Bad Habits

My father had a heart attack when he was thirty-six. I don’t remember this; I was born a month later.

He didn’t die, but my life was changed as a result. Until I went away to college, I had never eaten pork, only tasted butter in restaurants, and didn’t know that ice cream was supposed to have cream in it.

My father was a formula for sudden death: he was a heavy smoker, overweight, with a stressful job.

My own habits are exemplary. My blood is not. The same sludge that stopped my father’s heart is traveling through my vessels.

When oatmeal became the magic food, I’d already been keeping the Quaker guy in business for years. My MBT’s have been resoled five times. I’ve never smoked. My blood pressure is low. I wear a size six and can outrun some of my students. And I take statins.

My numbers are still high.

How is this fair? The guy with his gut hanging over his belt, the one who eats french fries every day and can’t walk down the hall without sweating — his cholesterol is lower than mine. I love french fries. The last time I had them was four months ago. It’s not fair.

Being born a woman is an advantage — but heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. And for us, very often the first sign of trouble is a heart attack. In the last two years, three women I know have had heart attacks. One of them died. She was my age.

Bad habits?

I admit that sugar is my favorite food group. But my blood sugar is low, so that shouldn’t matter, right? I don’t get along with artificial sweeteners — they’re basically laxatives, anyway. With all that oatmeal, I don’t need it.

I don’t eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day. But I don’t see a lot of other people doing this either. Who makes up these rules, anyway? I think it must be the same ‘they’ that decided eight glasses of water a day are necessary, probably the bottled-water industry.

My most serious vice is alcohol. I drink… more than I should. I think about giving it up — but I’ve given up everything else. Can’t I keep one vice?

Recently I read an article that made me feel better. It turns out that a drink a day actually protects against heart disease. And alcohol is good for cleaning stuff. They swab my arm with it before they draw blood. I think there’s alcohol in Listerine, too. That prevents plaque from building up on my teeth, so it should work on the plaque in my arteries, too. In my imagination, alcohol is scrubbing the sludge from my vessels.

Even chocolate is supposed to be good for us now. Along with the aspirin I’m supposed to carry at all times, I pack a Lindt bar. I’ll chew my aspirin, eat the chocolate while I wait for the ambulance.

I go though my daily routine carrying the illusion that my body is what my mind tells it to be, and don’t know what to do when I get bad news. The mirror says, “Nice job, body. Keep up the good work!” Beneath the surface, my liver is silently manufacturing enough cholesterol for several people.

Pain is the body’s way of getting the brain’s attention. Clearly, a heart attack hurts. Couldn’t my heart warn my brain a little sooner?

I can do everything right and still have a heart attack. Or a stroke, or cancer. I could get hit by a bus, for that matter. I’m pretty sure joggers get hit by buses more often that couch potatoes do.

There are studies, statistics, anecdotes to inform every choice I make. Eventually the internet will accumulate enough evidence to affirm any decision I make. I will find a reason to keep my bad habits.

For the time being, though, I’ll try to keep a few good habits going. And now, it’s oatmeal time.


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