This is an engine problem, not a heart problem.” The cardiologist stares steadily into my eyes, calm and reassuring. He isn’t rushed – yet I know there are dozens of ailing tickers, waiting for his magic touch. He has to be unruffled, as his patients are full of fear. No other body organ seems as essential as these four chambers; the threat of impairment makes blood pressure soar.
“Your engine’s getting revved up by something,” the kindhearted doctor continues. “It’s sort of like you’re sweating a lot.”
I am sweating. A lot. Months of palpitations have prevented me from sleeping, causing insomnia. Whenever my creative writing students use trite body ailment phrases like “my heart was pounding” or “my heart sank,” I wave my red pen in the margins of their essays, instructing them to find fresher ways to convey emotions. Now I am a cliché. I know what it’s like to have my heart go bah-booom bah-booom, and I have no other way to describe it. Now I am sick at heart.
I can pedal my bike for miles without any problem. But when my head hits my pillow, I notice each powerful palpitation, fueling my anxiety, making it worse. Wide awake, I don’t miss a beat.
“You feel it more in bed because of gravity,” explains the cardiologist. Suddenly it makes sense. “Life is a rhythm. It sways and swerves.”
I like him – especially because he talks in metaphors. After seeing five doctors without any explanation, I hope he’s the one who’s going to cure my broken heart.
Predicting that a readjustment of thyroid medication should help, he doesn’t ignore the real heart of the matter: I’ve confessed to more than a sprinkling of stress.
“You have to find a way to slow down your engine,” he advises.
“Where do humans get tuneups?” I ask.
He dives in with his stethoscope. “There’s nothing wrong in here,” he proclaims.
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I imagine my palpitations melting away; I’m young at heart again. I plan to slow down my engine. More meditation classes. Increased exercise regime. Limited access to social media rants about a heartless political administration that has made me and many friends heartsick.
Our hearts have long been regarded as the center of human emotion, from wisdom, sensitivity, fear, and courage (the Latin word for heart is “cor”) to the ultimate symbol of love. The word’s ancient Old English origin, “heorte,” refers to our soul, spirit, courage, intellect. Heart disease was not labeled until 1864, 20 years before we began playing the card game Hearts. There is a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, “broken heart syndrome:” a spouse’s death or other trauma causes symptoms that mimic a heart attack.
As a writing professor, I’ve relied on both my brain and my heart. As a wife, I channeled Mark Twain when I fell in love: “When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not your brain.”
Helen Keller’s friends lived in her heart: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
My heart, during sleepless nights, feels fear of illness, even death.
Shakespeare got to the heart in a different way than my esteemed cardiologist. In The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine claims, “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.” Macbeth, reconciled about Duncan’s murder: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Henry VI had his crown in his heart, while at other times he felt pure thankfulness. But it’s Romeo who casts doubts about cupid’s arrow, now painted on every Valentine’s Day card: “Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”
My cardiologist’s eyes are kind, compassionate, omniscient.
My palpitations disappear as quickly as they began ripping through my chest. Calmer and no longer sleep deprived, I view my heart differently, physically and metaphorically – especially with my writing students. I no longer automatically delete their hackneyed emotional symbols of internal organs out of control as a facile way to express rage and fear.
Like Neil Young, many of us spend a lifetime searching for a heart of gold. Mine wears a white lab coat. I urge my cardiologist to write his memoir in my class; he could pour his heart out in prose. “It would be boring,” he responds. Saving lives is boring?
I promise to let him use as many cardiac clichés as he wants. It would do his heart good.
—Candy Schulman is an award-winning writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Next Tribe, Next Avenue, AARP The Girlfriend, and others, including anthologies. She is a creative writing professor at The New School in Greenwich Village.