’s hot-stove sensitivity, and use it to our advantage. That together we created a loving wave between us that, in order to break ashore, needed re-energizing. Such long-lasting love is not, in my opinion, wired into our species. We have to re-vitalize it constantly, billow its sails, as it were.

With Suzanna’s insistence, I learned that my cardiologist’s treatment plan wasn’t the only path to getting better. There were additional ways, some of which built off the medical model. Suzanna found alternative, practical approaches that, as I look back on their accumulation, jumpstarted my recovery. These involved lipidologists, wellness programs, cardio-scans, books, meditation, movies, cooking, and Veganism. Such adaptations Suzanna was already comfortable with, and I learned to welcome them as well. 

For me, the “blessing” of three myocardial infarctions is to have brought back creative consulting with my partner. Recovery means returning to a kind of nurtured trust with which we built our relationship in the first place. If the fire of renewal remains or can be rekindled in your relationship, this is best way I know of—perhaps the surest way—to heal.

I’m taking August off. Back in September with a new post.

Thomas Larson is a journalist, critic, and memoirist. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University.

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