There it is again, that pain on the left side of my chest. By now I've grown used to it; I've pretty much decided it has to be anxiety.
Or acid reflux.
Anxiety would be the more logical diagnosis. It comes hard-wired into my genome. My DNA is Chinese - it has experienced millennia of famine, oppression, war, discrimination, disease, hard living - need I go on? Every single blood relative I know is or was anxious on an hourly basis. If it's not your children making you anxious, it's your spouse; if it's not your spouse, it's your job; if it's not your job, it's your lack of a job -- then there's your health, your housework, the weather, the election ... If there's a laidback gene in the family tree, it was pruned long ago.
So, of course, I married somone even more anxious. Together, we drive each other crazy picking apart everything from the state of the union to the state of the dinner dishes. Then I criticize him for being too anxious -- and he criticizes me for not being anxious enough.
All this anxiety first came to a head about 10 years ago. I was doing my taxes when I suddenly felt a severe cramp in my chest. I waited for it to go away. It didn't. It kept on going. I got up and walked around.
This can't be a heart attack, I thought. I'm too young.
But of course, it felt just like what I thought a heart attack would feel like.
I walked around some more. I went into the bathroom. I took a shower - I needed one anyway. Also, I figured it might relax me. I got dressed.
I could still feel the cramping.
Finally I couldn't take it anymore. I picked up the phone and dialed 911. Within a few minutes, an ambulance was wailing up the hill toward my apartment and then the paramedics were inside. They took my pulse and blood pressure, both of which were elevated. So they put me on the gurney and wheeled me out. As we left, one paramedic asked if he could get anything for me. I asked him to retrieve my purse from the bedroom. He went in and came out chuckling. He'd seen the papers strewn across my bed.
"She was doing her taxes," he told the other paramedic. "No wonder she's having chest pains!"
In the ER, they dutifully ran me through all the cardiac tests, including having me walk on a treadmill. The paramedic was right: I had had a major anxiety attack. I was told to relax and sent home.
I had a few more small anxiety attacks in the next couple of years, including a memorable one on a plane over Salt Lake City, but after that things seemed to return to normal.
Then I had a falling-out with my mother. We didn't speak to each other for six months. During that period, I couldn't eat anything that was even the slightest bit spicy or rich without having acid reflux afterward. My mother was known for and proud of her cooking; I associated her with food. No wonder I couldn't keep my anxiety down. The day Mom and I reconciled, my gastrointestinal system went back to its usual tolerant self.
I was sure, after my mom's death, that I'd be suffering anxiety attacks and/or acid reflux galore. But neither occurred. I must have been too well prepared for her passing; though her death was sudden, she'd clearly been losing her seven-year battle with lung cancer in the past month, and I'd long since braced myself for that phone call.
No, what brought on the next anxiety attack was work. I'd transferred to a new department two weeks earlier, which had doubled my commute. It was a transfer I was happy to get; I'd become miserable in my old position. But this new position was more demanding. We'd just had layoffs. I felt pressure to perform.
Then I felt pressure in my chest.
I willed it to go away. But it continued, until it felt as if a giant vise was squeezing my heart. I waited 10 more minutes. Now I was having trouble breathing. I turned and sent my boss a look of distress. But the way his computer was positioned, he sat with his back toward me. I finally managed to squeak out, "Tom?"
When he turned, I was clasping my hands under my breast. "My chest really hurts," I told him, sheepishly.
He studied me for a moment. We still didn't know each other well. "Do you want me to call 911?" he asked.
I nodded, and felt tears well up in my eyes.
He dialed and spoke calmly. Soon a fire truck rounded the corner into our parking lot; then the ambulance arrived. During the ride to the hospital, the paramedic delivered a soliloquy on the abysmal state of American health care. I bit my tongue. It was not the best approach to an already anxious patient.
The tests revealed that I had absolutely no sign of heart disease. The ER doctor suggested antacids.
I've now settled into my new job; the commute, while still frustrating, is now familiar. My boss and I have developed a good relationship; I like and respect him, and he's complimented my work. But my overall stress is definitely up.
I haven't had any more painful cramping. Now I just have low-grade throbbing. At first it felt as if it was centered in my breast; I dutifully went and had a mammogram. They found nothing.
I think I'll buy some Tums.