I couldn’t breathe. My chest was pounding, but in a different way. It was like each pounding beat was the breaking off of another piece of my heart. Pain shot through my neck and down my left arm like a bullet. I was dizzy. My hands were sweaty, I was shaking as if unclothed in a blizzard. Suddenly, I was severely nauseous. I was unable to assimilate my thoughts into a coherent stream. This couldn’t be. This could not be happening.
Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with that moment that our heart breaks. The death of a loved one, a life-threatening diagnosis, infidelity, a devastating break up, divorce, the sudden loss of the job of your dream job. The list could go on and on.
A pastor friend of mine: “Hey girl, what are you doing in Hutchins, Texas?”
Me: “Hey bro, I’m right here in Dallas, Texas, seeing clients!”
Him: “Then why on earth is your car down here in Hutchins, Texas?“
Me: “Who knows? Gotta run… Clients. Let’s talk soon!”
I had no idea. I had just heard from my husband (who had been out of town) a few moments earlier, and he was just leaving his meetings in Houston. He was running late and would be home before 10 pm that evening. It was 4:32 pm.”
Because there was no way that my mind could make sense of anything, a glance on the clock was the only semblance of sanity I could find. So I held onto the number. I kept saying to myself, “It’s 4:32 pm. I have a client at 4:30. Am I two minutes late or two minutes early?” I couldn’t make sense of life, or even time.
It had happened before. Many times. Surely it wasn’t happening again. From the information I got from the call, I called the hotel there, and sure enough he was registered. I called the room, and my personal assistant of many years answered the phone. I asked for him, and she hung up. I heard swirling in my head, then a calm like just before a tornado. Then everything went black.
I truly believed that I was having a heart attack.
As it turns out, what we used to consider as overreaction, drama, or histrionics… Truly can cause a heart condition. Broken Heart Syndrome. It only affects one part of the heart, but it does disrupt the normal pumping function. The rest of the heart functions normally during that time, but it also may have some literal cramping or constrictions.
It is horrifying.
Although there’s much research yet to be conducted, the hypothesis at this point is that the surge of stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) may damage the heart temporarily or permanently. It is believed that the tsunami-like surge of stress hormones interferes with the heart’s ability to pump and sends it into freeze mode.
We do know that the actual physical constriction of the large or small arteries have been noted in people with broken heart syndrome. At times, it has been known to actually change the structure of the heart muscle itself.
With an actual heart attack, there is normally a complete blockage of a heart artery. In broken heart syndrome, the arteries are normally not blocked, although the blood flow to the heart is significantly reduced.
It occurs more often in people who have a history of acute depression and anxiety.
Normally it is diagnosed in people above 40 or 50 years old, which supports the belief that it is often the result of successive breaks of the heart.
It made sense to me, because my heart had been broken in similar ways through the years. But this time it was different.
Maybe this surge was the tipping point for my heart. I had finally reached him, and asked him to reconsider. He did not. I truly believed I was having a coronary event. Although my heart had been crushed and devastated many times, this was different. This was truly an event of Broken Heart Syndrome.
Because I have been so conscious of my health, and have eaten healthfully, worked out regularly, taken nutritional supplements faithfully… I have always prided myself (and thanked God for) my excellent health. I knew Broken Heart Syndrome could be fatal, although it is not normally… So I called my good friend who is a well-known cardiologist, who asked me to meet him at the ER immediately. I would recommend that you do the same should you have the symptoms.
Other symptoms and complications include:
- Chest pain
- Pain in the left arm
- Jaw pain
- Upper back pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Sudden onset of nausea
- Cold sweat
- Pulmonary edema (Fluid in the lung)
- Hypotension (Significant drop in blood pressure)
- Heartbeat disruption
- Heart failure
We used to believe that the effects of Broken Heart Syndrome (also called stressed induced cardiomyopathy) had only temporary effects. However research from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has shown that it may create long-lasting or permanent damage to the heart.
Dr. Elizabeth Mostofsky, researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston found that after one of these events, that heart attack risk is 21 times higher than normal in the first 24 hours. Although the risk diminishes after the first 24 hours, the risk remains elevated over a period of several months.
You may be thinking, “Dr. Neecie, this research is interesting and helpful… But what on earth am I supposed to do in order to put one foot in front of the other and survive?“
I understand totally, because I needed the same answers at that time. My heart was broken, and after a night in Emergency Care, I had to carry on. But I had no idea where to start. Let me start with some good news! THERE IS LIFE AFTER WHAT YOU ARE GOING THROUGH!
I not only got help, but I did research, and set myself on a mission to heal broken hearts.
Here are some of the things to consider after seeking medical care:
- Make sure you are eating healthily, and get some exercising every day. I know, I know! We want to find a dark, warm place and pull the covers up over our heads. We all do. I actually tell my clients that it is fine to allow yourself an hour or two of that daily. But then get up … and go for a walk … do some sort of mild exercise. Resist the urge to veg out on carbs. You will want to find the bottom of the ice cream carton, or eat the crumbs out of the bottom of the potato chip bag. But your body desperately needs good nutrition. If you know someone with a broken heart, the greatest gift you can give him or her is to offer to go for a walk with them!
- As soon as possible, begin the forgiveness process. Forgiveness is a journey. But if you don’t start it, you will hold the person, the situation, or even God hostage, and drag them around like a ball and chain around your neck, choking out healing. Did I forgive my husband? Yes! Not because I wanted to, or thought he deserved it, but because I had enough heaviness on my chest without dragging him around too. Similarly, After I lost my dad, I found myself angry with the horrible disease of Alzheimer’s. For 16 years, I had lost him to the horrible disease, before I lost him to death. But then I realized that the disease had become an area of unforgiveness, a ball and chain around my neck. And it wasn’t bringing him back. I began to forgive the disease, and now I participate in fundraisers for Alzheimer’s research, speak to support groups of family members, and teach people natural preventive health habits and lifestyle habits. I exchanged the ball and chain for contribution.
- Tap your spiritual side. Pray. Ask for help. Speak with a clergy member. I know that all of my audience is not Christian. If not, please allow me a moment of grace to share what science reveals: When we look to God, our recovery is 30-40% faster. I’ve always known the Bible verse that says, “He is near to the brokenhearted.“ For me that verse has provided great support through the years. I reflected on that, and I sensed a real peacefulness and calm in the midst of my storm. I guess you could say that I’m not very religious, because at those moments I just cried out in a very real way. “You say you’re near to me when my heart is broken. It is broken right now. Where are you? Can you somehow let me know you are near?“ It’s amazing to me how that honest cry got answered. At that time, I unexpectedly received a message from a dear friend. She didn’t know what had happened at the moment. No one knew. The message simply said this, “I know you are superwoman, but I also know you are human. Always remember that you are an amazing gal, and anytime you need me, I am right here!“ Guess who I called next? And guess who drove over to my house and hugged me and prayed a beautiful prayer for me? I just believed that was God sending me a hug!
- Write a letter to the person, or the situation that resulted in your broken heart. I tell people to include three parts in the letter.
- What you’re thankful for
- What you’re angry about
- What could’ve been/might’ve been
- I have an entire treasury of those letters. They served as a demarcation point. I refused to allow what happened to affect my identity, but instead I resolved to move forward in a healthy way. Easier said than done… I know! But it’s very helpful.
- Decide which mementoes of the relationship, death or situation are healthy to keep out in a visible place. For example, after my divorce, I was able to put away my wedding ring, the photos, the meaningful gifts he had given me. Some people donate them, some people sell them. Some people burn them. But I recommend that you put them away for at least a year so that you can make the decision without regret. When I lost my mother, I kept so many of her things. I still have some. But I think it was very helpful to me when I changed the decor of our home so that I felt like I was walking into my own home. I loved how she decorated our home, but it became something that brought great grief to me on a daily basis. I was so much like her I expected her to be there. I knew she would not want that! Everyone is different. There is no formula, but decide what is best for you!
- Understand that you will go through a gamut of feelings. They are not right. They are not wrong. They just are. They may or may not be logical. But feeling them, experiencing them, and writing about them, is healing in and of itself. You will have moments of shock and disbelief. You will have moments of denial. You will have moments of gratitude. You will have times of deep sadness and regret. You will have anger and disbelief. At moments you won’t be able to wrap your mind around it all. Writing about it, is not only relief, but when you go back and read past entries, you will realize that you are growing and healing. Eventually you will come to a place of acceptance. At the place of acceptance, you will probably find yourself wanting to reach out and help people in similar situations. Please, please do that! Not only will it expedite the remainder of your healing process, but it will be an incredible blessing to others! It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to scream out. Pour your heart and soul out as often as you need to! And if you have someone that can share that with you, it is very powerfully healing.
- Seek help if you need it. It’s OK to reach out for counseling, or therapy, or coaching. Or reach out to someone at your church or your community facility. According to research, doing grief alone takes twice as long as doing it with a friend, or a family member, or getting help.
- Laugh. Yes, laugh! You may think: “it’s not funny!” You are so right! What happened is not funny. But there is an anxiety proverb that says a merry heart is good like medicine. There are a plethora or research articles proclaiming the healing power of laughter. Even if all you can do is to let out a small chuckle, give yourself a reason to laugh every day. I watched a small segment of Johnny Carson on my computer daily. I thought he was a little funny, but watching my dad laugh til he was doubled over always made me laugh. So it would give me a small chuckle, accompanied by a gentle wave of healing.
- Do something that is symbolic of a new beginning. Plant a tree, get a pet, go on a vacation (or a cruise), join a health club or a support group. Do something that draws the line in the sand and says… “I will move forward!“ Remaining holed up, and drowning in gloom does nothing for you, nor does it do anything for or to the person you lost. I’ve done many things with many clients to create a “line in the sand” to step across for a new beginning. She knew of my passion for working with the homeless. She told me she had always been terrified of groups of homeless people, but that her broken heart experience led her to wonder if they were just heart broken just like her … their broken heart simply had to do with losing their home. She asked me if I would go down to Turtle Creek with her, under the bridge where I had begun my journey with a group of homeless folks that captured my heart. She wanted to know how many usually gathered, and wanted to take food, drinks, and sit on an upside down 5-gallon paint can (as I had described in my first experience). She just wanted leave behind a moment of healing for their broken hearts, to let them know someone cared. We went down together, and she has told me that many times, even when no one is there, she goes down to remind herself of her line in the sand that signified her “new beginning.”
- Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You will look in the mirror and not recognize yourself. You will wonder whose reflection it is that has dark bags under their eyes, dead/expressionless eyes, and a sense of being lost in their frame. Smile at yourself. It’s you … and YOU WILL RISE AGAIN! Your smile will return, the life spark in your eyes will shine again, you will stand tall and determined again! Get a facial, get a massage. Remind yourself there is great beauty beneath the ashes.
Sadly … no, my marriage did not make it. There was no remorse. The blame was placed on me. Yes, I grieved. Deeply. But I chose to forgive. I am praying and believing that my Broken Heart Syndrome experience has not affected my heart permanently. I am carrying on! I am living my mission, my purpose, and my cause! I actually believe that those are some of the greatest healers in the world.
There is life after what you are going through. I promise! Do some of the things I outlined above. Or find some other answers that are uniquely helpful to you. Do not give up. Do not allow your loss to define you. Put one foot in front of the other. Let those of us around you love on you. Let us walk with you. I know it feels like you will never heal, but the truth is… It’s closer than you think! Big hugs and many prayers!