I know, it’s been a very long time since I have posted. I have no excuse other than being distracted. And that so very easy to happen to me.
I’ll tell you the story. Not uncommon, nothing very special to others in particular, but for me it has profound effect and profound consequences.
It begins with of all things a ‘hot flash’. I started to literally soak my sheets each night and during the day there would be moments where I would tear the shirt from my body because the sweat would overwhelm me, starting at the top of my head and then flooding all the way to my socks. They came and went, sometimes just a brief flush, sometimes a flood. It was very unnerving and was something I could not control.
Now, women have this happen as a matter of course – the dreaded menopause. But I never knew that many men suffer the same things and with men it’s known as andropause. Each has the effect of causing hot flashes. Each is caused by the body’s lack of production of hormones. In my case, it was something that wasn’t supposed to happen to me: an injury caused me to completely stop producing testosterone.
This went on for months. I finally went to see my doctor and she gave me a physical, all the appropriate blood tests. But it was what she found during the physical that’s important. How does this all fit in with being bipolar?
Bipolar depression (and depression in general) can produce some very pronounced physical symptoms: a lack of energy, even exhaustion; the feeling that you’re moving through corn syrup is what I feel. Confusion, lack of the ability to focus on tasks, feeling unable to get up and do what you need to do. Sleeping at times when you should be up and doing chores. Disinterest in the workings of ‘normal’ life.
This had been happening to me. I thought it was all in my head. I disappointed people by refusing to engage, I lost interest in life. I felt the hopelessness and guilt that accompanies the depression.
When I went to see my doctor about the hot flashes, that was all that I had on my mind. I knew something was wrong, but thought it might be a problem related to depression for after all, when you are bipolar there is a certain amount of confusion where it comes to these kind of symptoms. It could be caused by either your body or your mind.
This grey area is confusing to say the least. And if you’re bipolar, sometimes the first thing you do is blame your brain for any kind of problem. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to come to the realization that some things are out of your control. It takes a journey through your negativity before you realize you aren’t to blame. You have to do the work to get there. Stop beating yourself up over things that you did not do.
And this story changes here for when I went to my doctor, there was something more, a thing unexpected and life-changing. Yes, I had stopped producing testosterone, that happens to many people and is corrected by hormone injections and then, voila! Back to a semblance of normal.
But I have a heart murmur that’s always been there. And that day my doctor said, ‘I’m sending you to see a cardiologist.” She was concerned that my complaints of having no energy had increased. And she heard something she did not like. She ordered a Doppler Echocardiogram and off I went to have it done.
The technician let me watch the entire process and showed me in real time my heart beating away, and asked me questions during the test. Had I ever experienced Rheumatic Fever as a child? No, I had had not. Had I been experiencing exhaustion more frequently? Yes, but I have Bipolar Depression and that is often the cause of exhaustion.
And then he said that he would like to see me have this test on a very regular basis, perhaps every two or three months, and swept the pad to a place on my chest.
“You see that very bright area? That’s your aortic valve. I’m going to ask the cardiologist to discuss this. You have aortic valve stenosis. It’s not uncommon. He will look over this test and discuss anything you may have to do. But at the very least we will have to track it.”
OK, then. Something else, something lurking.
I didn’t really know what to think. Technicians and doctors are sometimes excessive worriers, mad scientists that insist on test after test. But these can be alarming, and I risk falling into the pattern of negative thinking that I always do, and can amplify the danger. This time I tried very hard not to do that, but I was worried.
Then there was the meeting with the cardiologist. Not only was it aortic stenosis – where there is excessive calcification of the aortic valve in my case – but they wanted me to have surgery to replace the valve immediately because the situation was severe. And that’s when I freaked out. I needed time to consider this. I was frightened. I was alarmed. There were a million feelings and fears, some quite intense, others less so.
So it wasn’t depression that was causing me to be exhausted, it was the fact that my heart was working furiously to pump oxygenated blood into my body. I was out of oxygen. It wasn’t my head, it was my heart, and literally so! It was pumping very hard and was unable to get enough blood through the valve. I was actually, really and truly exhausted for a reason that wasn’t depression! It explained everything. And it was the single most alarming thing I have ever had to face where my body was concerned.
Between the lack of energy caused by the cessation of production of testosterone and the depletion of any remaining energy caused by my heart problem, it explained it all. But here’s where it becomes a problem from the perspective of Bipolar Disorder… life was endangered. My life is literally in danger every moment that the surgery is delayed. And that makes me ride the emotional roller coaster again, and again and again.
Had my doctor not arranged for the doppler test the severity would have remained undiscovered, untreated and could easily have resulted in my dropping dead from heart failure, and sooner than later. That’s not an exaggeration.
The severity of the problem was underlined by the cardiologist’s insistence that the operation happen very, very soon. So here it is: the operation will happen within the next three weeks. I am headed tomorrow for a cardiac catheterization to place any stents and to check the heart function prior to surgery. But surgery is required. Tomorrow is just a preview before the big surgery.
Open heart surgery at the age of sixty. . . It made me consider things I never really thought about, like dropping any bullshit in my life. Seeing things as they are. Making it known how much I love the people in my life. Being certain that the way forward from here is positive, that it is creative and constructive, that there is life ahead of me that needs to be a good life and not weighed down by pointless pursuit, pointless emotional expenditure.
I must LIVE and not merely be alive.
These procedures are commonly done, and have good success. But consider it from my point of view for a moment.
Someone is going to place me on a ventilator and a machine to bypass my heart to pump blood through my body, They will cut my sternum, move my ribs, stop my heart and then for the piece de resistance, they’re going to cut into my heart, remove tissue and sew a valve made of tissue from a pig (no jokes).
They’re going to sew it all back up. Put me in intensive care. Poke, prod, test, measure, ascertain, record. And it all comes down to the real truth:
If I make it, I am going to LIVE. That, my friends, is EVERYTHING.
I must thank my doctor for without her concern they would not have known. I must thank the doppler technician for showing me my heart problem as indisputable proof. I must thank the cardiologist for his analysis and concern. I must thank the team of surgeons and hospital staff for making it all happen.
Yes. I think that being scared is natural. And yes, there is a small chance that I won’t make it through the procedure, but I am not focused on that chance. Instead I will try to embrace this for what it really is: another chance to be engaged in my life, engagement in a way that perhaps I may have never done had it not been for this discovery.
Still, this is open heart surgery. Things happen and I am not ignorant of the statistics. If I do not make it then there is one thing I will say:
I loved every goddamn minute of it, even the pain, even the sadness. I embraced being human. I had great joy and have been graced by it. I have loved, been loved, and know how important that love is; I have been and am eternally grateful. Do not think I have been consumed by anger or sadness; I fought it and won. Look around you. Is this not a wondrous place? Revel in it. Remember me. Smile.
But I’m going to make it. I’m going to be better than fine – I am going to ROCK.
And one last thing. . . While I am in ICU, I will be on a ventilator and unable to speak. I would take advantage of this opportunity if I were you…
Tickets for this should be made available because it may well be the very last time you see me unable to talk! Honestly, how often does THAT happen!