What to Do When Your Heart Explodes
by Victoria Comella
It strikes without warning in the early morning hours of a Monday, the clock reading 2AM, the work week poised to begin. Alone in my apartment I feel it start, the quick beats of my heart getting faster, picking up speed and not bothering to slow down. I sit on the edge of the bed trying to make sense of what is happening. Why does it feel like my heart is attempting to jump out of my chest?
There is something especially terrifying about having that great little organ that keeps you going without much fanfare suddenly begin to yell at you from within. GET ME OUT OF HERE! It screams. And I’m like, whoa, where’s the fire?
Over the years I’ve had a few other small attacks but nothing I couldn’t handle. They were just regular everyday life attacks. You know, the ones you get when you’re stuck in the subway late to work wedged in with strangers while some guy’s backpack keeps hitting you and you’re thinking: if he pushes that thing into me ONE MORE FREAKING TIME I’m going to LOSE IT. Or like when your waiter brings the bill and utters the two most dreaded words in the English language: cash only.
You know, that kind of attack.
But this is different. This is more extreme. So much so that after a few minutes I come to the only logical conclusion—I am definitely having a heart attack, or at the very least some form of heart failure. Either way, invariably, I am dying.
So this is where it ends. I’ll be found in this apartment tomorrow, maybe the day after, sprawled out on my bed, hand clamped over my chest as I attempted to push back in the one thing that up until the point of death made my life equal parts great and terrible. Yeah that’s right, heart, you traitorous little jerk. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all the times you refused to stay locked up in that icebox I gave you strict instructions never to leave, to keep away from those men we knew better about. Oh, you know exactly who I’m talking about. And we did know better and yet every time you were like, LET’S DO THIS THING! I lost months, years with you damaged and only working at half capacity. We knew they would leave or didn’t love us enough and yet every time you went for it anyway.
What utter fools we were. And now for it to end like this? With you betraying me yet again?
I can already see the headline of the Post: LONE LADY LOSES LIFE FROM FREAK-O HEART ATTACK, FOUND IN APARTMENT DAYS LATER.
God, how depressing.
This can’t be all there is, surely there was more I was meant to do with my life. I want to travel, publish my novel, eat at Carbone. I want to fall in love with someone who loves me back. Because what was the point of getting it wrong all those times and not having the chance to finally get it right?
And we will eventually, I think looking down expectantly at the upper left quadrant of my chest. Won’t we?
After thirty minutes I’m still conscious and begin to realize that perhaps I’m not actually dying (at least I’m pretty sure I’m not), so I walk over to my desk, flip on my laptop, and do the next only logical thing–Google. They’ll have the answers! The internet always knows!
At first I type: Am I having a heart attack? How to know if you’re having a heart attack. I think I might be dying. Symptoms of a heart attack.
Common heart attack symptoms include:
- Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
- A feeling of fullness, nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating or a cold sweat
- Feelings of anxiety or an impending sense of doom
- Trouble sleeping
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
I don’t have any of these save for feelings of anxiety and/or an impending sense of doom, and this is only because my heart is moving so fast I’m worried it might blow up. I figure if I’m thinking my heart blowing up may be a possible outcome in this scenario then an impending sense of doom is definitely what I’m going to feel. Also trouble sleeping. You know, because of the doom.
Then I type: How to know if you’re having a panic attack. I think I’m having a panic attack. Can you die from a panic attack? What does a panic attack feel like? PANIC ATTACK.
Most people with panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms:
- “Racing” heart
- Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
- Tingling or numbness in the hands, fingers or face
- Sense of terror, or impending doom or death
- Feeling sweaty or having chills
- Chest pains
- Breathing difficulties
- Feeling a loss of control
I am definitely having a panic attack (and again with the doom?). The internet Gods have spoken. I experience a wave of relief at the knowledge that I am not going to die alone in my apartment, however that relief quickly disappears as my brain comes to terms with the fact that now that I’m going to live I’m going to have to get up and go into the office in approximately four hours. The powerful play goes on, and I’ve lived to die another day.
I’m going to have to shower and get dressed and walk to the subway and stand packed against strangers (some wearing backpacks) for approximately forty minutes. I’ll make my way through Midtown, pass the black Escalades of Park Avenue, and sit in front of a computer all day. I’ll answer emails and phone calls and attend meetings and remind myself I need to go to the Laundromat later and the gym, and I’ll contemplate if I keep doing what I’m doing if I’ll ever have enough money to one day buy a house or an apartment or pay off my student loan or get married or have kids.
Right now all of that feels impossible. Especially when I think about how much money I make and how expensive New York is. Especially when I think about the men I’ve cared for, all those stunted Peter Pans who wouldn’t know what to do with a good woman if she showed up on their doorstep giftwrapped with grosgrain. Top that off with the novel that keeps getting rejected, and the sheer impossibility of getting a table at Carbone. I mean seriously, who do you have to know in this town to get some stuffed shells? DiBlasio? And I bet even he can’t get in. WHAT KIND OF TENTH CIRCLE OF HELL IS THIS CITY?
I sit in the dark and look down at my heart, feel it race beneath my chest like a 747. What are we even doing here? I feel it ask me. Why are we not just picking up and moving to Vermont and composting our garbage and buying a Subaru and meeting a nice guy who wears North Face jackets, and calling it a day? Wouldn’t that be easier? Wouldn’t you be happier?
I sit in silence for what feels like a long time.
No. Because that’s not who we are. Because things are hard and often times tedious but that’s the point. No one told me to be a writer but that’s who I am and I’ve got to deal with that and all the rejection that comes with it. And this city, this place, this job that I love and who I fall for it’s who I am, it’s how I feel, and it can’t be helped. After all, I say trying to reassure my heart, you’ve been here before. You’ve been here before a few times actually in all the years we’ve lived here, and survived. And I know all the cardio has helped too, money well spent on that gym membership because you’ve really been through the wringer but hang in there. Please. As much as it hurts, as much as I realize you’re freaking out it isn’t time to jump ship just yet.
In the end it takes another three hours to catch my breath, and in that time I make some promises to my heart, vows to be smarter, not as reckless. I will take better care of you, I say. More cautious. It’s the kind of promise you can only make when you’re removed from something enough that it allows you the strength to see past it. Because every heart knows once it gets set on something all clarity, reason, and good sense go out the window faster than you can say acute myocardial infarction.
Just before the sun is about to come up I finally get back into bed. I stare up at the ceiling and put my hand over my heart. I breathe in. I breathe out. Maybe what we’ve been doing is foolish. We love too much. We want too much. We expect too much. We love all the wrong people. We don’t bounce back well when we’re disappointed. And the hope. My God the hope is killing us.
I wait. I breathe in. I breathe out. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.
It’s okay, I feel my heart say in response, we’ll make it. Truth is we’ve made it through worse you and I. Don’t be afraid to keep going. Don’t be afraid to do what you love or to love the wrong people. Love who you can with as much as you can because no matter what happens, no matter how many times it might feel like it’s too much and I’ll just explode, I won’t. I’ll come back. I’ll heal. I’ve got you. I’m not going anywhere.
I breathe in. I breathe out. My heart slows beneath my hand. I feel reassured even though I know I shouldn’t. Around me I hear the beginnings of the city coming to life, distant car horns and the low rumble of someone in the building turning on their shower. What do they know that I don’t? Maybe nothing, maybe everything but it doesn’t matter because I survived the night. Today is another day, another week, another chance to get it all wrong, another chance, perhaps, to get something right.
And that’s what it’s all about in the end anyway, when you make your New York Post headline, this city, this life, all of it’s just about surviving and getting by, and trying to get in, and going to sleep, and waking up and taking a shower, and getting on the subway and venturing out there allowing yourself to be unafraid to love and live as much as you can, for as long as you can no matter what.
Because your heart’s still beating. It’s not going anywhere. And neither are you.
Victoria Comella is a writer living in New York and Publicity Manager at HarperCollins. Some of her work has previously appeared in Slate, Huffington Post, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Freerange Nonfiction. She is currently working on her first novel.