A Serious Reality About Living with a Congenital Heart Defect

Hello world!

I feel like I’m constantly apologizing for my breaks in posting new blog posts, but this last semester was crazy difficult.  My family and I both agreed that my education takes precedence and that I needed to focus on school.  Hopefully I have more time this semester to post more frequently.

This blog post is going to be longer than any of the other ones.  It deals with a serious and important aspect of living with a congenital heart defect and having heart surgeries and I felt that the extra length was necessary to more fully cover the gravity of the topic.

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In June of 2016 I experienced an intense episode of ventricular tachycardia which required a weeklong stay in the Intensive Care Unit, a catheter ablation, and an implantation of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (or ICD).  In the moment, my immediate focus was my physical health.  I wanted to be 100% back to normal as soon as I possibly could, however, for obvious reasons, my old normal was no longer achievable for me.  Whether I wanted to believe it or not, my life was forever changed the instant the arrhythmia started. And I desperately did not want to believe it.

I held onto the belief that I was totally fine now that I wasn’t in the hospital and I was allowed to start up my regular activities, namely riding my horse, even if it was at a slower pace than I wanted. During this process, I completely neglected my mental health.

Fast forward to the next summer.  I was still trying to ignore any kind of indications of me not being fine.  Eventually it reached a point where I was incapable of ignoring the signs.  I no longer had school as an excuse for me to be holed up in my room avoiding my friends or to take the blame for me not wanting to go to the barn.

After a few weeks of literally forcing myself to the barn, I decided I needed to talk to someone and seek professional help.  I told my mom
what I was feeling and within two weeks she had found me a wonderful psychologist.  Walking in on the first day of therapy I was skeptical for sure but mostly I was scared.  I panicked and started to act like this is not where I was supposed to be, that I was fine, just a little sad.  Looking back, I think I was terrified of officially being told that I was not okay.

At the end of the session I was given my list of diagnoses: severe clinical depression, mild anxiety, and maladaptive eating behaviors.

I was floored to say the least.  I was expecting something like mild depression or that I was just overdramatizing my emotions.  Forced to face my mental health, I had to make an active decision.  I could continue to ignore my emotions and drag myself further down into the pit, or I could fight and work hard and survive.  I chose the latter. Of course there were ups and downs, but eventually the number of good days far outweighed the bad.  I’m not going to lie and say that now I’m 100% cured and will never ever be sad again because that’s not how mental illnesses work.  Every single day is still a fight but I have the tools I need to help myself and I am infinitely happier than I was 7-8 months ago.  Progress may be slow, but it’s totally worth it.

I’m lucky that I had my moment of clarity and was able to recognize my need for professional help, but to do so I had to hit rock bottom.  I had to reach a point where the sport I loved, the sport that arguably saved my life, where the horse I loved more than anything no longer interested me.  I had to reach a point where I thought eating only one meal a day was a sufficient amount of nutrients for myself.  I had to reach a point where I was convinced that my best friends would not care if I lived or died, that only my family would show up to my funeral out of obligation of being my family.

So many people are unaware of the mental toll that surgery and other heart issues can take on a person.  I know I didn’t.  Although there is no consensus on the exact number, estimates of various studies range from one quarter up to three quarters of cardiology patients encountering postoperative mental health issues.  Additionally, numerous reports have shown that untreated depression can actually worsen heart health, creating a vicious cycle.

Mental health is such an essential part of the total recovery process that cannot be ignored.

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If you or a loved one needs help, here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

National Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-800-448-4663

The Trevor Project/The Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI
(6264) or text NAMI to 741741

MentalHealth.gov: https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics

National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

Additionally, your physician should be able to recommend mental health
specialists for you.

<3 Erin