When you go to the doctor, they ask a series of questions to get a picture of the patient’s medical background. If you’re a child, they ask whichever guardian accompanied you. Does anyone at home smoke? No. Any allergies? Yes, to a particular medication. Is there a family history of cancer? No, thank God. What about heart disease? Brace yourself.
My mother always answered the questions, but I began interjecting the “brace yourself” when I was around ten. It was a black-humored warning to the nurse to prepare her for the litany that my mom inevitably recited in two single breaths: “Paternal grandfather had a heart attack at age 38, heart transplant at 47, died at 56. Maternal grandfather heart attack at 36, quadruple bypass at age 40, death at 56.” The nurse would look surprised, nod briskly, and say “wow” or something equivalent. As though it was an accomplishment to have both grandfathers dead of heart disease before sixty.
For as long as I was able to understand, I understood. My family history meant that my heart was a fickle friend who could turn against me at any time if I didn’t care for it properly. It terrified me. You can run from external threats, but internal ones are impossible to escape. You become the threat. When I was little, as I tried to go to sleep, I would focus on my heartbeat, just to make sure that it was doing what it was supposed to do. Thud. Thud. Thud. Of course, I felt anxious, which made my heart beat faster, and I would begin to wonder if I had felt it skip a beat. Thud, thud, thudthud –was my heart beginning to betray me? If I got anxious enough, I went to my parents and asked them to feel my pulse, and they would assure me that my pulse was perfectly normal, even if I could feel it in my stomach and it was making me feel sick.
When I was twelve, I had a heart murmur. Fortunately, it was benign, but I still had to go to the hospital, bare my adolescent upper body to my mother and the nurse, and lie down as cold, clinical gel was slathered all over my chest. I saw my heart pulsing away on the ultrasound screen, and I wondered if it was beginning to betray me. When I was nineteen, I had a panic attack, and I jumped out of the shower, unable to breath because of the python crushing my chest and swelling my throat closed. Through the haze of anxiety, I wondered if I was having a heart attack.
I have lived my life trying to maintain my relationship with my heart. It has become habit for me to avoid fried food, saturated fat, and sugar. One of my friends recently wondered if I had body image issues because I tend to vocalize my thoughts about food –“I’ve eaten x today, therefore I shouldn’t have y.” My effort to eat healthily, however, is just that –it isn’t out of vanity or poor self-confidence –it’s self-preservation. I don’t count calories or limit carbs; I just restrict quantities of certain foods that I view as more harmful than helpful.
I’ve disliked deep-fried and greasy foods for as long as I can remember. I dab the grease off of my pizza with a napkin. Carnival food makes me feel sick. But recently I’ve wondered if I’ve trained myself to feel that disgust. Do I dislike those foods because I know what they could do to me? Or would I hate them even if I weren’t afraid of succumbing to heart disease? The truth is that I don’t really know. It’s simply part of who I am.
I’m still afraid of the long, sickening death that can result from heart disease, but I know that I can’t let fear rule my life. I don’t hit the gym as often as I should, and I indulge my love for dessert more than I should. The truth is, there’s not really a point in putting off death if you’re not truly living.