Catching sight of the rows of bottles in my neighborhood wine store the other day -- a holiday banner hanging merrily in the window -- I felt a pang of sadness and regret. Each of the artfully displayed bottles seemed filled with the promise of sensual delight. I could almost taste the chilled chardonnays, the rich, tangy sauvignons. But even more than the imagined flavors, were the happy moments I associated with them: the festive gatherings with friends, the perfect pairings with multi-course meals, the solo glass at the end of a long day.
I admit it. I have really enjoyed drinking wine all these years. So why, why, at the age of 50, have I given it up?
It was, as they say, a matter of the heart. There was the metaphorical heart -- my love for wine all those years -- but also the physical heart, that red, pulsing muscle lodged on the left side of my chest. The two were related, but it was the second one that let me know the first had become a problem. Two years ago, it suddenly began tapping out strange, uneven rhythms like undecipherable Morse code and these irregular pulses would persist for hours, sometimes days.
At first, it happened only once or twice a month. Then it started to happen more like once a week. Concerned and a bit frightened, I finally went to the hospital in the middle of an episode and was hooked up to an EKG. It's called atrial fibrillation, the nurse explained. It happens when the electrical activity in the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria) gets out of sync and the muscles start "fibrillating" (quivering) instead of contracting normally.
It is surprisingly common -- over 2 million people are diagnosed with "A-fib" every year. In fact, if you've ever had the experience of lying in bed, perhaps after you've been drinking, and been aware that your heart is racing, you've had some version of A-fib. Or, maybe you've noticed you're a little breathless and light-headed going up the stairs or while exercising. Then, when you took your pulse, it wasn't the regular boom-boom-boom you had every reason to expect but more like boom-chucka-chucka...pause... boomboomboom.
"You should see a cardiologist," the nurse told me. And I did but, interestingly, other than some vague talk about hormones and stress, my cardiologist didn't seem to know why a relatively young woman such as myself, who exercised regularly, ate well and was not overweight, would have regular episodes of A-fib. Other than the fact that it slightly increased my chances of having a stroke, he assured me, it wasn't that big a deal. (Note to reader: If you think you might be having atrial fibrillation, go to a doctor! Some types of A-fib, like ventricular tachycardia, can be life threatening.)
Of course, thinking about having a stroke made me anxious -- very anxious -- and anxiety can contribute to A-fib. So when my cardiologist suggested I take beta blockers, I agreed. Unfortunately, I hated them. Not only did they seem to have no effect on the A-fib, they made me feel lazy. Soon my regular 30-mile bike rides were too exhausting to be fun and I gave them up and promptly gained 10 pounds.
Depressed about my wonky heart and my expanding waistline, I began to research alternative ways to control my A-fib. Some things I was stuck with, like a familial tendency towards developing it. (Both my sisters and my mother have had it.) But there were other things I could do, like giving up caffeine, meditating, taking Chinese herbs and lowering my stress levels.
The A-fib persisted. Then my homeopath suggested I stop drinking wine, something I had been doing every night for years. Her theory was that either the alcohol itself, or something in the wine -- sulphites, perhaps -- was affecting my heart. At first, I resisted the idea. Having a glass or two of wine with dinner every night was as deeply engrained for me as brushing my teeth -- and far more enjoyable. My first attempt at stopping drinking lasted less than a week. But then, last summer, I spent two weeks with my sister who doesn't drink and decided to keep going.
Soon I realized a month had passed and... no A-fib. Then two months. I began to feel like I was reclaiming my old self, my old heart. I weaned myself off the beta blockers, started biking longer and harder, and still no A-fib.
The other day I realized it had been six months since I'd had an episode. I feel great. I'm sleeping better. My skin looks younger. I never have those groggy, early morning headaches. I'm back to my 30-mile bike rides. And while I recognize that giving up wine (or any alcohol) may not stop everyone's A-fib, it stopped mine. Wine was, as they say, my "trigger."
But I can't lie. I miss it. At this point, it's not so much a physical craving as a metaphysical craving: a desire for the sensuality and pleasure of drinking wine. Good wine is, to me, an emblem of the "Good Life." But it is no longer my good life. And, when it comes to my heart -- the one that beats in my chest and keeps me alive -- there is really no contest.
Zoe FitzGerald Carter is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, Zoe has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and Vogue. To Read her blog and buy her book, visit Zoe on Red Room.