For Crying Out Loud: A guest blog about open-heart surgery by Walter Michka
The crying started my third or fourth day back from the hospital.
I was in the shower, the first time I let water hit my incision. I’d been shielding my chest even after they said I didn’t have to. But I finally rubbed a bar of soap across it, finally touched the bumpy red scar, 9 or 10 inches long. I could feel other lumps, too, under my skin, the titanium wires that held my breast bone together while it healed. Those were permanent. I looked down but couldn’t see where the scar started. I could see it ended at three pink puncture scars where tubes used to stick out from my lungs.
Instantly, uncontrollably, a wave of emotion bubbled up inside me and burst out and I wept. It was a pressure pushing on my head and the rest of my body. Sadness or fear or despair or all of the above. I felt people digging around inside me again; my chest was open and they were touching my heart. I pictured myself flat on the operating table under harsh, glaring lights, laid out like a frog in biology class, naked but covered in green, sterile sheets. They shaved me, messed around with my genitals to put in a catheter. People I didn’t know, people I’d never met. I pictured them cutting into me, slicing my skin, sawing my bones, prying me apart. They reached in and dug around. They gutted me for parts, pulled veins from different places, chopped them up, then sewed them onto my heart, turning it into a contraption of some kind.
Deep and primal, the emotional wave washed over me then let up and I could breathe again. It left me with an overwhelming feeling of doom. My life had completely changed almost overnight. In the blink of an eye I was finite.
The New York Times says up to three-fourths of patients have uncontrollable emotional outbursts or depression months after a bypass like mine. Doctors think it has something to do with cooling their heart for the procedure, the heart/lung machine, or the prolonged anesthesia. Maybe the operation itself dislodges chunks of plaque that finds its way to patients’ brains. The doctors couldn’t be sure; they had theories. They needed more studies.
A physical rehab nurse spotted my problem when she asked, innocently: “How’re you doing, Walter?” as she took my blood pressure. I looked at her, still keeping pace on the stationary bike. That same, familiar sadness bubbled up inside me. I tried to hold back the tears and give her a stoic answer but I couldn’t. “I’m… o-kay,” I told her and burst into tears.
The other guys in rehab, guys and one woman, were all jokey, happily trundling on their gym equipment. Most of them were mid-60s at least. They called the nurses Sweetie. They made cold enough for ya? jokes and shouted at Wheel Of Fortune on the overhead TVs. Not one of them bawled like a baby.
“Here’s somebody who can help,” she said and handed me a business card: Dr. Julie Cooper, neuropsychologist. Yeah, okay, a shrink. Why not? They dug around inside my chest, I guess; why not dig around inside my head?
I went every Wednesday.
I talked. I cried. Dr. Cooper listened.
She suggested a prescription for Wellbutrin.
She told me I was in mourning, grieving the loss of my former self. I was also experiencing a bit of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Over the course of our sessions together we worked through the immediate why me? heart-related stuff then went beyond to uncover a few other issues that had risen to the surface along the way.
I had self-esteem issues. I didn’t feel worthy of her attention for one thing. Other people had more important problems than me. Plus, over time, I had grown to expect criticism but rejected any kind of praise.
I had Daddy Issues. My father was an alcoholic who ignored me when he wasn’t calling me a prick.
I have what she called a “melancholic personality.” I downplay good things that happen to me while expecting the worst. This could have something to do with my dear ol’ dad, too, and his words of fatherly advice: “Don’t worry about a thing,” he’d tell me. Followed with a laugh by: “‘cause nothin’s gonna be alright.”
Dr. Cooper used a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing to unlock memories that had been stuck, festering in my head for a long time. EMDR is sort of like hypnosis without the eyes are getting heavy, squawk like a chicken part. She had me stare at her finger as she moved it side to side, guiding me through thoughts with verbal suggestions. It dredged up childhood emotions trapped in an endless feedback loop so I could reprocess them as an adult.
After three years with Dr. Cooper we both felt we were done. Done-ish, anyway. I’m as “cured” as a patient who feels nothin’s gonna be alright can be.
That was eight months ago.
Sometimes I think I should still be seeing her. We didn’t solve everything, not that everything was solvable. I still get flashes, vivid mental pictures of my heart. It’s a mushy thing as I imagine it with tubes coming out like a steampunk, cyborg heart from a 60s Jules Vern movie. Sometimes I image the tubes coming off and squirting blood everywhere like a child’s backyard sprinkler toy.
I still inexplicably tear up from time to time.
I drink too much.
Sometimes I imagine myself dead. Not in heaven dead. Non-existing dead. I’m not an atheist, but no one’s convinced me they know what happens to you when you die. My bypass made me see that it’ll happen some day and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. So in bed, late at night or watching TV or on the train to work I’ll get a jolt of being dead. Anxiety fills me from inside, full-blown panic, until I can fool myself into thinking about something else.
Stuff like that.
My one-year follow-up with Dr. Cooper is in March. I should be able to make it ’til then. But then again: nothin’s gonna be alright.
Walter Michka is a Chicago writer and comedian who’s performed on numerous Midwest comedy stages, written for national TV (NBC and Jenny Jones), local radio (WLUP), and major ad campaigns. Clackamas Literary Review fairly recently published his short story “Gut Feeling” and is eBook “Thought Nuggets” is available for download at fine e-retailers near you. You can read the recovery journals he wrote during therapy as well as his weekly Open Heart Blog at www.somethingswrongwithwally.com.