What am I supposed to do when my heart is beating so hard?
Hoeing radicchio and escarole in the full sun of a high desert afternoon. Heat seems to fold itself around me, and I feel the unsettling pressure of something I can’t identify. It’s warm, yes, but mid-May temperature. So much worse is coming in another month. I’m tired, riding off unideal sleep and three months of hard labor to make this profitable month. But so what? People my age run their bodies ragged, don’t they? They love to push it.
And here I am, 30, doing some simple hoeing in 85 degree weather with beautiful clouds and a breeze, and my heart is beating out of my chest, making me feel panicked, making me feel dizzy, making me feel insubstantial and broken to the last sinew, waiting for a strong gust.
My current mindfulness exercise would have me write the following in the little notepad I keep in my carhartt overall pocket:
My heart is beating too rapidly.
I’m thinking that my heart is beating too rapidly.
I’m noticing that I’m thinking that my heart is beating too rapidly.
It’s meant to help me dissociate from the thought via distance. It’s called diffusion, a word normally associated with explosives.
My heart keeps pounding. I have an assurance derived from my many run-ins with doctors that the actual pulse rate would raise a medical eyebrow, like it did in my E.R. visit last Summer. I mean, I know you’re manually laboring, Sam, but, uh, your heart is beating pretty fast.” Sorry to say, self, the context just doesn’t justify the response. It is what it is.
Four years of this, and I still don’t know what to do about it. I breathe deeply, I drink water, I write dark sentences in my notepad, but I can’t stop the fucking thing from beating so hard. I’m coming to believe that the heart mirrors the personality. My heart, I’ve discovered, is flighty and nervous, excessively reactive, the guy you don’t want next to you in a battle. It is me. In my mind there is the voice of a letdown parent who dreams wistfully of rearing a different son.
“Why can’t you just be slower? Calmer? A capable thirty-something with a life ahead of you or, I mean, if it’s not too much to ask, the wherewithal to draw a goddamn hoe through some dirt without having a heart attack??”
It likes to picture my vivid red heart in serene, even rhythm, and it asks me why I can’t be more like my brother. His heart, well, you should see his heart. What an athlete.
Like every scare I’ve gone through these four years, it teeters on the brink and then chickens out. I finish hoeing, heart racing, and join the two interns and my boss to hand-weed Napa cabbage. The heart slows a little, loopy with fatigue, and I come home to feed the chickens and lie down in some shade. I could feel worse; I could feel better, which is, I think, the definition of purgatory, a mindset or a world of grey territory and issues you can’t force.
When your mind-body-complex perceives a threat, it sets its muscular hands around your heart’s center and holds tight. The threat passes, and still the hands hold tight, unwilling to digest your soothing assurances that the worst has past. They crouch and shake and wait for the setting of the sun. They are guided by the leathery voices of the ancestors who prevailed in order to bring you, another survivor, into this world. And they find you shockingly naive.
“Oh God. Is this what I worked so hard for? I spent my (apparently waisted) life scraping a drop of water out of a barren earth, and you’re complaining about a beating heart? Life is suffering, kid, and if you’re lucky, you survive for a while. What la-la-land have you been napping in?”