Week One - The Heart of the Matter
By Leigh Farmer
My grandmother died of a heart attack. At least that’s what the doctor’s told us. She was always complaining of chest pains. She had chronic blood pressure issues. She just wasn’t able to cope with a lot of stress. I remember her cleaning her house in such a panic one day that when her neighbor came to the door she handed the poor man her dust rag and asked him to shake it out. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if that dust rag hadn’t been a pair of her very large underwear. Poor grandma was so embarrassed! She always had a hilarious story that was a result of her panic. Grandma made some pretty crazy decisions on the fly. It was funny, until it wasn’t. She would work herself up, unable to breath, and be taken away from her house in an ambulance, leaving my poor grandfather, worried and confused.
My grandparents were born in the late 1920’s and both came from fairly tumultuous backgrounds. There is no need to get into the details of it all. In fact, I don’t know all the details. There was parent abandonment, verbal abuse and substance use issues. It all leads back to my grandmother’s heart attack. Why? I’m getting there.
A pattern was starting to emerge. My mom started to exhibit some of the same behaviors as my grandmother. And before I knew it, so was I! When stress hit, I panicked. An unproductive flurry of activity that always led to yelling, hurt feelings and sometimes…you guessed it…chest pains. We were all diagnosed with anxiety disorder – an ailment that begins in the brain, but manifests itself in physical symptoms. For me, it began with a tightening of the chest, shortness of breath and then exhaustion. Sounds a little like a heart attack, yes?
Through therapy and good medicine, I have my anxiety disorder under control. I’m thankful I live in an era where Zoloft and good therapy are readily available. My grandmother didn’t have that luxury. My grandmother, I believe, died because she had a heart that couldn’t take any more chaos. It was done handling the anxiety. I often wonder, if our society had been able to address and talk about mental health openly just a decade ago, would my grandmother have lived a longer life? If the shame that comes with having a mental health disorder didn’t exist, would our quality of life shoot up?
I’m asking that we talk about mental health. Our mental health. It will make the world a much better place. This is my story. What is yours?