Under pressure

I woke this morning to find a friend from Perth had left me a message in the early hours of the morning. He’d just been to see a new movie, he explained – The Professor, starring Johnny Depp – and something about it had reminded him of me. There was a note of concern in his message I thought, though the words were straight-forward. He asked if I was okay.

Up to this morning, I would have replied that I was well enough, not great but getting by. It was funny timing getting his message because this morning I was awake at six knowing something was wrong.

The first time I woke up, it was at about 3am, and my breathing came hard. Given my nose now blocks most nights and the frequent chest infections I have that’s not unusual in itself, except on this occasion there was another cause. Every twitch, every slight shift, every movement I made set my heart racing and I found almost that I couldn’t breathe fast enough. That lasted for a while, and even after I’d fallen asleep then woken up early, I felt some residue of it, though it had settled.

For the last couple of years, one of the things I do on waking is to check my heart-rate. All throughout it’s been between 70 and 80 bpm. About two weeks ago it jumped and hadn’t come down since. It hasn’t been less than 90 bpm since.

Then I consider my blood pressure. Ever since I can remember, it was always 120/80. Like clockwork. Then, about 7-8 months ago, it jumped to something like 150/95. In all the readings since it hasn’t fallen below 140/80, and it got as high as 170/95 at one stage. I’m now temporarily on medication to control it.

The thing is, there’s no apparent reason why these have jumped. I have a few niggles here and there and had a minor case of fatty liver, but otherwise, I’m physically powerful and relatively fit.

As I do, I’ve read up on these things, and there was nothing I could really trace back as being a cause. There was one, stress, which is a leading cause of high blood pressure, but which I dismissed. The narrative goes I’m not a stress carrier, and in my mind, I always pictured people suffering from stress as being harried, overwrought characters barely keeping their head above water. Even in the worst of times – and there have been some shockers – I was never like that.

Regardless, there’s no doubt I’ve endured stressful events – homelessness for one, near bankruptcy, and, even now, work. Stress manifests differently in me. By nature, I’m anything but passive, and so I react robustly. I seek to do things, to change things. I want to get my hands on the wheel and wrench it the other way. I’m clever, and it sometimes comes out in wit that can be pretty corrosive. I can’t let things take their course without looking to intervene, which adds to the problem – because mostly there’s little I can do. And so the frustration builds.

That’s my situation to a T at work. I returned to work on Wednesday, feeling pretty motivated. Within half an hour I’d checked in on work and projects I’m involved in to check how they’d progressed. The answer was that they’d progressed not one whit, because either the person who needed to make a decision hadn’t (no-one makes decisions anymore), or because somebody had derailed the process for their own ends, or simply because everyone was so disorganised and confused or timid that nothing could be done.

If it was just on this occasion I might have rolled my eyes and groaned, but it’s invariably the case, and very quickly my good mood had turned sour. It was worse because there was nothing I could do, because, for reasons I can only conjecture, I’m precluded from doing the things I’m trained for, and best positioned to do. My professional frustration is longstanding and bitter.

This then, I finally realised, was probably a serious cause of my health issues.

As I walked around this morning doing my shopping, I realised there was another part of it I hadn’t considered. I’ve always been existentially restless. In the past, I managed that by travelling. I sought authentic experience and to immerse myself in real things foreign to my own culture. I wanted to look and learn and understand. I sought to feel. It was sufficient to get some of that existential angst out of my system, but now it’s built up again.

This is not something I’ve been able to do for many years because I can’t afford it. Even when times were good, I understood the simple lives we led were constrained. We live in boxes from which we occasionally venture. I’ve been aware for years now how small my life has become, and I’ve endured it on the premise that one day it would be different. I’ve been fortunate that my writing gave me an outlet. If I couldn’t venture physically from my box then here at least intellectually I could for a short distance.

All of this has now come to a head, I feel. With my health suffering, I have to ask what my options are? Obviously, the top priority is a new job, but that’s been a priority for a while without result. I can’t go on where I am, but nor can I go on without something.

I think a better job and more money would make a significant difference. It would relieve the pressure, give another outlet, and cash would give me options not currently available to me – such as travel. I’m positive my health would greatly improve.

The settings in me are different now than they were before I was homeless. Life can seem a game when things are good, but once you’ve experienced the strain of survival, you realise how precarious everything is. In a way it frees you up. I was always the swashbuckling type, but with a wink and a nod. These days it’s more grim. I have no time for petty indulgence. I see in curves and angles, in 3D, but I act in straight lines. I’m still as generous and kind as I ever was, but I’m also more blunt. And deep inside me is this yearning to express myself, in every medium and perspective. I feel bound though, struggling against ties, I could break if I chose to, but afraid of the outcome if I do. I don’t live naturally.

After my friend’s message, I looked up the movie he was referring to. It’s about a professor who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and abruptly changes his ways, living for the moment and opening up. I could understand my friend’s allusion. I had broken free of my shame last year and opened up, and it was a liberating experience. Now it seems a job part done – I need to go further.

For now, I must mind my health. There’s little I can do about work this moment, but I can live more healthily. That seems my only option, and from here on in, until I get better, that’s what I’ll do. And I might look to see my old doctor, the doctor I trust.

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