Are You Taking It on the Couch or Charting Your Future?

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.


It was a fluke it was discovered. A nurse practitioner asked some questions, ran an EKG and off I was to the specialists. Sure, I’d been tired. Fatigue is normal when you have three elementary school age children and run a law practice, right?


The diagnosis completely freaked me out. Statistics said 80% die within 5 years.


My children were 6, 7 and 10.


Can anything terrify a mother more than the thought of leaving her kids?


At first, I took it easier. Rested more.

I did this for about a month.


Then I decided lying down was dumb. It made me feel like giving up. Like I was old and sick, which I wasn’t.


I had sh*t to do. A business to run. Kids to manage.


I got off the couch.


I read about heart disease, ate better and walked my fanny off.


I’d been thinking of leaving my marriage and decided I couldn’t put my kids through divorce and the loss of their mother. So, I stayed. I read about improving relationships and went through two bouts of marriage counseling.


Mortality was on my mind. A Lot.


I mentioned my heart failure to colleagues, friends, family, even strangers.


There was a part of me that wanted to say, “Hey! I’ve got something really scary going on! Do you see me? I’m worried! Will you validate me?”


When I spoke of my condition, mostly whoever I told shared a health scare of their own, conditions often chronic, sometimes terminal. I began to think if we live long enough, each of us experiences a life-threatening illness or certainly has someone close to them who has.


Four years later, I was still alive, and doing better than before. The meds made me tired, which come to think of it now really wasn’t a change. My body was still doing everything I asked.


My marriage worsened. I noticed chest pains when my husband yelled at me. The kids were older.


I got divorced and crossed my fingers insurance companies would become required to cover pre-existing conditions.


Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what if means to have heart failure.


Medically, it meant my heart pumped at 39% (normal is 55-70%), contracts with a delay on one side, and had enlarged to compensate for not working so well.


Some say heart failure can be caused by emotional abuse, trauma or extreme stress. I’d just lost my Irish-twin sister/best friend to breast cancer. My marriage felt emotionally abusive at times.  


It can also be caused by a virus, and I’d had a very, very severe sinus infection, years in the making, which may have contributed.


On the one hand, I was lucky—I could have gone 20 years without it being noticed, as my cardiologist pointed out. With medication, my heart’s pumping improved to 47% and shrunk to a more normal size.


On the other hand, my heart never failed me.


I love more and harder, not less.


I imagined my sister, who told me before she died that she would be my guardian angel, was thumping me on the head to say, “WAKE UP, STUPID! LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO GO ON LIKE THIS!!”


Maybe human bodies are fragile and strong.


My struggles today feel less acute.


I believe that whether we think we got the short end of the stick and life happens to us, or we decide to chart our own course matters.


One is stuck on the couch feeling weak and ineffective. The other is creating a better life feeling empowered.


Same circumstance. Different mindset.


What’s your mindset?

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst