My dad used to sprinkle copious amounts of salt on my mother’s lovingly prepared, occasionally bland, Eastern European-inspired cooking. Chicken soup, brisket, even her ketchup infused and decidedly un-Iberian “Spanish rice” did not contain a trace of additional table salt.
Even with a strict sodium-reduced lifestyle, my mom has struggled with her high blood pressure for as long as I can remember.
Members of my mom’s family tree true can all carry a tune and love learning languages, but genetics has been relentless regarding the constricting of our vascular systems.
Because I looked so much like my dad, I somehow assumed that high blood pressure would bounce right over me. I never experienced even a trace of hypertension during my pregnancies and had no reason to be fretful about the tightening blood pressure cuff when going to the doctor.
“There are those who get high blood pressure, and those who give high blood pressure,” my mom would declare with the gravity of a philosopher.
Nibbling on a sodium and flavor free rice cake, she divided the world into binary categories and nodded at my father, whose low blood pressure reading barely seemed much higher than the number of letters in the word “sphygmomanometer.”
Belonging to either of these unpleasant camps seemed to be a less than desirable option.
Then, I turned fifty. My doctor quizzed me about family medical histories, exercise habits, diet, stress, and my climbing blood pressure. I promised to move around more, get my heart pumping, and stop using our exercise machine as a laundry drying rack.
In an all-out effort to avoid a pharmaceutical regimen consisting of blood pressure medicine, I cajoled our chubby dog to run across the muddy elementary school field with me.
I replaced salt with garlic powder on my stove-popped popcorn and tried to limit consumption of red meat.
Each year, as the blood pressure numbers crept upward, none of my efforts seemed to make a difference.
Two days after my fifty-second birthday, I went for my physical. Before the nurse placed the blood pressure cuff on my arm, I closed my eyes and conjured up fairy tale shades of the color blue. I imagined an interior vascular highway of wormy, stretchy vessels in which blood drifted like a warm and gentle tide. I exhaled deeply and looked out of the exam room window to follow the path of traveling clouds.
Wishing away high blood pressure did not work. I had crossed the borderline into full-on hypertension. My doctor announced that the time for discussion was done, and he was going to help me prevent a stroke. I was going to take a small dose of medicine each day. Genetics had triumphed over my mind-over-matter visualizations of hues of mermaid blue.
With my tendency toward catastrophic thinking, I felt gratitude to leave a doctor’s visit with just a garden-variety diagnosis of high blood pressure. It could all be so much worse. Yes, of course I would take my medicine, watch my salt intake, and reluctantly exercise. I would count my blessings. Yet, by collecting that container of sky blue pills, I was admitting that I was weakening, aging, deteriorating.
I was grateful that scientists had developed such effective therapies to protect cardiovascular health. What I was mourning was the loss of a time in my life when I didn’t need medicine, when I could think of myself as a healthy, more intact, less vulnerable human. My reluctance to admit that my body needed help had deeper roots in an unreasonable quest for perfection.
One of the benefits of being an American is being born into a mindset that attaining any goal is possible through dedicated work. You couldn’t turn around in my high school without finding a poster of our public school system’s motto, “Believe, Achieve, Succeed.”
This can-do, industrious spirit has helped our country grow with optimism and ingenuity. Yet, the darker side of this belief is that disappointment and lack of success are entirely in our hands, as well. People who battle illness must not only to face medical crises, but also must conquer a feeling that they have failed in their attempt to be perfect and whole.
“We’ll get you off those meds soon enough,” an athletic friend encouraged me. She was trying to be kind, but in my mind she was telling me that if I only had a stronger desire, more self-discipline and control, I could will my blood vessels to increase their elasticity. I announced to her rather defensively that my health problem was not just a matter of self-inflicted laziness. Sometimes, our bodies, simply fall apart.
After delaying for a few days, I finally swallowed the medicine. Headaches that I had attributed to hormonal fluctuations, poor sleep, or sudden shifts in barometric pressure stopped dead in their tracks. I felt better.
I think about my love of language that possibly runs through those sticky blood vessels of mine as an inherited trait, as well. The word for perfect in Hebrew, “moosh-lam,” is etymologically tied to the word for peace, “shalom.”
Maybe I have been chasing down the wrong definition of perfect for half a century. The day I first swallowed that blue medicine, I healed more than my heart. I found a certain kind of peace.