I have to be careful about what public broadcasting I tune into. New Mexico’s offbeat branch of NPR runs weekly campaigns on cardiac disease and the many signs of a heart attack, as told by survivors or the children of non-survivors. On any day you can enjoy a visceral description of heart failure as told by an elderly Hispanic woman, with panels on what you should do when you have your heart attack. It’s gotten to the point that I have to turn the station the moment I hear the word, “heart.” Shortly thereafter, the odds are I’ll drive by a billboard with a handsome, white paramedic that reads, “Heart attack? Call 911.” Albuquerque is a cardiac minefield.
I feel a violent discomfort with the idea of billboards reminding me about the ever-present heart attack, like little mortality postcards on the roadside just in case you were feeling relaxed, but I begrudge the billboard its funny setup. It seems like a weird memo, from a business that needs no advertising, with a weirder setup, like the way to talk about a cardiac event is the same way to ask about car troubles. “Heart attack?” If they put enough up, anyone drifting around having a heart attack in Albuquerque and wondering what they’re supposed to do now will get the snappy reminder, “Hey, you can call 911 for that.”
My anxiety is generalized enough that any podcast or radio feature on illness either repulses or enthralls me. I especially like stories from the ill, first hand, about their coping strategies. How did they feel when they were diagnosed? Do they have any funny quips about disease? But you’re OK right? But you’ll die? Find me any successful person with a serious illness who isn’t full-out dying, interview him or her, and send me every minute you have. It will either embolden me or ignite a downward spiral of mental anguish.
I recently listened to a podcast in which the hosts were interviewing Michael Kinsley, creator of the magazine Slate, about his Parkinson’s. It was one of the better illness interviews I’ve heard, full of whit and unconventional observations about death, many of which hadn’t yet occurred to me. This in particular stood out to me: when it comes to bad mortal news, “there are only two strategies: denial or confrontation.” Usually people say you can accept or deny your terminal illness, but acceptance, Michael says, is frankly not a choice a person can make. It either comes to you, or it doesn’t, so you’re left with denial or confrontation. In the latter, you attack your own illness via support groups and doctor’s consultations and juicing. You feel like you’re accepting, but the method is more akin to stomping on an ant hill until all the ants inside are dead. You are in reality fighting, which any white American who’s read a book on Zen Buddhism will tell you is a very different animal from acceptance.