I like to pretend death doesn’t exist.
When reality forces me to admit death is waiting — even for me and for those I love — I like to at least pretend that life and death are purely mechanical processes. I like to pretend our bodies are just sophisticated biological machines.
Most of all, though, I like to pretend I don’t understand the role my emotional health plays in the physical health of my body. I like to pretend I don’t know that what goes on in my heart can kill me.
It’s as though there’s a self-destruct sequence in each one of us. When acute emotional distress hits us, that self-destruct sequence is activated. I’ve felt a nagging suspicion lately that the sequence has started for me — and I saw evidence this afternoon that terrifies me, because I’m not ready to die.
It’s not hyperbole to say that emotional distress can destroy the human machine. In the 1990s, Japanese scientists identified one specific way that Broken Heart Syndrome can kill a person. (This particular condition mostly affects older women, but I’m certain there are plenty of other pathways through which emotional problems achieve the same thing.)
Humans seem to have known for a long time that there’s a connection between emotional pain and physical problems. How else would we have come to see love as being in the heart? And how would we have come to see loss of love leading to “a broken heart”?
Why did the writer of the biblical Psalms say, “Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless…,” in the first part of Psalm 69:20 (NIV)? There’s a lot of knowledge and wisdom which we somehow know — things which rational people might write off as “old wive’s tales” — that come to us instinctively.
For me, this is one of those things. It might be for you, too.
Why does extreme emotional hurt lead people to want to kill themselves? Why does unhappiness cause people to act in ways that are self-destructive and will lead to their own deaths indirectly?
How much of our behavior is an unconscious form of slow suicide? How many of the physical problems we see happening in our bodies are warning signs? What if something inside our bodies is saying, “Hey, you’re going to kill yourself with the path you’re on, so change your mind and your heart before you destroy both of us”?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been experiencing that nagging feeling that the self-destruct sequence has started for me. The warnings have mostly been subtle, but the blood clots in my lungs 18 months ago spoke very clearly.
Lately, though, it feels as though the process has moved to another level. It’s not that I am ignoring the warnings. I simply haven’t known how to change the internal heartbreak that’s pushing the process forward.
For the last month or so, I can’t sleep well. No matter how much sleep I get, I wake up exhausted. I feel listless and purposeless during the day. It seems as though I’m just staggering through each work day, barely staying awake long enough to fake normalcy until I can get home and collapse in unhappiness. And then the sequence starts each morning all over again — with a growing sense of unease and even panic.
Today, my blood pressure is 157/104, which is considered serious hypertension. It’s just below the level at which you’re advised to immediately go to an emergency room. (The second number is apparently the more critical number and 110 is the level at which the online guides say you’re in an immediate emergency. Just a few weeks ago, I was regularly around 115/76.) Oddly, my heart rate was also unnaturally low today at about 60 beats per minute. This is an unusual combination which seems to suggest potential problems, according to what I read online.
I’ve called a doctor friend of mine for an opinion about several issues, including blood pressure, heart rate and hormonal levels. He’s out of town at a conference, but I hope to talk with him Monday.
I appreciate medical science and I’m thankful for those who can help patch us together when we’re having problems, but I’m also convinced that the issue I’m dealing with is far deeper than what he can fix.
I have a heart problem — but it has a deeper cause than any doctor can deal with. My body is taking a cue from my unhappy heart. It seems to be starting to shut down.
Have you ever heard of a “dead man’s switch”? It’s a safety device built into some machines which could be dangerous if they continued to operate after the human controlling them were to die or become unconscious. As long as the switch is held down, the device will work fine, but if the operator were to suddenly die, he would no longer hold the switch down — and the machine would quit.
The heart is like this, too. When something inside of us dies, we quit sending the signal to our bodies to go right on operating in healthy ways. It doesn’t seem to kill us immediately, but if we spend too many days without something inside saying, “I am happy to be alive and I have the love and purpose to go on,” that’s when the body breaks down.
You won’t find that in any medical textbook. Doctors have much more sophisticated biological and chemical explanations for why physical systems fail. I know that.
But I also know the self-destruct sequence I feel inside is real. I know something inside keeps looking for love and other necessary emotional “fuel” to give me reasons to stay alive. And I know I’m not finding it lately.
If I were to die tonight, it would probably be recorded as a heart problem. Doctors can look at my physical heart and maybe even patch me up for awhile — but there’s nothing they can do about the hidden self-destruction that originates in a broken heart.