The next day, Sunday, June 6th, was exactly one week since I lost my breath during the unfinished one-one one basketball game with Andres at the barbecue at Kim and Miguel’s house. As president of the school board, the week was an unusually busy one with graduation ceremonies, academic award nights, and after-school sports banquets. I wasn’t getting much sleep.
Stress and anxiety dominated my mind since waking up on Sunday morning. The next week would be critical in George’s effort to secure parks funding and my effort to keep after-school sports intact for another year, not to mention the ongoing A-G debate. The tension from my parents’ estate intensified. I hung up on one of my brothers in anger and frustration.
On top of all that, a disgruntled former district administrator, the most viable opponent in my fall election, had aligned himself over the weekend with the teacher’s union that resisted the A-G Initiative.
My mind was swirling, my skin was warm and clammy, my upper chest and throat were uncomfortable, and my shoulders were heavy. The Peralta family gathered at a Dave & Buster’s restaurant to celebrate Andres’ birthday. With its large room of carnival and arcade games, Dave & Buster’s was a perfect place to have a kid’s party and to escape from my racing brain.
At the arcade, Pancho challenged me to a free throw contest to see who could make the most baskets in one minute. For sure this would take my mind off of the multitude of thoughts racing through it. When the timer started and the arcade machine released the basketballs, Pancho and I began a frantic pace to make as many free throws as possible in the short time span. When time ran out, I emerged victorious, but had a hard time catching my breath.
The pressure in my throat was more intense and my shoulders were so heavy that I sat on a stool next to a pinball machine hunched over trying to regain composure. When I caught my breath, I worked on the breathing and relaxation exercises I had learned to manage stress and anxiety. I felt better the rest of the day even though the challenges that lied ahead at work, and in my political and personal life, continued to monopolize my thoughts.
I believed that the symptoms causing my discomfort were due to an impending anxiety attack and I was using the techniques to manage it. However, something entirely different was happening inside my body. The fatty and greasy meals my mom made when I was a boy transitioned into the typical American twenty-something fast-food diet. Add a genetic pre-disposition to high cholesterol and heart disease, and the result is plaque build-up in the arteries that began at a young age.
By my early 30s, due to my parents’ pre-mature heart attacks, I began exercising regularly and trying to eat as healthy as possible, although I was inconsistent at managing a healthy diet. Nonetheless, I ate better as an adult than as a kid. At 46 years old, my arteries surely were hardening due to genetics and years of a high fat diet. The intense workouts were keeping my heart pumping and blood flowing, so thoughts of a heart attack were far from my mind.
There was another interesting phenomenon that could have been happening inside of me. The constant state of high stress and my tendency for anxiety were causing the hormones and chemicals in my body to keep me in a perpetual state of “fight or flight.” This was exhibited by the steady churning in my stomach, frequent jolts of acute alertness, and the subsequent need to catch my breath.
For decades, researchers have studied the correlation between stress and heart disease and the conclusions have been consistent – stress leads to a poor diet, lack of sleep and exercise, and high blood pressure. Recent research has also made a connection with high levels of steady stress and a sudden heart attack. According to these studies, the chemical reaction in the body that produces the “fight or flight” sensation causes the blood to start thickening and clotting in preparation for a blow to the body that could result in an injury inflicted during a physical altercation. In other words, the body is getting ready for a fight and protects itself from potential excessive bleeding.
Since my return to college and subsequent entrance into the world of career-building and redemption, my body had been in a perpetual state of alertness. During the first six months of 2010, that high level of stress my body had experienced for more than two decades had intensified many times over. For sure the blood that flowed through my body had thickened and clotted with every crisis I confronted as it squeezed through the narrow openings of plaque-filled arteries.
To read past excerpts of “Summer in the Waiting Room” click here: https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/