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Peeling Off the Pericardium

pexels-photo-249348 On June 12, 2014, my life changed immeasurably with an unexpected cardiac event. It had been brewing for a while and reached a boiling point with a fully occluded artery sending me careening into a new way of living and loving. A few hours after the initial symptoms, I had a new body part (a stent) keeping it open and the blood flowing.

How many beats per minute? How much love can the heart hold? How do we keep the blood pumping that sustains our lives? How do we become works of he(art)? Each of these is a practical and philosophical question I ponder.

According to Go Red For Women:

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined.
  • Heart disease causes 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every minute.
  • An estimated 43 million women in the U.S. are affected by heart disease.
  • 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.

Since that morning, nearly three years ago, I have dived deep, stretched wide and soared high and in uncustomary non-action sat in silence with my feelings until they became vocal in the form of sobbing and storming. The one who kept emotions at bay in the service of keeping on keeping on had died that day to give birth to the one who is typing these words. I say that she had to die since she was killing me. Killing me with overwork and under-rest. Killing me with co-dependent savior behavior. Killing me with unreasonable standards for performance in all areas of my life. Killing me with rabid disapproval. Killing me by not holding my own heart sacred as I did others.

Paradoxically, although I did not actually die; no ceasing of heart beat, I am prepared to die any day. I don’t fear it. I do fear incapacity and relying on others for my physical care.

Uncased Heart

The pericardium is a double-walled sac encasing the heart. It stands as a form of protection against external impact. On a physiological level, all well and good. From a psychological perspective, it may stand in the way of fully feeling. Such was the case for me. In a few years period, I experienced several losses, which included the illness and subsequent deaths of my parents, job changes, family crises and several health challenges. Throughout them all, I remained my mother’s daughter; the rock on which everyone could lean until I learned with full force that rocks eventually crumble. So began the re-building by excavating down to the foundation of who I was.

Recently I was introduced to a group of athletes who are also impacted by cardiac conditions. Most are long distance runners, swimmers and cyclists. I am not. I do my gym workouts 3-4 times a week, dance, walk, and practice yoga. The group is called Ironheart Foundation and its purpose is to encourage fitness as a means of heart healing. There is also a Facebook page that I joined. I feel like I have found my tribe.

I posted this question on the page and was delighted to read how similar our psycho-spiritual experiences were, despite the differences in our cardiac conditions.

“How much do you notice the cardiac condition impacting your emotional heart? I recall that a friend who is in treatment told me that the first part of recovery is physical and the next part is emotional. I noticed waves of feeling afterward that remain with me. I say that the symbolic pericardium has been peeled away.”

Every so often it sneaks up on me and I start to worry but I can usually push it away. The psychological impact is a challenging one. As a bicuspid I was fortunate in that I had several years knowing that I would have surgery to mentally prepare. Those of you who experienced a sudden event had to deal with it all at once. I would think that that would be a lot more challenging.”

“Yes, the physical part of my experience was the easy part. The mental/emotional part has by far been tougher to deal with. I’m 10 years removed and finally have a grip on it but every so often it does creep back in.”

“You could even go one step deeper and split out dealing with your mortality and the consequences of dying versus the reality of living with heart disease- overcoming the fear and self-doubt when stepping out and living a “normal” life.”

“it’s groups like these that help the mental part. 10 years ago, I was 34, very athletic, and still had a young family and was not ready to be a typical heart attack survivor. I searched high and low for info with no luck and so I struggled a bit in the beginning but now there is a lot of info and support from groups and people doing amazing things!”

“Tears flowing. Thank you. I am a therapist who has worked with clients over the years who had serious illnesses. I am also a bereavement specialist, so I understand loss. It wasn’t until my own cardiac event that I could truly comprehend what some of those folks were experiencing. Mine was at 55 and I had always considered myself active (competitive swimmer in my youth and then coach), worked out at the gym, walked, hiked, biked, danced. The emotional part of this for me is that it felt like my heart cracked open and I just FEEL more. More vulnerability, more love, sometimes more fear. Not fear of dying. Fear of not having fully lived. Doing that now.”

“Yes, this is exactly it!….”more vulnerability, more love, sometimes more fear.” I had to remind myself daily not to let fear paralyze me but drive me…. thus “More Life””

“Not a year since I was revived, visits to the Cardiologist remind me that we all are going to die one day. Going back to my family reminds me how full of love my life is, exercising reminds me how good it feels to be alive, been outdoors reminds me everything I have yet to enjoy, and reading reminds me how full of knowledge and strong the mind is. I am grateful to walk every step, to feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the ocean waves, see stars in the dark, to smile and to have the power of making others happy.”

“Honestly, the biggest change I’ve noticed 3.5 months after a valve replacement has been emotional. Before the surgery, I was fighting to come out of a depression and very aware that I’d have to once again undergo something so traumatic. That’s all I could think about for the few months between scheduling it and the morning off.  But, essentially the minute I woke up, I just felt better. Freer, more open to the world around me, and much more willing to be vulnerable, to be myself. This isn’t just some “I’m happy to have survived that” high, either, I can feel a fundamental change that took place on that operating table. For me, at least, the emotional healing came well before the physical “

“I found that at first, I was great. However, after about 6 months and the frustration over my recovery medication changes in lifestyle depression hit me very hard. However, once I became active and starting seeing the benefits of all of the hard work and my recovery increased that faded. I still get frustrated because well I will always be a patient but really it fades over time but it is completely normal to have issues.”

“I think heart issues have to do with emotional issues. It is interconnected.”

Glad to Be Alive!

Peeling Off the Pericardium

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). Peeling Off the Pericardium. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Apr 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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