My heart broke about seventeen days ago.
It didn’t go the way I thought.
There was no swelling of plaintive strings, no tearful goodbye at a foggy morning train station, no devastating letter, no desolating moment of quiet desperation. I simply turned out a light, settled into a pillow, and instead of falling asleep, I worried, and fretted, and somehow conjured out of the darkness an occasional, random absence where once was a heartbeat. I tossed and turned. I did breathing exercises. I worried I was having a heart attack. I worried about having to go to the hospital during an Omicron wave if I was having a heart attack. I worried about whether the EMT’s would have break down my front door, or whether the cat would get out, if I had to call 911. I worried my insurance wouldn’t cover the ambulance ride. I worried that I would die. I worried even more that I wouldn’t die but would be forced to live a miserably circumscribed lfe. I listened to my heart beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. A whoosh like going over a roller coast. A thud I felt more than heard.
I slept fitfully that night, in between and around the bends, maybe an hour and a half total. I had a doctor’s appointment the next day. I googled Congestive Heart Failure after the doctor told me I was healthy. I went for a long walk. The more my heart rate went up with exercise, the less I noticed it the missing beats. “A good sign!” said the doctor. But it felt crappy. I went to bed, I didn’t sleep. Rinse. Repeat.
I won’t take you through the rest of this. The only thing more boring than writing about health anxiety is reading about health anxiety (although there are some hilarious bits out there in Hypochondriac Google. My favorite was the one that stated feelings of impending doom could also be symptoms of a heart attack, which means we should all have a cardiologist on speed dial in the Year of Our Lord 2022, I guess). Short version: two more doctor visits, an EKG and a bunch of lab work suggesting that whatever is happening to me (TBD sometime next week when I mail in a dental floss dispenser-shaped monitor button that I’ve worn taped to my chest since last Wednesday, with instructions to PUSH THE BUTTON whenever something weird happens) is that it’s probably not immediately life threatening . But, you know, it feels weird and it’s not getting better. Though I’m sleeping again, the phantom heartbeat is really messing with my days now. I’ve been advised to try breathing exercises, to relax, to find an activity to take my mind off things, to meditate, to sit quietly. But it’s while I’m sitting quietly that all monsters who steal my heartbeats are most ravenous. It’s while I’m sitting quietly, counting my breaths that I feel the most disconnected and the least like a human being.
I was going to turn this into a kind of joke, wait until the final report, no matter how benign or grim, so I could tell you guys that the last two years have officially broken my heart. But I don’t think I need a specialist to tell me what is so manifestly obvious. Maybe non-broken hearted people drive around for hours at a time just to pretend the heated seat in a car is another human body and that they’re actually going somewhere when it is not sensible or advisible or responsible to go anywhere at all. Maybe non-broken hearted people get so upset about a book banning in Tennessee they do 45 minutes of rage tears in an empty parking lot they drove to just to sit in an empty parking lot. Maybe non-broken-hearted people also feel hopeless about the state of the world right now ( is any sane person not battling hopelessness right now?) but it probably doesn’t catch in their throat and flutter around their chest like a whole battalion of deranged moths against a single bright paper lantern.
Maybe none of that matters because everybody is broken-hearted right now, whether or not their ticker got a backbeat that can’t lose it or is taking extended free jazz drum solos at 3am. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life harder than right now. I don’t say that lightly. And I say that with full recognition of the fact that I am not living through war (yet) or famine or truly debilitating illness. I am warm and fed. I have a soft bed that hasn’t broken in at least two weeks. I have firewood and a pond view and a fat orange cat who only really hates me when I play the piano. I have seen friends(though, to be honest, only a few, only once in the last month-ish). I have internet access that theoretically allows me to do all the things that we do, as humans, to be humans (see performances, talk to people—and even see them, watch movies, take classes, shop, play games etc), and that should be enough. That should be enough.
But, like, it’s not, right? Not really. Not after two years. And I refuse to feel guilty about saying so. Sure, it could be worse. Sure, I know I’m doing the right thing. But it sucks. There’s a pane of glass and bunch of wires, to say nothing of miles, between me and the people I love, to say say nothing of the people I haven’t met. There’s that whole restless, uncanny valley effect that comes with having 99.9% of your human contact come through Zoom meetings. There’s the sameness of the days, when even the things I do to relieve the rote sameness of days have become rote. There is the fact that it snows every weekend, which prevents even the illusion of being able to do something different (buying a house in the burbs at the bottom of a big hill has it’s downsides, pun intended). I don’t think I’ve gone totally off the deep end, but my dreams feel 1000% more like real life right now than my waking hours. Because in my dreams, I am in crowds of people. I am sitting beside them. I am existing in a hubbub. I feel normal. I am unweighted by grief. I might even be surprised by novelty—a new street, a new friend, a new place in the world. I might do something unexpected. In my dreams I can explore freely and take comfort in tangible reminders that I exist in the world. Then I wake up. And the heart does the thing.
So this is my sad state of affairs. What’s yours? Because odds are it’s maybe similar. Or worse. Or similar but different. Or different but worse. Maybe it’s the silence you crave because you can’t get away from your family. Maybe it’s the metaphorical desert island you crave because you’re still going into work every day and having to deal with customers or patients or whatever percentage of the population, who by choice, denial, recklessness, responsibility or necessity, still operates out in the world. Whatever the case, I’ve probably done a piss poor job asking you about it. The malaise makes it hard to reach out. On a bad day, we all need someone to check in, but what if we’re all having a bad day every day? That’s a lot to ask of a lot of people.
Traditionally, when catastrophe happens, we kind of come together, even if we come together just to hunker down. Because by simply being together, I think it makes it easier to process whatever awful shit is coming at us and the mess it leaves behind because it gives some sense of collective engagement and shared grief. The deli that puts out fresh coffee after the hurricane knocks the power out in the rest of town. The bar that’s bright and warm the day after a blizzard. The coffeeshop you go to on mornings of mass and scary crisis because you know other people will be there, even if none of them can figure out what to say. It also gives us actual, not virtual, not theoretical access to people that are not exactly like us. And those people sometimes offer the perspective we need to get out of our heads and un-mired from our particular variety of bullshit.
I’m not saying that the key to chasing away the blues in Pandemic Year Three is running out in the world all willy nilly. I may need variety in my life, but I’d rather it not come in the form of sickness or bigotry or people being assholes. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re as divided as we’ve ever been after being told to guard our social circles and keep our distance for two solid years. It’s wise public health advice, but it’s no wonder we turn inward and let our brains start embroidering all our worst ideas. We get lethargic and indifferent. We turn fighty and afraid. We retreat further in, and after a while, it starts to feel inconvenient or impolite or unpleasant to engage, even though it’s the thing we need most.
This is the part where I would have some kind of pithy wrap-up if I were a social scientist or a self-help writer. I’m neither of those things. So I won’t. And I am sorry this is so bleak. I thought January 2021 was pretty much the nadir, but then there was still real hope that it might end, or at least mostly end. That we might have something like a real life again. That we might be able to think of a single thing to look forward to without have to emotionally prepare for it falling apart. Then it did, sort of, for a minute or two, and sometimes I think it’s worse now because we all thought, for a minute, that we might have a real honest-to-god reprieve.
I hope I might be able to learn how to coast from disappointment to catastrophe to fiasco to disappointment without losing my rhythm, without dropping the beats, and by so doing, be better comfort to the people I love and the people that just need to know there is someone else out there thinking about them and empathizing and wanting so desperately to say call them when they’re freaking at 3am and say:
“So, look, it’s going to be okay. This, this mess of everything at the same time? It’s manageable. We will do our best to get through it because we have to have those dinner parties and music and joy and love on the other side. And we’re the ones who are going to make sure that happens.”
In the meantime, sorry I haven’t returned your text.
I promise I’ve read every word.
And I’m still here.
Photo today: Cute new sweater. Heart monitor thing.