Rethinking Everything (or, Did I Just Have a Heart Attack?)

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I was having a heart attack.  I had all the symptoms, with the additional bonus of watching my extremities swell up until there was so much pressure, some blood vessels broke in my ankle, leaving a bruise.  It was a thoroughly frightening experience.  I felt terrible afterward, too – drained and weak for days.  My doctor assured me that I had not had a heart attack, and had a whole battery of tests done to try to account for this curious combination of symptoms.

So imagine my surprise when the EKG and all the blood work checked out OK.  Heart rhythm – normal.  Blood pressure – normal.  Kidneys – normal.  Thyroid – normal.  Some other test that I cannot pronounce – normal.  Normal, normal, normal.  Yet there I was, with swollen limbs and pain in my chest.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over?

After asking me a series of questions about my lifestyle, my doctor pulled no punches.  He told me I am lucky that it wasn’t a heart attack.  He told me that despite the normal test results, I am a candidate for some sort of heart-related failure because I am at least 40 pounds too heavy, I spend too much time sitting at a desk, and that I am under way too much stress.  Apparently being plump and spending 10 – 15 hours seated every day is very bad for one’s circulation, hence the swelling.  And the chest pain?  Good old fashioned anxiety.

Some people would take this badly, interpreting it as the doctor making a negative personal judgment.  Not me.  My doctor told me exactly what a guy like me needs to hear – that the solution to the problem is in my hands.  Sure, the existence of the problem is my fault to start with; I’ve fallen prey to the entrepreneur’s inclination to focus on business to the exclusion of taking care of oneself.  At this point, however, fault is irrelevant and any time spent pondering it is a waste.  Remedy is the only relevant issue at this point, and the remedy is all me.  I must do these things:

  • Lose at least 40 pounds, which would put me at 200 pounds exactly.  I know I can do this, as I once exercised my way   from 280 pounds to 220 pounds.  If I can do it once, I can do it again.
  • Cut out excessive carbs and start including more fiber and more water.  Again, I can do this, because I’ve done it before.
  • Slash at least 10 hours per week from my work schedule immediately.  I am committed to pulling this off, although I have to admit that I don’t know how I’m going to do it.  I don’t know a single entrepreneur who manages to run a healthy business on less than 60 hours a week.  I work reasonably smart and manage my time reasonably well already – I don’t think that time management alone is going to buy me that 10 hours each week – I may simply have to settle for getting less done.  If any of you business owners out there can tell me how to work significantly less without harming revenue, I’m all ears.
  • Relax.  This one is hard for me.  It is related to the number of hours I work, sure.  But in general, I’m just not built for sitting around doing nothing.  I have a compulsion to do, and in this situation it does not serve me well.  Recreational activities actually cause me stress, because I feel as though I should be doing something economically productive instead.  I will focus significant energy on improving this, because it is important to my health.

In support of the changes I need to make in order to safeguard my health, I am re-thinking everything – everything – in my life.  I am re-thinking my business, my diet, my bedtime, my friendships, my reading material, my faith, even my consumer habits.  And as I re-think these things, I use a very simple 2-question test:

  1. Does this thing/habit/belief serve to propel me toward the best life I can have?
  2. If so, can it be improved even more?

A yes to the first question and a no to the second means the element in question gets to stay, but might be replaced by something better.  A yes to both questions means the element in question gets examined and re-tooled.  A no to the first question means the element in question is never even subjected to the second question.  Nothing is sacred right now – if it does not make me healthier in every sense of the word, it’s out.

I hesitated to share this news on my blog.  I recall making a pledge to never turn this into a “today I ate lentil soup for lunch” -style blog.  But I HAD to confide in family, close friends and select clients, because I suffered some down time as a result of exhaustion after my episode and the subsequent doctor visits that followed in the weeks after.  And when I confided in people, a curious thing happened – they let me know that I am not alone.  A number of friends and a surprising number of clients reported having experienced similar problems and receiving similar reality checks from their doctors.  It seems that we entrepreneurs tend to push too hard as a group – more small businesspeople than corporate employees had stories to share.  And similar experience or not, every single client was 100% willing to cut me the slack I needed to obey my doctor’s orders to spend a few days resting.  Mind you, a few of these people had me working on important, revenue-producing projects in which each day of schedule slip meant a loss of potential revenue.  Overall, I am very pleased with the support and encouragement I’ve gotten from everyone as I re-tool my lifestyle to ensure a longer, healthier visit than the one I was trending toward.

It is this support that made me feel comfortable sharing this news on my blog.  I figure that if there are so many similar stories within my little universe of friends, family and clients, there must be thousands of them out there in the wild, and thousands more waiting to happen.

The real kicker is that I saw this coming, although not so soon.  I had been having chest pains for months.  I had been feeling stiff and swollen after 15-hour workathons.  I just wrote it all off as “the cost of being self employed” and told myself I’d feel better if I got some extra sleep over the weekend.  I was wrong on all counts.  So to anyone with similar symptoms who might be reading this – stop.  Whatever you are doing, stop.  Schedule yourself a couple of vacation days, or take a sick day if you have to.  Spend at least 1 day resting and another in quiet contemplation of where you are, how you feel, and what’s really going on in your life.  Go talk to our doctor.  Throw up a good defense before heart problems or panic attacks hit you.  And try making some changes in your life that will help you to be healthier and calmer.

You a have a whole new life if you want to.  Keep watching this space and I’ll show you.

Discuss ‘Rethinking Everything’ here