Joan figured she would need months to recover physically from the heart attack 2 years ago that led to her heart failure. She didn't realize she would need just as much time to recover emotionally.
"I was only 52 when I had the heart attack," she says. "Heart disease runs in my family, but I thought I'd been taking care of myself. It just hit me out of the blue. And then I got heart failure because of my heart attack. So now I had a health problem that wasn't going to go away."
Feeling like a "heart patient"
The heart attack and heart failure changed how Joan saw herself. For months, she wasn't able to take long walks in her neighbourhood or meet her girlfriends for tennis dates.
"I went from being this really active person to barely being able to walk at first," she says. "After I got out of the hospital, it took me a long time to be able to even walk a short distance. I was so out of breath, I had to stop three times to sit on the curb while I was trying to go around the block."
Joan also felt down about being a "heart patient" and all the medicines she needed to take.
"I went into this terrible depression," she says. "I would sit at my kitchen table and feel I was in this cloud of dread. I didn't feel like me. I felt like, 'I'm never going to be me again.'"
On top of the depression, Joan was worried a lot. She had cardiac rehabilitation, so she was learning how to slowly be more active. But she was anxious that any activity would harm her heart.
"I felt like another heart attack was just waiting to happen," she said. "I could feel my heart pounding when I would walk up some stairs, even if I went slowly. I was convinced that I would drop dead right on the stairs. I knew I had to get some help. I couldn't keep being sad and afraid all the time."
Joan talked to her husband and some of her close friends about her feelings. They told her that she was the same person they always loved. But Joan felt she needed more help. Her doctor recommended a counsellor.
The counsellor "helped me see that I was focusing on all the things I couldn't do anymore, instead of the things I could do. I may not be able to play singles tennis as intensely as I did before, but I can play doubles. I can still take walks and swim. I may have to take more breaks, but I can still do those activities."
One of the ways the counsellor helped Joan was by showing her how to stop negative thoughts when they overwhelmed her. "She taught me how to recognize when I'm saying negative things to myself and how to stop it. Then I practice saying something positive instead."
Her doctor also prescribed an antidepressant, which Joan plans to take until she and her doctor feel she is ready to stop.
Joan has gotten a lot of her strength back. She knows that she will have good days when she has a lot of energy, and she'll have bad days when she feels tired.
"But I'm doing much better than I was when I was sitting on the curb outside my house and feeling sad. I enjoy my life again."
This story is based on information gathered from many people living with heart failure.
Current as of: December 16, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Rakesh K. Pai, MD - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Stephen Fort, MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology