No More Undertow: The End of the ‘Should’ Odyssey

I made a new year’s resolution one year when I was in my 30s to stop using the word “should.”

People laughed at me but I told them, “Look, there is doing or not doing. Nothing else really exists. Should is just a guilt or pressure word we put on ourselves.”
I wish I had attended my own advice. Now I have a choice since my heart reminder (my upscale expression for heart attack): Pare down my expectations for what I can get done or drive myself crazy. I have chosen the latter for four months. “I should be able to do this by now. My mind should be clearer than it is. My body should be building more strength. I’ll just push it to the max and keep up with the pace of duties I should be accomplishing/that I always have accomplished.”

Pay no attention I was not getting things done I promised myself or other people I would do. Writing deadlines have whizzed by. I am becoming expert at excuses. I have forgotten crucial financial deadlines and neglected to send out contracts or invoices to people who say they want to visit my vacation rental in Taos, NM. Oh, there’s more.

The Body
ShouldQuotePrimarily motivated by depression over the shape my arms are in—or the shape they aren’t in—I signed up for a year at a local gym and five sessions with a trainer. This was two months after my heart reminder. Hey, December membership was free!

I met with a nice, buff, clear-eyed youth. The management swore he had taken on older clients before. He seemed understanding about the heart attack and showed me a beginning routine for my whole body. He understood that I wanted to walk outside in nature rather than be in a smelly gym on a treadmill on good-weather days. But he advised three days at the gym to use the weight-lifting equipment.

Apparently I was going for the world’s heavyweight championship because I took on the weight lifting thing with a vengeance. My mother used to say, “I was going after it like I was killing snakes.” Same.

With each gym session, seeing how stoic I was, the trainer would pile on more weight and, because I had expressed interest in slenderizing my midriff, he directed me to do floor exercises that included crunches. After a couple of weeks, my neck became rigid, throbbed in pain and I had headaches such as I have never experienced.

I went to my doctor and she said, “Tell your trainer not to be such a hot dog,” (which is something I will never tell that person because it’s not polite. He does probably wonder why he hasn’t heard from me lately.) Doc gave me neck exercises and told me not to do crunches or weights. Cold compresses three times a day. I did that but unfortunately decided it was time to work in my San Francisco community garden digging out around my plot and hauling wet dirt in 5-gallon buckets to the communal dirt pile. If there had been a video, it would have looked like Quasimodo hunching along with his stones.

Gone fishing - Sacramento Delta.
Gone fishing – Sacramento Delta.

At the same time I engaged in my new “relaxation” hobby: fishing. But it seems I learned to cast improperly when I was young and that I throw my entire upper body in motion. That took a further toll on the neck muscles. I was officially diagnosed with a strained neck.

I was ordered to cardio rehab. Why had I not begun that immediately, they wondered? Well, I had read about it. It sounded like it was for old people.

Sure enough, when I went into the small room crammed with treadmills and stationery bicycles of various types, there were old people barely moving themselves to a video rerun of the Ed Sullivan Show. However, during intake I was told that those people are in their late 80s and 90s, did cardio rehab years ago, and have been coming back just to keep in shape and join their fellows in camaraderie.

The first session I went to there were some people who seemed to be my age, maybe even younger. (I obviously have some sort of age snobbery I was unaware of.) They showed us how to hook up to the central monitor and they took our blood pressure. Then we were on to warm-ups and the treadmills and other machines, each with his or her own assigned challenges. I had said that 2.3 miles per hour was “too wimpy” a treadmill speed for me so they had me do 2.9 mph for 35 minutes. I was whipped. And my neck hurt again. Don’t know why quick walking should hurt your neck but, I know, I know, it’s all connected. (I’ve become intolerant of that expression.)

The Mind
The body’s refusal to work as it had before my heart reminder was cause for further depression. Add all this body stuff to the inability to accomplish the 16- 17-point lists I apportioned myself every day, my disinterest in accomplishing even really “important” things to peddle my book and the mounting list of mistakes I was making in trying to run my life and business.

The cardio rehab women advised group therapy for stress management. “Stuff like that,” they said. I get it. Mental stuff. You can’t fool me. A support group. Hmm. I weighed it.

JG_OceanI had a dream about standing waist-deep in waves and enjoying the gentle sensation of the ebb and flow. Then one wave came back from the shore with great force and started to suck me into an undertow. I was going to be washed out to sea. I awoke. I don’t want that overwhelmed feeling any more, I said to half-awake self.

So I did it. I went to the group four days ago and learned that heart attacks—I have to use that word in this context—alter your brain chemistry. Really? Wow. You mean I really do have an excuse for all this brain fuzziness and confusion? I have been saying since I got off the operating table that they took out part of my brain when they did the angioplasty.

The leader of the group told us that feeling unfocused and unmotivated, and undergoing depression and deterioration of mood, come with the territory after heart attacks.

It takes time for the body and mind to recover, to heal. Longer than you might think it SHOULD. I could expect to not be up to any kind of speed for at least six months and I might have to find different ways of doing things in the future. Oh yeah, like eliminating the stress that contributed to the heart attack, you mean? I think I’m beginning to get it. Others in the group backed up these assertions with their complaints and testimonials.

Don’t quit doing things you want to do, the leader said. Do them in moderation. Don’t give up. Just plug along. Most important, detect what you want to do versus what you think you should do. Oh, there is that word again.

Life-consuming habits of rushing about are hard to break. I am starting to have patience with myself. And to tell others that I won’t be as available to do even the fun, stimulating things that we have planned for a while. This weekend, I cancelled driving 70 miles to a new friend’s poetry reading I have promised to attend for months. I backed away from the community garden workday and said I would be stronger later in the year, although I may not be the workhorse I have been in the past ever again. (Why “should” I?) And, the largest decision, I decided to cancel the last part of my book tour back east in favor of using social media from my home office to let people know Finding Home is available. No more galloping about. Not for now. Maybe not ever.

And, more importantly for my own total well being, no more undertow pulling me out to that ocean of unaccomplish-able-even-in-one-lifetime, supposedly-essential, should-do obsessions.


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