I dodged a bullet. It was self-inflicted. But I didn’t even know it had been fired at me.
I was walking down the street and felt a lump in my calf. It hurt a lot—my whole leg felt warm. I’d better keep an eye on this, I thought.
When I woke up the next morning, the lump was gone. No pain, problem over. Except that I felt winded walking up the stairs in my house. After trekking up a long hill a few days later to attend a concert at a local church, I found myself praying in the pew instead of listening to Handel’s Messiah. I felt on the verge of passing out.
A week passed with no improvement. I mentioned my problem to my sister, who is a nurse, and she told me I’d better check it out right away. So I went to the emergency room. A CAT scan revealed dozens of poppy seed–sized blood specks in my lungs. Diagnosis: pulmonary embolism. The lump had been a blood clot in a vein that had broken up into tiny pieces and traveled through my bloodstream. If the pieces had been bigger, I would have gone to a different facility: a cemetery.
I was discharged after three days in the ICU. Anxiety set in the moment I walked out of the hospital. How could I survive without a buzzer to hit every time I needed a nurse, with no beeps from monitors alerting the staff about changes in my blood pressure? I felt like an unborn baby disconnected from the umbilical cord.
My body was out of danger, and I was on a blood thinner to prevent new clots. But I couldn’t stop my brain from obsessing over why it had happened and whether it would happen again. I didn’t trust medication to save me. I didn’t trust anything. I became paralyzed by questions that couldn’t be answered. The slightest ache was blown out of proportion by my relentless assessment. One day I was certain I had colon cancer. The next day, a brain seizure. I was so convincing that I was given an MRI and even taken by ambulance to the hospital, both times only to find out nothing was wrong. I did not need a hospital. I needed anti-anxiety medication.
I started seeing a psychiatric nurse-practitioner. I told her about my obsession with my health. She had a simple piece of advice. Whenever I had a minor ache or discomfort, I was to tell myself, “I don’t know what that is.” This statement relieved me of the responsibility of having to figure out what was going on in my body. Sometimes I’d say it out loud. The discomfort faded away, as if by magic.
Next I discovered something even more important. I discovered Now. The nurse-practitioner helped me short-circuit my obsession by redirecting my attention to the present moment and focusing completely on what was right around me. She taught me a simple 15-minute relaxation exercise. It consisted of taking deep breaths and systematically relaxing every part of my body, one at a time. Inhale deeply. Relax toes while exhaling. Inhale deeply again. Relax foot while exhaling. And so on. I got so good at it that sometimes I could no longer even feel my body after 10 minutes. I could defuse anxiety at will.
I rediscovered how enriching a place Now can be. My senses became more attuned to everything. Birds I never noticed before were singing melodies for me. Flowers camouflaged by inattention filled my view with color and beauty. Details in every landscape became more accessible. The space of my life was increasing, every hour worth so much more because I was bringing so much more to it.
“Living in the moment” is a cliché, of course. But some clichés are worth living by. Stressed out or not, I have learned that there’s no better place for peace of mind than the present. The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened. All that matters is Now. So go out and start discovering your now.