Two weeks ago I had a heart attack at a high-rise hotel in Atlanta on the morning I was supposed to deliver a speech at a large conference on prescription-painkiller and heroin abuse.
Turned out one of my major arteries was completely blocked. I’ve written elsewhere about what happened that day and you can read it here.
I rebounded quickly because I was near help, and also because of an outpouring of prayers and good wishes sent from many you, which I greatly appreciated.
My wife and I were teary-eyed for days reading your posts and comments.
I went to visit my new cardiologist when I got home. I had never thought of what was happening during a heart attack.
“What you were feeling is the pain of the heart dying,” she told me.
This hit me much harder than anything else I’d heard from a doctor. I began to understand more deeply the enormous good fortune I’d had in being where I was when this happened. Another two or three hours without help, “and you’d have been in serious trouble,” she said.
I’ve spoken a lot about personal accountability in my talks about Dreamland. I believe it’s one of the lessons we ought to learn from our opiate-addiction epidemic: that as a culture, we almost demanded doctors cure our pain quickly and completely and we weren’t going to do much to help them do that – like eat better, exercise more, avoid processed foods. Opiate painkillers were quick, cheap and those were the tools doctors turned to.
So midway through writing the book, I stopped drinking sugary drinks; lots of junk food I’d already eliminated from my diet. I don’t buy food that’s advertised on TV. I’ve always walked a lot, but I added swimming. I had no clue that I had a blocked artery, or ought to believe I had one, because I thought I was doing a lot right. (My cardio rehab nurse said she thought the swimming had saved me, because through it my blood had found new ways of circulating around the blocked artery and used those when the attack came.)
Still, I’ve come to believe that our heroin/pill epidemic has a lot to say about who we are as Americans, how we do live and how we should live. I think I felt that a bit more deeply following my heart attack.
As part of that, I came across a discussion of the work of Viktor Frankl, a great philosopher and Holocaust survivor. It reads in part that what gave him the ability to survive Nazi concentration camps (four of them) was the search for meaning. That life is more than the pursuit of happiness; it’s the pursuit of meaning and with that comes fulfillment.
“We all said to each other in camp,” he writes, “that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered.” But it was not the hope of happiness that “gave us courage,” he writes. It was the “will to meaning” that looked to the future, not to the past. In Frankl’s existentialist view, we ourselves create that meaning, for ourselves, and not for others. … We must acknowledge the need to make sense of our lives and fill what Frankl called the “existential vacuum.” And we alone are responsible for writing better stories for ourselves.
That last sentence is the most important one.
Frankl’s work, I think, is hugely relevant amid this opiate-addiction epidemic.
I’m just beginning this new life – renewed approach to exercise, avoiding stress, and thinking of food differently than even I had. Feeling very fortunate to be alive and be around people who care – like many of you.
Hoping to continue writing a better story for myself, and wishing the same for you.