"How are you handling all your stress?" a friend who's also a life coach asked me recently. "I'm really interested to know." I loaded scrambled eggs onto a piece of rye toast and took a gluttonous bite. We were sitting across a table, enjoying breakfast together in a 1950s-style diner. Diners are one of life's true luxuries I think. The faded plates, the endless coffee, the ever-present, laminated photograph of a glorious hot fudge sundae. I love it all.
"I feel pretty good at the moment," I said. Suddenly, a vision of Alfred E. Neuman, the cover boy of Mad Magazine, whose motto was: "What -- Me Worry?" flashed into my mind. I laughed spontaneously which caused me to aspirate a little bit of scrambled egg. I coughed, watered, sputtered: "No really. I'm fine."
"How is that possible?" She shook her head. She knew about my starring role as caretaker, advisor, mourner and mother. "No one can handle that much stress without some symptoms. What do you do to relieve the pressure?"
I pushed my plate away. "Chocolate," I said, imitating the flat, imbecilic expression of Alfred E. Neuman. "Chocolate cures everything."
I signaled the waitress. "I'll have a hot fudge sundae," I ordered. "Two spoons."
She smiled gently and said: "Meditation might be a good alternative," but I wasn't listening. I was pleased with myself, proud that I was able to smile and enjoy the simple things like breakfast in a diner. The hot fudge sundae sat between us like a piece of art. We etched away at its sides in silence -- bliss.
I licked the last of the fudge off the back of my spoon and swallowed. For some reason, the fudge refused to go down; it stuck in my throat like a dollop of over-thick glue. I swallowed hard, and swallowed again. I must have overeaten, I thought.
Then, my throat began to tighten. The muscles of my neck twisted around my esophagus and then pulled taut like a wringed towel. Pain like barbed tentacles seared across my upper chest stretching its sinuous limbs in opposing directions: down toward my heart and up into my mouth. I pressed my hands to the tabletop as the pressure increased and spread...I was having a heart attack!
My friend reached for my hands. "What is it?"
I squeezed the words out. "My throat is closing in."
She turned my hands over and pressed her thumbs into my palms. "Breathe," she cooed. "It's just a spasm." She massaged my palms. "Breathe." The pain ebbed in less than a minute and I was left with fat lines of sweat itching on my neck. In the rest room, I washed my face and neck with paper towels. I was fine.
That night, as we got ready for bed, I asked my husband if he'd ever experienced an esophageal spasm. "It's a stress reaction," I explained. "I looked it up on the Internet."
"Spasm?" He asked. "I don't spasm. I only have manly stress symptoms."
"Oh really?" I watched him tear open a ThermaCare Heat Wrap and secure it around his midsection. "What, exactly, is a manly symptom?"
"Pinched nerves. Constipation. Torn ligaments. Big things." He snorted decongestant spray up each nostril. Since his father's funeral a month ago, he'd battled a relentless cold. "And anyway," he added, "I'm not stressed."
He shook a bottle of calamine lotion and handed me a Q-Tip. "You ready?" He stood in front of me and held up his arm. I sat on the toilet seat, opened the calamine lotion and began to paint his shingles blisters with a thick coating of pink paste. While I painted, he explained: "You have to put things out of your mind," he said. "Focus on tasks, activities, projects. That's how you deal with stress."
He used the hair dryer to dry the wide patches of pink. "How does that look?"
"Like you're a cotton candy leper," I replied. I brushed my hair, noting how many strands fell into the sink. "Maybe we should try meditation before we go to sleep," I suggested.
"Nah," he said, settling into bed. "There's no time to meditate. We need to fall asleep right away. I'll be up at 2 am., 4 a.m. and probably again at 5:30 a.m."
I put in my ear plugs, inserted my anti-molar-grinding dental device and turned out the light. Stress? What stress?