I Turned Six Today

My family, friends, and neighbors refer to today as my re-birthday. I’m okay with that moniker, but it doesn’t tell the complete story. My original birthday was June 6th, 1962, and that was my birthday until my 54th year, when everything changed.

On August 21st, 2015, I suffered a widowmaker heart attack that left me dead for over 20 minutes. I was at a customer site working, thinking I had terrible heartburn. I took my glasses off, put them on the table in front of me, rubbed my forehead and fell over dead on the floor. My colleagues tried to figure out what was going on while while waiting for an ambulance. An ambulance arrived and transported me to Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis. I was shocked five times along the way with no response. I was shocked two more times in the ER at which point my body began to pump its own blood again.

The cardiology team performed a coronary angiogram and determined my left anterior descending (LAD) artery is completely blocked because of cholesterol buildup. The LAD is more commonly known (by lay people) as the “Widowmaker,” making what I had a “Widowmaker Heart Attack” which is just as terrifying as it sounds.

The solution to keeping me alive is to put a stent, a mesh tube, in the LAD artery to get the blood flowing again. I am put into a coma after the stent is placed to save my brain function. My wife was given the “He’s in God’s hands” speech and my children were told to come back from their vacations because I probably wouldn’t survive. I spent the next 10 days in the hospital, of which I remember very little.

I received a second stent in January 2016 after I again experienced heartburn. All the while I struggled with severe headaches that were so debilitating I’d have to spend the day in a dark room lying in bed. It was extremely painful to look at any light, so I couldn’t use my phone or computer to do any work. I complained about headache pain for months until I got a brain MRI in May 2016 which led to the diagnosis of an anoxic brain injury.

I had gone back to work as quickly as possible because I didn’t believe my heart attack was that big a deal. I thought it a minor set back, and I’d be back at full power in no time. All I had to do was follow my doctors’ instructions, take the drugs, do the exercise, and I’d fully recover. That idea got destroyed during the episode of my second stent when my cardiologist and I discussed having an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) installed in my body. My cardiologist asked me to consider it because my EF was very low. Ejection fraction (EF) is a measure of how well your heart can pump blood. Normal is 50–70. 35 was considered by my cardiologist as the cut off point for having the ICD installed.

The thought of having a device installed in my body made me incredibly angry. It forced me to face that I’d been lying to myself. Part of my heart was dead and nothing will change that. I was angry at my own body’s betrayal. I’ve been physically active all my life, ate a healthy diet, and never smoked. There was never any sign of high cholesterol or any other heart health issues that could have led to this. I even went so far as have my family doctor go through years of physicals to see if there was any indication we missed and there was not.

Most people are interested in the death part of my recovery. The most common question I get is “Did you see a light?” I didn’t see a light. I didn’t float above myself, didn’t see heaven, old friends, or deceased family members. The “light” question was cute at first, but after a while it became incredibly annoying.

I started making up jokes to combat my irritation.

“Yes, I saw a light, but it was from flames.”

“Yes, I floated above the hospital,” I’d say. “I watched the Minnesota Vikings losing in their own stadium.” (Vikings fans found this particularly annoying which I thoroughly enjoyed.)

My sister Mary asked about seeing a light. I made up a story that our father, who had died when I was 12 of pancreatic cancer, led me on a tour of hell.
“The doorway to hell is in a dump south of Jacksonville, Florida”, I told her.
(If you’ve ever been to Jacksonville, you know what I mean. The entire state of Florida is, in fact, the first level of hell. This is easy to comprehend.) I told her how dad took me on a tour of several levels of hell. I paused for a moment only to hear Mary sniff and say, “Dad’s in hell?”.

She questioned why Dad was in hell, but she never wondered about me.

Thanks Mary.

I always felt people asked the wrong question. The right question is — How did it feel being dead?

Being dead was the most peaceful feeling I’ve ever experienced many thousands of times over. The peace was so strong I still refer to it as a “black hole of peace”, because it keeps drawing me back to it. I still feel, six years later, a strong desire to experience that peace again. At the time, people were congratulating me on being alive, but I was pretty ambivalent. I knew that my wife and family were glad I’m still here, but it was hard to admit I didn’t care as much because of the level of peace I experienced.

Even now, I have no fear of death. I’m not worried about living a long life. I am not suicidal. I simply don’t carry the burden of mortality anymore. It is as if an enormous weight has been lifted from my life. Death doesn’t feel like an ending, but as a passing on to whatever is next.

Recovering from the heart attack has been relatively easy. The heart is a pump. My pump doesn’t work as well as other peoples’ pump because part of it is dead. There are complications and the medications’ side effects can be quite debilitating, but modern medicine has a very good understanding of the heart.

When it comes to the human brain, it’s like they’re scratching drawings on a cave wall.

I am better off than most. I have recovered much of my life. I work a full-time job as an IT consultant. I run a sports website called Corn Nation. I write. I podcast. I have a sports-based YouTube channel and I do photography. I’ve had to fight hard to recover that much of who I was and what I can do.

There isn’t a lot of public awareness regarding traumatic brain injuries. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has done an excellent job of making everyone aware of breast cancer. The American Heart Association has done a good job of making people more aware of heart disease. People still eat fat and salt like there’s no tomorrow, but at least they’re aware it’s going to kill them.

There’s almost zero awareness of what it’s like to have a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Every traumatic brain injury is unique. It is an invisible injury. I have been dead for over 20 minutes and there isn’t a single scar on my body. The joke is, “the scars are on the inside”, except it isn’t a joke.

I’m pretty sure I can speak for other TBI survivors when I say a TBI destroys everything you think you are. I go for walks and honestly contemplate if I’ve been kidnapped by aliens; that these memories are false and been planted inside my head. Perhaps I was kidnapped and brainwashed by Russians because we blame them for everything. Maybe we’re living in a simulation and none of this is real. Or perhaps I’m in purgatory and I still have something to prove, a theory that seems to fit well since I was rejected by both heaven and hell. Why else would I still be alive?

All of those theories may sound silly but they are very real to me. Having a TBI rips away your perception of reality; everything you thought you knew that was real is questionable.

Doctors don’t give you a timetable for recovery because there is none. This isn’t a broken arm, where your arm is put in a cast for a set period of time after which it’s considered “healed”. It took me at least two years to understand I will never fully recover. At six, I’m not 100% sure I’ve fully accepted it. What I know for certain — I will never stop trying to become the best I can be. Bad days happen and the worst thing I can do is remain in that darkness, knowing it will pull me into a well of self-pity from which no good can come.

A commonality amongst TBI survivors is doing our best to hide our injury, partially because it’s invisible, partially because we want to fit in, but mostly because almost no one understands. The mental fatigue from even menial tasks is overwhelming; it makes no sense to anyone else that when I try to do math, I end up exhausted with a severe headache in a matter of minutes. Trying to explain to someone my hearing is fine but my audio processing is terrible when I try to understand an accent or if there is any background noise is impossible. I barely bother anymore.

The reaction to telling someone I have a brain injury is illuminating. I’ve seen the look on your faces. Your first response is to look for an exit. Your second is to wonder if I’m about to go on a killing spree. I get it. There’s no frame of reference for you.

One of my goals is to change that.

According to the Brain Injury Alliance,

• 2.8 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury every year.

From 2006 to 2014, the number of TBI-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths increased by 53%.

• Traumatic brain injury (TBI) disables SIX times more people each year than spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, and breast cancer combined.

Note that increase from 2006 to 2014. Up to date statistics are difficult to find, but I am betting the number of TBI-related emergency visits have increased a great deal more.

My hope is I can help more people understand what TBI survivors are going through.

Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling – Part One

This is part one of a three-part series on Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling.

Part Two
Part Three

Journaling is the act of writing your thoughts and feelings regularly so that you can better understand them. Journaling was called “keeping a diary” years ago, but that brings up images of teenage girls in their bedroom hand writing in a notebook protected by a cheesy lock that wouldn’t deter an interested mouse.

“Journaling” sounds much more mature than “keeping a diary”, doesn’t it?

Of course it does. This is why there is a cottage industry built around journaling; you can go to Amazon and buy fancy books with writing prompts so you can journal in style. I don’t mean to be too snarky; journaling has significant benefits and that’s what we’re going to learn in this chapter.

Keeping track of your life provides an ongoing account about where you’ve been and where you’re going. It provides emotional release. It may sound goofy, but journaling can increase your health. In a 1999 study, “Effects of Writing About Stressful Experiences on Symptom Reduction in Patients With Asthma or Rheumatoid Arthritis”, participants who were chronically ill with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis were asked to write an essay expressing their thoughts and feelings about a traumatic experience. Those who did had “clinically relevant changes in health status” compared with those in a control group who wrote about unimportant subjects. This means that there was a measurable change in health for those who wrote about their trauma. That’s amazing.

A 2018 article in “Advances In Psychiatric Treatment” titled “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing” reported:
Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations. In the expressive writing paradigm, participants are asked to write about such events for 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions. Those who do so generally have significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who write about neutral topics.

Journaling is an incredibly useful tool in the fight against anxiety and depression. I found journaling to be extremely beneficial. If you don’t believe me, believe the science.I started journaling because I wanted to understand how to best handle my health. I was diagnosed with an anoxic brain injury and because of it I have chronic headaches. I wake up with a headache every morning. On the scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst possible migraine, my headache might be a “2”. It might be an “8”. I sought to find if what I did in my everyday life made a difference in how bad my headaches were.

I now use a journal to write down all aspects of my life. I try to journal every day. It has been useful in determining what effects my health. I have tracked my sleep, diet, activities, and how I feel emotionally and physically. I used it to write my book, “Been Dead, Never Been To Europe”. Writing the book was cathartic in putting my death behind me and allowing me to move on to live life as much as I could.

Warehouse Theory – Explaining Why My Memory Is So Fractured
“Warehouse Theory” is a story I have used to explain why my memory is so fractured after recovering from a heart attack and traumatic brain injury.
Warehouse Theory – Explaining Why My Memory Is So Fractured
“Warehouse Theory” is a story I have used to explain why my memory is so fractured after recovering from a heart attack and traumatic brain injury.

What I discovered by journaling on a regular basis was that sleep was the most important factor of whether I woke up with a “2” or an “8” headache. It’s not perfect. Six years after my death, I have bad days with little to no idea why I am in so much pain.

I journal about my goals. I keep track about what I did for work on any given day. Keeping track of everything allows me to go back to a reference if my customers are asking why we made a decision the way we did, or how we determined the parameters of an IT project.

I journal about what I’m grateful for. Gratitude journaling is one of the ways that you can combine with turning bad thoughts to good, a concept for which we’ll have an entire chapter. It’s a tool to help rewire your brain so that you stop focusing on negative thoughts and start thinking about the good things in your life.

I journal about whatever is bothering me at the time.

Another good thing about journaling – it’s pretty darned close to free. You don’t need anything fancy for journaling. You can buy a simple three-ring binder notebook and handwrite your daily entries. You can use a word processor on your computer. You can use apps specialized for journaling. I prefer to do voice journaling, where I talk into a voice recorder, and have the words transcribed, then keep track of journals in Scrivener, a software application for writers.

Controlling Anxiety Through Journaling – Part Two – Getting Started is the next of this series.

Journaling is not a substitute for therapy or counseling. If your anxiety or depression is overwhelming, consider seeing a professional. Having said that, I know there are people who wouldn’t talk to a therapist if their life was was in danger. This should strike you ironic because many times it is. I am still surprised at the number of people I talk to who don’t understand that anxiety, depression, and stress can cause serious problems with their physical well-being.

In you won’t see a therapist, journaling is at least a next-best option.

Why would you NOT do journaling? I can show a multitude of studies beyond what I included here that show its health benefits. It is easy. It is free. It doesn’t require you to open up to another human being so you won’t feel embarrassed.

I’d honestly like to know. Send me an email – jj@jonjohnston.com – leave a comment here.

When Faced With Uncertainty, Remember The Serenity Prayer

I recently had an echocardiogram since I hadn’t had one in a couple years. I went in feeling pretty decent, but came out feeling like holy hell, which is weird because echoes aren’t intrusive. They inject a cool liquid into your body to make the echo show up more. As that was happening, I asked the nurse if it was a dye.

“No, it’s not a dye.”

“Is it communism? You’re injecting me with communism, aren’t you?”

“Yes, it’s communism.”

This is how I typically handle things; I stick the weird and unexpected into it, hoping someone else plays along. I was happy with the nurse.

As I left, I turned to her and said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses!”

Clearly more Marxism had set in.

Next was my follow up appointment with my cardiologist, Dr. Kohl. We always give each other a lot of crap because that’s what I do and we’ve seen each other enough to be comfortable being blunt.

He pulls up an echo, and he says, “Look, your EF improved to 49!”
EF is ejection fraction, basically a measure of how well your heart pumps. Normal is 55.
I am elated. It’s gone up since the last measure a couple years ago!
Then he says, “Sorry that’s not your heart”. He pulls up my echo, and it’s 39, which is what it was before.
So Yay! I am elated, then smashed into the ground, just like some guy in professional wrestling has landed on me from the top ropes. I lay there in a daze. But wait, there’s more to come!
We’re looking at my echo, and he points out some part of it that looks sketchy. Dodgy. Blurry. I don’t know. It all looks like I have an “Alien” in my chest that’s about to burst out.

He tells me, we think you might have a blood clot. This is shittier news than the EF.

He explains my artery is like a river flow. The two banks are the sides of my artery. The heart pumps, the two sides squish in, and the blood flows. Unfortunately, part of my heart is dead, so that part doesn’t squish as well because it is scar tissue. That creates an eddy in the current, and just like you see in a river, in the eddy the water swirls around. Refuse gets caught instead of flowing down the river. In my case, the blood might be getting caught there and forming a clot, just like a dead carp floating in an eddy.

It’s shocking news. It’s upsetting. I feel like I’ve failed. I have done a decent job of staying in shape. I quit drinking more than a year ago. I suddenly feel like it’s all for naught. I try to keep from crying, and I do, but I want to scream.

It’s not the prospect of dying that worries me. Dying would be pretty easy. Based on experience, it was pretty peaceful. What bothers me is dying in front of someone else and then they have to deal with it. The idea of my wife finding me cold in the morning or my son finding me dead on the floor when he comes home from work. I don’t want to do that to anybody. I wonder if dying in the woods would be better. It’s a stupid thought. If they did not find me, the uncertainty would be terrible for those who love me.

I am told I need to get a heart MRI. A MRI takes a 3D picture of the heart, so then we’ll know for sure. Maybe. This is all about probabilities.

Perhaps I have a time bomb in my chest. Perhaps I don’t. The uncertainty is maddening. The problem with this kind of uncertainty is getting sucked into pity – “Why me? Why did this happen to me?”. No good comes from that.
I have done my best to teach myself to stay away from anxiety. I will try like hell to not worry about it because worry is only an energy suck. From experience, I know it is exhausting. Worry can consume you, keep you from doing what you love.

I tell myself, “What is the difference between right now and before my exam? I have more information. Nothing else has changed.”

Why worry, then? It does no good.
I keep repeating this to tell myself it’s true, and it is, but you have to re-affirm yourself. It is how you train your brain.
I lived an active, mostly healthy life until one day when I fell over dead while sitting in a chair. I have done so many stupid things in my life, the number of times I’ve nearly gotten myself killed is ridiculous. I am not going to make a list as it would only make me appear as an incredibly stupid person. After all that, I died sitting in a chair.
It convinced me it doesn’t matter what you do, when your time is up, you’re done. You might think you control what happens to you, but you don’t. Tell this to people and you can wind up in an argument worse than any caused by religion or politics.

When faced with uncertainty, I rely on the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I cannot change whether I have a clot in my heart.
I can can change the attitude I have about the uncertainty of whether it exists. I can fall into the trap of self-pity or I can live my life with the understanding it can end at any time, whether from a blood clot, an accident, or any other calamity which may befall me.
I chose to live.

Taking Your Blood Pressure Is A Feedback Loop To Hell

I recently had my annual cardiology checkup. I enjoy meeting with my cardiologist, Dr. Lou Kohl. While our appointments take place in a formal setting, the conversation is anything but. Last year’s meeting was over Zoom.This year I chose to do a personal visit. Being a sharp guy, his first question was as to why I chose an in-person visit. And why I had requested an EKG.

I was forced me to admit I’d had “weird feelings” when I scheduled the visit in January.
One of the things I’ve learned – when you have had a heart attack, you never put the words “chest” and “pain”, together out loud anywhere near each other if you’re near a hospital or around people who worry about you.

I did not tell him I’d had chest pains. I called them anomalies. “Weird feelings.” It’s true in January I felt kind of weird at times, but one of the things he’s taught me is that I have discomfort (not pain) that I exert myself and if the pain gets worse then I’m to go to the ER. The strain (not pain) never got worse so I didn’t concern myself with it. At least not enough to go to the ER. Because I’d requested an EKG he knew something was wrong.
This lead to a conversation about measurement. An EKG wasn’t going to tell him anything about my heart, or at least anything he didn’t already know. He brought up how some patients insist he listen to their heart. Why else carry a stethoscope? It’s part of the uniform, he said, then admitted he didn’t learn that much listening to a heart. Again, more than what he didn’t already know. He said he learned more from taking a pulse, which I found surprising. I guess if you feel a thousand wrists in a couple months you’re bound to be sensitive to what they’re telling you. He said he could feel how strong a person’s heart was beating, whether it was regular or they were missing beats.

Our conversation turned toward anxiety. I am spared a lot of anxiety because I don’t remember what happened. I don’t remember being shocked, or having my ribs broken from CPR. Heart attack survivors are generally plagued with anxiety about whether they’re going to have another heart attack and whether it’s going to kill them. I rarely worry about these things.

I ‘ve talked to survivors about taking their blood pressure. If they believe it’s not what it should be, they get anxious. They take it again. Their anxiety drives their blood pressure higher. They measure it again. Of course it’s higher. They get more anxious. Repeatedly taking a blood pressure measurement becomes a feedback loop to hell. They’re on their way to another trip to the ER.

I was surprised when Dr. Kohl said you shouldn’t measure your blood pressure more than once a week.

I don’t own any type of device to take my blood pressure. I’m not sure anyone should other than under doctor’s orders. It seems to be device bent on satisfying the self-prophesying message something is wrong. I would love to hear from anyone who feels like taking your blood pressure leaves you with any level of comfort. Obviously there are times your doctor might tell you otherwise, but again, I’d love to hear about it.

Anxiety is toughest on young men who have heart attacks.

They’re in shock this could happen in the first place, then they’re confronted with all the emotions. I know this is stereotypical, but men suck at emotion. We hide it. We bury it. We pretend it doesn’t exist, then we drink or drive ourselves into other activities in order to ignore it. Having a heart attack, or by extension, any extreme trauma, drives those emotions to the surface.
Dr. Kohl said they know they’re going to see those patients over and over because they can’t deal with the anxiety that comes with having a heart attack.

They are going drive themselves back to the ER because of anxiety.

I understand this.

Your body betrays you, and suddenly your self-confidence is gone. Is lifting this brick, mowing this lawn, walking up this hill going to kill me? It’s terrible.

I sometimes worry about having another heart attack, but being kept alive as a useless blob. The “death” part doesn’t worry me much. I taught myself several techniques for dealing with anxiety that I will share as soon as I’m finished with something presentable. These things might turn into another book.

My primary concern on this yearly visit is fatigue, my constant desire to fall asleep during the day. I am hoping its cause is one of my meds, Metoprolol. Metoprolol is a beta blocker. It blocks the effect of ephedrine, which is similar to adrenaline. Metoprolol helps the heart model itself after constant rhythm, whereas ephedrine would cause your heart to spike. You want your damaged heart to model itself after constant rhythm and get rid of the outliers, which would be caused by adrenaline.
I believe Metoprolol is causing me fatigue. I don’t take a lot of meds so there aren’t a lot of options to eliminate. I have to wean myself off this drug I’ve been taking for around four years. It’s not something you can just stop immediately. I tried that already. The results were not pleasant.

Five and a half years later I’m still trying to figure out my health. Overall I am doing pretty well for a guy who shouldn’t be here, but I am not going to stop trying to do more, be more involved.

The end result of my annual appointment – Dr. Kohl recognized my concern about my heart, my desire to change how I’m feeling, and we scheduled an echocardiogram in May.

I took a MOOC course in journalism. If you don’t know what a MOOC is, read this article I did in 2013 on CornNation.com. The course was offered by the Knight Center of Journalism at the University of Texas. The course was on Newsletter strategies for journalists. There were 3,200 people in the course from all over the world. Newspapers and individual journalists/writers are starting newsletters of all types everywhere. Platforms like Revue and Substack provide platforms for individuals to monetize.
I mention this because the way the journalists go about it is so different from authors.
Authors are constantly worried about their “reader magnet”, that they give away to get people to sign up for their newsletters. They engage in newsletter swaps and book mentions to gain more followers. A good percentage of them cannot fathom why their fans want to hear anything more from them than about writing and/or book deals.
Journalists don’t have reader magnets, don’t do newsletter swaps, and have a very hard time with monetizing themselves despite their industry being killed off left and right (see what I did there!). They are, however, very good at delivering information about their niche.
I am going to tend towards journalism in this newsletter. My interests will run toward surviving and thriving after trauma, my life, brains, and tech, particularly voice technology. Sports I will leave to CornNation.com.