How Heart Surgery Changed My Mental Health Understanding

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I closed my eyes nine years ago today, on June 7th, and I thought I might never wake up.

Maybe it was the anesthesia or the anxiety medicine they gave me two hours prior to calm my nerves, but the glow of the operating room lights didn't seem like a terrible last sight to have.

They beckoned to me, almost peacefully, and floated into darkness as I closed my eyes.

But then I did wake up.

And my entire body spoke to me with a full-body thought.

"I'm alive."

I've never had such a visceral thought like that before, and I may never have another one like it.

I had just had open-heart surgery at the age of 24, and it changed my understanding of mental health forever.

Mental Health Before Surgery

Before I had heart surgery, I didn't think about death very much.

Sure, I thought about it. But it was a far-off thing.

Something that didn't happen until much, much later.

But that was before my heart started to fail.

And a heart doesn't ask for permission to fail.

It can go at a moment's notice.

Before heart surgery, I took things for granted.

I assumed there would be lots of time.

I assumed I was the one in control of my life.

And I assumed that the world would wait for me to figure everything out before it started to spin out of control.

None of that was true.

You see, I had mental health issues before open-heart surgery.

In high school and college, I struggled with crippling anxiety.

I would pick at my skin until it bled.

I would worry what others thought about me until my mind said, "Enough already!" and a mental battle of words would ensue between my mind and myself.

And yet I persisted and suffered through it.

I went about my life because that's what everyone else does, I thought.

But I know now that I wasn't really living.

I was responding to whatever happened and reactively creating my life.

It took a traumatic event to wake me up and show me what was possible on the other side.

What I Learned After Heart Surgery

Have year heard of post-traumatic growth?

I now know it's possible.

Having a major surgery to repair a failing valve was the trauma.

And the growth came after.

It took therapy, a hospital stay, and ridding my life of toxic relationships.

But the trauma provided the opening for the light to peer in.

In a way, it felt--and feels--like the warm glow of the operating-room lights overheard.

When you're exposed and vulnerable and have nowhere to turn, that's where you are.

And that's what I know now.

Goals are important.

Planning is important.

But it all can change in an instant.

And the decision to change can happen in an instant as well.

"I'm alive."

When you wake up and your body mouths those words, it's a sign that you're not fully in control.

But there is something beautiful about being so in the present that your body speaks for you.

That's what happened to me.

Getting through heart surgery just so I could struggle even more with mental health didn't seem fair to me.

But I know now that fairness is a label I apply to situations I don't yet understand.

The big picture is that all of us must find what we are meant to do.

And my body knows that I'm meant to use my life as my teacher.

And then offer up lessons for others.

What others do with those lessons is not under my control.

So very little is, and that's alright.

I know now that mental health is a fluid thing.

It's not an on-off switch.

It's a commitment of moments to change in a way that is right for you.

How you discover what is right for you might be the most important task in life.

What is Your Heart Surgery Experience?

You've likely had an experience like this.

You probably had a June 7th, and you may not even know it.

So go back through your life.

Did anything happen to break you?

To show you that the world is not as stable and predictable as you thought?

Think about that experience, speak it out loud, or write it down.

What did you learn from it about life?

Is instability the same thing as being broken?

Or is that just a label?

Sure, there is some time to figure out what you want to figure out.

But who knows how much?

You can start today, in the smallest of ways, to consider what your life is trying to tell you.

My open-heart surgery was a universal message.

A wake-up call.

I thought I knew mental health before.

But I only knew what was happening to me.

I was passive in my own life.

Now I know that the good and bad still happen, but I can step into the frame and commit to seeing it through.

I can say "yes" to the good and the bad, knowing that life will pass through me.

I can decide what I want to do and who I want to be.

I just need to work with the brutal facts at hand.

I can be with life, rather than fight against what I don't like about it.

No labels.

Just a moment to be alive.

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