The Take-Out

Life can be hard to digest

The Take-Out

There's probably no more effective impetus for changing one's life choices than being yelled at by a paramedic for failing to properly vomit. Since having a heart attack in 2014, I have wound up in the ER several times complaining of chest pain and weakness. They were all false alarms, but this Saturday felt more intense. I was pretty sure that whatever I was feeling was a direct result of SXSW excess, but when it comes to me living, "pretty sure" doesn't cut it. And nodding off into a barf bag didn't seem to bode well for my overall prognosis.

Once I made it to St. David's, it turned out there were high levels of cardiac enzymes in my blood. Later in my stay, I failed a stress test. I didn't have another heart attack, but both results were enough for the doctors to want to perform a catheterization, and that was enough to give me pause. Temporarily, at least. Minutes after being released from the hospital, I busied myself in the process of forgetting what just happened, shoving down a fistful of Whataburger fries. I suppose it was only natural to gravitate toward the worst thing I could think of after half a week of eating St. David's "heart healthy" diet, but advisable is an entirely other thing. The immediacy of pleasure has always been an inescapable torrent. I suspect I share that with a great many people in the hospitality industry. The same mindset that finds near bliss in a perfectly cooked porchetta is likely to seek out other thrills. Tales of chef misbehavior now fill the cultural vacancy that Seventies Rolling Stone tour diaries used to, both writ large in memoir and carried from ear to ear as gossip. It's no secret that where there is a thriving culinary scene, there is also a thriving drug culture. It's no secret that last call doesn't really put an end to drinking.

I'm certainly not a stranger to that. My oldest friends have all seen my jaw grind and my newest friends have all seen me stumble from one parting shot. I'm lucky that all that partying didn't result in rehab or worse. There always seemed to be a built-in stop, even when I was stuffing wet toilet tissue up my nose to get the last desperate jolt from a bump.

But there was never a stop from the daily itch for fat and salt. Only a quick metabolism (and a whole lot of smoking) hid anything it might be doing to my body. My cardiologist doesn't blame my troubles on poor diet, but I'm sure the quarter stick of butter I used on my toast this morning would at least raise an eyebrow.

Back in 2014, I wrote about my then attempt at eating better, at finding the pleasure in leaves and seeds. It obviously didn't stick. A year and a half later, I weigh almost 20 pounds more and plaque still tenaciously clings to my arteries. My heart stopping was not enough to permanently change how I eat. The latest scare already feels like a mere blip.

But at least now I am thinking about it. Regardless of how I felt, or the underlying tension and fear, it was always easier to just slip into avoidance. But now I am at least forced to mull over whether what I want to have is hindered by what I have. I don't know that answer. I can't imagine living without some pleasures, and change – even dietary – is always coupled by fear. Life, as it turns out, is hard to digest. But there's still plenty that I need to swallow.

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St. David's Medical Center

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