Writing Better Stories For Ourselves

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.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Dreamland, Storytelling

13 Responses to Writing Better Stories For Ourselves

  1. Ramon Quintero

    I am very happy you are still with us Sam. Your dedication and love for writing is greatly appreciated. May God give you many more years in the company of your family, friends.

  2. Laura

    the doc may say that your heart was dying, but my sense is that your heart was actually expanding into the territory where non-duality lives. You know, the “both and” reality that we are both declining and deepening, decaying and delighting … growing stronger as we grow weaker.

    so excited to see where your intellect and wisdom lead you now as you continue to process this experience and find an even more nuanced meaning for your life …

  3. Ilene Robeck

    So glad you are on the mend. Your work and your willingness to educate have had a profoundly positive impact on those working to turn this epidemic around. It has impacted health care professionals, families, communities and patients with the debilitating disease of opioid dependence.
    We are all so glad that your willingness to share the information you have put you in the right place to receive the help you needed in a timely manner.

    While your health surely needs to dictate the pace upon which the next chapter of this epidemic is written about, we unfortunately now find that there is a chapter that needs to be added to the original book of Dreamland. This next chapter is educating about the evolving risks related to use of illicit fentanyl and other illicit opioids with high potency and overdose potential. Perhaps there is a way that we can help to decrease the burden on you but I can’t think of anyone better able to educate about this than you.

  4. Congratulations Sam on surviving the unexpected first heart attack that many do not! Godspeed on your recovery and expanding new connections for your work. Glad your still with us to explore Frankl, extentalism and writing a better story for ourselves in our times.

  5. Elizabeth Perkins

    We are all so thankful that you were indeed the right place at the wrong time when your heart decided to act up! I found your book, Dreamland, amazing. Your ability to chronologically lay out the actual trail that led to our opioid pandemic was extraordinary. I drew the conclusion that my son and so many others were set up for becoming addicted, and in my case, death at age 30. That many must take responsibility for this crisis, most particular The Stacklers who obviously have blood on their greedy hands. I am a board member of atTAcKaddiction, the grass roots advocacy group in Delaware. Unfortunately, I was not able to be at your presentation, but my dear friend Mr. Humes was able to get me a signed copy and a photo of you signing with a poster of my son John in the background. I am so grateful for what you do and can’t thank you enough for your contributions to SUD.

  6. Nancy Scott

    Sam, as I read your post, a light bulb went off for me. We do need to write a better story for ourselves. I’m taking charge of my life – I am the one in control to do just that. I had read several different works by Frankl in college – both in literature and Holocaust courses, but never really thought about his works in that sense before. Thank you for this post – I’m taking charge – eating healthier and trying to live a healthier lifestyle.
    Continued prayers for you as well as you continue on your journey to better health.

  7. Karen Budd

    Sam, I devoured your book Dreamland which I recommend to everyone and was happy to find your blog which is so moving. I wish you lots of health, and well-being, and continued amazing story telling

  8. Sam, glad you made it. Thanks for sharing. I will be eighty on July 4. I agree with Frankl. I live and write in Guanajuato, Mexico and alienation is what I see when I visit my sons in the US. My partner Dianne sets an exemplary eating pattern. For that I am thankful: I have cut out sugar, caffeine in all forms, including chocolate, eat limited dairy products, only soft cheeses, whole grains, nuts and lots of fruits and vegetables. I recommend getting a Fitbit and doing 10,000 steps per day. I also recommend yoga three times a week, weight lifting and DANCING! Stay healthy!

  9. Barbara Bayes

    What you suggest is a very probable reason that addiction is so much more wide spread among our folks than in other countries. Mother Theresa commented on her first visit to the US that she’d seen poverty around the world but none worse than that in the US because ours is the poverty of loneliness. Our stories are often ones of disconnected lives
    Glad you dodged the bullet and wish you continuing good health

  10. Thank you for this column. Victor Frankl should be required reading for today. Sometimes I have a hard time trying to find meaning, but to remember that the ability to do so lies within me rescues me. But we need to have discussions about what that meaning can be and to remember that even in the bleakest circumstances we can do it.

  11. Jian

    Sending you much love, Sam!

  12. Donna Constante-Trinidad

    Wow, thanks for sharing. Providence knows you have lots of stories to yet write. Prayers for a speedy recovery.

  13. Sam, I wish you the speediest of recoveries ad lasting good health. Your work is so vital, so very vital.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *