Last September I was invited to give one of the keynote addresses at a conference about wellness at my church, Gloria Dei Lutheran in St. Paul.
I’m very familiar with telling my story, sharing facts about heart disease, and educating women about risk factors, signs, and symptoms. But this one was different — it was a conference about wellness, “Wellness as a Faith Practice.”
Faith I could speak to — faith in there being a tomorrow, faith in a future where I don’t feel sick, knowing there is more carrying me along than Crestor and exercise. But wellness? I’m sick. I will never actually be well.
But the words came, and I believe them. We must believe there is such a thing as wellness through illness, because most of us carry some kind of burden, yet we all deserve to feel well.
These are my remarks, beginning after I tell my heart disease story and what brought me to that day.
I have shared my story and some version of these facts dozens of times in the last year. I could go on – about risk factors and signs and symptoms and prevention, but I’ll save that for the afternoon breakout.
What is really on my mind today, at a conference about wellness, is the fact that I have an illness.
Heart disease is not an event, like an accident, that you survive and relegate to an interesting-story past. Heart disease is a chronic and progressive illness. I am fine, today. But I will never get well.
If I didn’t write and speak about heart disease all the time, if you didn’t already know my story, if we just met, I would look to you like a healthy person. I might even look well. You would have no idea.
If we just met I might even say I was a healthy person . . . a well person. I might even feel that way – that day, that week, that month.
How is this possible, given the empirical fact that I am not, by definition, well? If wellness is indeed the absence of disease, I will never achieve that state of being, noble and aspirational as it is. I’m guessing the same is true for many in this room.
Wellness must be more, then, than simply the absence of disease. It must be a state of being that we create, that we seek, that we choose, that we find, with so, so much help. A state of being that we believe is attainable, because the alternative is too much to bear, and because the rest of us – our minds, our gifts, our love, our soul – craves wellness as much as the body. Our soul, our personness, our beloved child-of-Godness, needs wellness, seeks it, deserves it.
To be well while ill is nothing if not a practice in faith. And like many things requiring faith, it ain’t easy.
I know I won’t be telling many here anything new when I say that my diagnosis came with anger, and with grief. In time, and not always on my terms, came acceptance too, and humility – in mighty large doses, and then patience, most of that learned the hard way.
Eventually gratitude, purpose, and grace appeared. Not in any particular order, not in a logical progression, and certainly not in concrete, exclusive steps. They came on their own time, in their own ways, by way of multiple concurrent dimensions surely not created by anything of this world, in those thin moments between myself and God, when I wasn’t looking or trying or asking or doing.
In these last two years I have bounced from anger to gratitude to humility to grief to acceptance to purpose and back again. As all of these states of illness and wellness come and go again and again, I’m left with nothing but faith that wellness will someday return.
To be well while ill is nothing if not a practice in faith.
It’s not as if I have no agency in this work, and I do think there are steps we can take and choices we can make to achieve our own wellness.
For me, learning, writing, speaking, and teaching about heart disease has provided a purpose that I needed. In the early days my blog was truly a lifeline, as the words came first and I made sense of them later.
From my heart sisters, the friends I’ve made online and at rehab and through my blog and my work with the American Heart Association, I learned acceptance and gratitude. They are living and working and laughing with heart disease. I can too.
From a friend in crisis years ago, I learned about the special grace that allowed her to care for others during her own darkest hour; I have tried to achieve even a fraction of that amazing selflessness.
And then the big ones — humility and patience. These are the hardest and the ones I must let God create for me and in me. I find most days it’s all I can do to just be still. Be still, and know that I am.
I think these are the things that can create wellness — but by no means do I mean you should not feed your body healthy food and see your doctor and exercise every day. But I do know that you can do all that and not feel well unless you have faith, patience, humility, purpose, gratitude, and grace.
Wellness is necessarily an act of faith.
I recently passed the two-year anniversary of my first heart attack, and this week, the one-year anniversary of my second. This is a good sign. Forty-two percent of women who have had a heart attack do not survive the first year.
When I passed the two year mark in August, I struggled with how to mark this milestone. It was on my mind, of course. The year before this date had been celebratory, almost giddy. I had made it past the dreaded one-year mark, I might get off some meds, I was training for the 2012 marathon . . . I was going to make it. I had done it. I was well.
Then two weeks past that big day came the call. My brother, age 32, en route to the hospital in an ambulance. Heart attack.
My reaction went way beyond that of a loving big sister. Mike’s heart attack put me in some kind of serious funk, and now I know why: it was the first clue that heart disease was about the long-haul, my whole life, never to be safe. Never to be not-sick. Never able to protect my family, no matter how many things I learned, how many speeches I gave, how many words I wrote.
My second heart attack three weeks later sealed the deal. I was sick, and I was going to stay that way. No marathon, no more children . . . just more pain, more drugs, more risk. My second year was so much tougher than the first.
So my second heart-iversary, then, what did it mean? Were there any words left to say about it?
I was home that day and for reasons I can’t explain, I started to look through photos – those 60,000 or so photos on my computer I still haven’t gotten to sorting and storing yet. Here is what I saw:
Two years of birthday parties, baseball games, the PTA, and Sunday School Christmas Programs. Two years of planting carrot and green bean seeds with Noah. Two years of piano recitals and band concerts and nagging Owen about homework.
Two years of running and racing, and two years of speaking and writing and blogging and volunteering and talking to anyone who will listen – and lots who won’t – about heart disease.
Two anniversaries. Two Halloweens. Two Easters. Two trips to Bayfield with my grandparents.
Two Thanksgivings with Scott’s family. Two years of red wine and dark chocolate.
Looking back at those photos I saw my life, lived well. I saw a wholeness that I didn’t know was there but somehow trusted all along. I saw faith and patience and purpose and joy. In those moments I was still, and in those moments — and thousands more — I was well.
Wherever you are, whatever you carry: be well.