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Arrow-and-Circle Men: What A Heart Attack And An Anxiety Attack Taught Me About Being A Man, Part 2

See Part 1 Here

Dealing With Anxiety And Depression

I also want to acknowledge how my springy personal safety net has much to do with privilege. I was born into a white, middle-class family, attended excellent suburban public schools, and graduated from an Ivy League university. I’ve been mostly able-bodied, I’ve been fortunate to find meaningful work, and lucky enough to find a loving life partner in Rowena. As a friend pointed out, “most people don’t have that line-up” of advantages. Those life supports make it less likely for someone like me to need life support, and more likely to be able to respond resiliently when trauma hits.

Indeed, buoyed by my personal network as well as the societal de-stigmatization of mental illness, I’m doing deeper work on my mental health than ever before. I enrolled in a Kaiser Permanente six-month program called “Adapt,” designed to reduce anxiety and depression. I’m taking the antidepressant Zoloft, and I talk regularly to a counselor. My sessions with Tina include practical steps such as exercising more as well as plumbing the depths of my psyche. Though I’ve seen therapists in the past, I have never taken such an honest look at the possible roots of my anxiety.

Unpacking Family Trauma

In particular, Tina helped me home in on the ways I often felt unsafe as a little kid. My father had a wicked temper. Although he very rarely punished me or my two siblings by hitting us — and never physically hurt me — his outbursts terrified me. One of my earliest memories is of him lying on the living room floor, trying to put eye drops in his eyes. When he failed to get the drops in, he became enraged and whipped the Visine bottle across the room at our stereo cabinet.

During this and other tantrums, what stands out is his face. He would open his eyes wide, tense his jaw and clench his tongue between his teeth. Like he was about to explode.

It isn’t fair to lay all the blame for my nerves at my father’s face or feet. Anxiety may be in my genes as well. And my dad mellowed out mightily by the time I was a teenager and young adult. But Tina helped me see that I may have developed a belief in early childhood that I was not safe if I wasn’t in control. And given my dad’s volatile temper, that was much of the time.

This insight touched a nerve for me, and forced me to redefine my past. I’d always called my childhood a happy one, even if it had some rough patches. Now I’m recognizing the damage that a climate of fear may have created.

“You may have to grieve your childhood,” Tina said.

My Health Scare Taught Me A New Perspective

I knew she was right as soon as she said it. But it’s not easy for a guy to grieve. And that gets at lessons I’ve learned from this health scare.

The main ones are about masculinity. For starters, fending off the heart and anxiety attacks, healing from them, has required emotional vulnerability not usually sanctioned for men. This includes the recent work I’ve done with Tina to face my past more fully, mourn the sad, scary parts of my childhood, and consequently understand and manage my anxiety better.

The power of emotional openness also surfaced at the beginning of my traumatic summer, when I first arrived at the hospital after experiencing chest pains. As I lay propped up in a gurney, a female E.R. doctor gave me the hard news in the softest way.

“It looks like you had a mild heart attack,” she said, explaining the troponin and EKG results.

Then she put a hand on my lower leg. “I know this is a lot to take in. But we’re going to take care of you. You’re in the best place possible.”

Her gentle touch melted the tough-guy veneer I’d kept up since I arrived in the hospital. Tears streaked down my face. I felt my fear of dying. I felt my worry about what this heart attack might mean for my family and friends. I felt my gratitude at being in her care, in her team’s care.

“Thank you,” I managed to say to her, my voice breaking among halting breaths.

From that moment on, I largely surrendered to being cared for. And this represented another departure from the typical man-rules. Not only are we supposed to be stoic, but we are supposed to be self-sufficient. Needing help is a sign of weakness.

And at times during my hospital stay, the myth of men as islands unto ourselves tugged at me. It whispered from somewhere deep inside me that it was wimpy to be holed up in a hospital room wearing a backless hospital gown with nurses checking on me every four hours. That He-man voice also told me I should be ashamed of all the get-well-soon texts, emails and calls that poured in. That the messages of how much I mattered to folks, the bouquets of flowers were a stain on my character.

Settling In And Reaching Out For Help

But mostly, I let the love in. And let myself be treated by Kaiser San Francisco’s ace cardiac unit. In fact, I let myself be pampered. I started to frame the hospital stay as a kind of spa retreat. Because where else do you get to order each of your meals (the French toast was tasty!) as well as have people on call to bring you warm blankets and help you adjust your television set?

anxiety
My sister-in-law Melanie painted this watercolor of a mountain scene to help me relax. I put it front-and-center over my desk.

I started joking with the nurses and other staff that I was going to miss the Kaiser Ritz Carlton.

Another act of vulnerability was actively reaching out to others about what I experienced. Connecting with them about my heart attack and my anxiety episodes, and asking for help. Rather than pretend I was recovering instantly from the health problems, I acknowledged I needed to rest and reset. And that I needed people’s support.

My clients wowed me. First, they offered flexibility on deadlines — which provided great peace of mind around money matters. Beyond their generosity on work schedules, they offered crucial wisdom about recovering from health challenges, including mental illness.

My client Carly, for example, listened to my concerns with kindness, told me she recently experienced a bout of anxiety, and then offered me a breathing technique. Carly, who is writing a book about her own health journey, told me to inhale for four counts, pause for two counts, then exhale for eight counts.

This simple tactic has helped rein in my reeling mind dozens of times over the past two months.

Other clients and partners have given me guidance on crisis management, clarity of thought and resilience.

I should have paid my clients this summer, rather than accepted their money.

The Importance Of Community

So much for the self-made man. I was the community-supported man. By surrounding myself with people who cared for me, I couldn’t fall down. The concentric rings of people — Kaiser professionals, family members, friends, and colleagues — wouldn’t let me. I had no choice but to regain my footing following the body and mind trauma.

My buddies Jason and Art take me out to a ballgame July 5

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About The Author
Ed Frauenheim
Ed Frauenheim
I'm about reinventing masculinity and organizations. And about connecting the dots between the two.

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