catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 9 :: 2007.05.04 — 2007.05.18


(Hyper)tension and energy

I have a problem: I don’t know how to distinguish among tension, hypertension, and energy.  (Since catapult is an online publication, I should clarify that by “hypertension” I’m not cleverly and cryptically referring to some html-enabled cyber-form of tension; I just mean simple, everyday high blood pressure).  As I’ve stated it here, this sounds like a philosophical problem, a matter of perception and judgment.  My tendency to formulate the problem in intellectual terms probably has something to do with my academic formation and practice as a philosopher—or is it the other way around, that my intellectualizing tendencies predisposed me toward philosophy in the first place?—and the only way I know to work through the problem is also philosophically, in intellectual terms.  But coming face-to-face with the problem was anything but an abstractly mental experience; it had everything to do with the body that I am, and the way in which that body—that I—came to be admitted to the hospital a few weeks ago.

First signs of the problem: before the hospital

It was early Monday morning (so early, in fact, that some of my students who were still awake at the time would have described the same time period as “Sunday night”), and I woke up tense and anxious after a restless night of physical discomfort and emotional unease.  That should have been a clear sign that something was seriously wrong, except that I’ve become accustomed to waking up tense, anxious, and uncomfortable, especially early on Monday mornings when the awareness of my oncoming week of academic work is shoving me out of bed.  In the pitch dark of that Monday-to-be, I logged on to the Internet (no casual feat in the dial-up world of our home computer) and googled “signs of heart attack”—also making sure to check my e-mail for important messages from students and colleagues, of course, and actually getting a bit of preliminary work done by replying to a couple of them.  Then, armed with my newfound knowledge of the signs of heart attack, I went back to the bedroom and woke up my wife, so she could help me sort out whether I was experiencing “normal” Monday-morning tension, anxiety, and discomfort, or if this was something different that required medical attention.  Like I said, I have a problem of perception and judgment.

Once we decided that yes, it was worth seeking some medical attention—a decision, I must admit, that had more to do with calculating and safeguarding the futures of the two children sleeping upstairs than with trusting my own sense of how I felt—I set off for the hospital.  I selected this particular hospital, a half-hour drive from home on a route that passes two other perfectly good hospitals, for a seemingly sensible reason: our family physician is on staff at that hospital, and doesn’t have privileges at the other hospitals that I passed by (or does he? I’m not actually sure…).  Underneath, though, was a deeper, more troubling reason, which I suspect was the real source of my choice: the hospital I drove to is just a few minutes’ drive from my campus, so if they quickly checked me and told me everything was OK, I could still make it to class, right?


More signs of the problem: at the hospital

Apparently the words “chest pain” and a blood-pressure reading that I can only assume was stratospheric (the nurse didn’t share it with me, perhaps for fear of driving it yet higher) get you quick attention in an emergency room.  She insisted on putting me into a wheelchair and rolling me the few dozen feet from the admitting area to the ER proper, where the rest of the staff promptly moved someone else’s gurney out of bay 3 and into the hallway in order to get me hooked up to monitoring equipment and taking nitroglycerin pills.  It was a reasonably convenient place for me, too; having my own bay meant that I could keep a keen eye on the clock, and when it became evident that I wasn’t going to make it to class, I had my own private phone handy to call and arrange for an alternative assignment to be passed on to my students.  I felt somewhat foolish lying there, and even more foolish when the second nitro pill kicked in and I couldn’t call out loud enough to let the nurse know I was about to pass out, but all in all I was still sort of energized by getting things done, taking care of business.  Yes, I have a problem, although I couldn’t really see it then—which, as I have said, is itself part of the problem.

More revealing than my taking-care-of-business approach to the ER, though, was the change of mood and attitude I experienced once I was admitted and wheeled upstairs for a so-called “23-hour observation” (which became more like 36 hours).  Everyone knows that a hospital is not a particularly restful place, and, objectively speaking, my experience was no exception.  I underwent the typical regimen: constant checks of blood pressure and other vital signs, repeated pokings for blood samples, multiple and lengthy trips to the radiology department for highly sophisticated and vaguely dehumanizing tests and scans, interruptions of sleep throughout the night for various kinds of checks, and the alternating shifts of aggressively friendly and vaguely menacing nurses and nurses’ assistants.  Besides all of that, I shared my semi-private room with a seriously ill coronary patient who liked to watch Fox News all day and night and whose own blood pressure spiked so high that he started hallucinating, insisting repeatedly to me and to anyone else who would listen that there were clouds of smoke emerging from my storage locker.  I only jumped out of bed to investigate the first time he told me that; thereafter, we took turns pressing the call button so he could explain it to the hospital staff, until finally he asked a nurse if she could see not only the smoke (which could have been a trick of the light) but also the big black bugs crawling all over the wall; that got him a quick medication change, and bought me a bit more peace and quiet.  Through it all—and this is the part that reveals my philosophical problem of perception and judgment—I felt an enormous sense of relief, of a deep restfulness that was more powerful than all the tests, blood drawing, and the hallucinating roommate.  I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders, and weeks later I’m still calling on my memory of the sweetness of that night’s (intermittent) sleep to ease me into unconsciousness at the end of the day.  Was it because I was temporarily relieved of my hectic schedule, and with a good excuse too, or was it because of the multiple blood-pressure medications they kept pushing on me until (in the middle of that sweetly restful if much-interrupted night) the nurse cheered that we had succeeded in bringing my pressure down?  I still can’t tell.

Yet more signs of the problem, but some hints toward a solution: life since the hospital

I wasn’t in the hospital for very long at all, but I can’t help but think of my life this year in “before” and “after” terms.  The blood-pressure medication is a strong one, and, as I told my physician during a follow-up visit last week, I’m still not sure whether the sense of relaxation I’ve been feeling (sometimes to the point of downright listless indolence) is a side effect or is just me getting used to what a healthy blood-pressure level feels.  When I told him that I was trying to figure out whether I had simply come to associate energy with hypertension, the physician nodded gravely and said, “Yes, that could be it.”  Man of science that he is, I suppose he’s something of a philosopher too, and I’m grateful.

Whether it’s a mere set of side-effects or the first fruits of a genuine lifestyle alteration, I am enjoying the relative peacefulness of my nights, the guilt-free feeling of physically needing to sleep soundly for several hours at a stretch.  I still can’t really distinguish to my philosophical satisfaction among tension, hypertension, and energy, but I’m enjoying the relief, and working out the experiment.  Maybe Karl Marx was right when he said that, for all the work philosophers have done interpreting the world, the point is to change it.

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