Surviving a Heart Attack
On 4/15/16 I had a heart attack at Paulo Freire Freedom School – University, 30 minutes before dismissal on a Friday. We made a decision to call 911 sooner than later so as not to create a huge disruption in the school day and I was able to get myself upstairs with the help of Britta Homelvig, our front office manager, before students and teachers knew what was happening to their principal. An ambulance whisked me away from the school and within minutes from my first inkling that I was in cardiac arrest, cardiologists were inserting a catheter into my heart, releasing dye that would show them where there were blockages, and then opening the first of five stents within those arteries.
I could just as easily have decided to wait until all of the students had been dismissed and picked up before calling 911. I did not know then what I know now, namely, that time is critical for survival from a heart attack. According to hospital staff the short time span between detection and treatment may have saved my life.
Recovery from the heart attack has been swift as well. On the table, when the first stent was opened and blood began to move within that artery I could swear that I felt immediate relief and I even mentioned it to the team – but they said it was just the morphine. And later that first evening in ICU, they wanted me to lay flat for six hours but I felt more like jumping around – I actually felt better during that evening in ICU then I had at anytime during the past two years. They put two stents in that first day and another three on the following Monday. I was released from UMC on Wednesday 4/20/16, was walking on the Rillito by Sunday, 4/24/16 and returned to work at Paulo Freire by 5/2/16. I have lost about 20 pounds and I am feeling great. Not only have I survived a heart attack – I seem to be thriving! And not only that… the heart attack has moved me into what feels like a final, truly joyful stage in what has been a life-long struggle to fully recover from something far more terrible for me than a heart attack.
Surviving Childhood Abuse
Prince’s death was dominating the news when I returned home from the hospital and it seemed like his “When Doves Cry” was being played a lot the day after his death. I recalled when that song was first released in 1984, how at the time I had been touched by the connection Prince was making between the way lovers treat each other and the modeling their parents had provided them when they were children. The song was playing when a large package was delivered to our house. My sister Michelina had sent me a piece of art she had created – a collage of photos of children from all over the world with a photo of me as a young boy in the center, with a dove in my lap and another flying above me. She had also pasted letters spelling out, “The soul is healed by being with children” (a quote from Dostoyevsky) as a caption for the piece. When I opened the package and removed the contents I began to weep uncontrollably.
I am 63 years old and a survivor of domestic violence and child abuse at the hands of my father during the first twelve years or so of my life. I was not always aware that this had happened to me. In fact, apart from a recurring nightmare that haunted me as a younger man and my reluctance to have anyone or anything touch my neck (I hate wearing ties to this day) – I remained unaware of the abuse until my thirties.
Two different events in the early eighties thrust the reality into my consciousness that I was a victim of childhood abuse and put me on the road to recovery and healing:
First, at a routine medical check-up for our infant son, blood was discovered in his urine and doctors were concerned that there might be something wrong with his kidney. They asked us if there was any family history of kidney problems and I mentioned that my left kidney had been removed when I was 23 months old because of congenital kidney disease. They urged me to find out if there were any existent medical records or whether my mother could shed some light on what happened. I called her that day and without hesitation she said that there was no way my past kidney issues were related to her grandson’s kidney. She told me the ‘congenital kidney disease’ story was not the truth; that my kidney had been injured by my father, that they didn’t take me to the doctor right away, and that the emergency surgery was performed only after her mother, my grandmother, visited our family in California and insisted they take me to the hospital.
The second event occurred at around that same time period. My wife and I were seeing marriage therapists to get support for our marriage. My therapist was not a very skilled one but he did ask me to keep a dream journal in which I wrote down my recurring dream.
I am aboard an airplane bound for Argentina. The pilot announces over the intercom that a faceless man has taken over the United States of America. I feel a tremendous amount of anguish for my family back in the states and guilt for being on this flight and not with them at this important time. Suddenly I become aware that this faceless man is actually on the airplane. I turn my head to look behind and see him sitting two rows from me on the right. I turn my eyes quickly to the seat in front of me, my mind groping frantically for a plan of escape. I sense the faceless man rise from his seat and slowly move toward me. My body is paralyzed with fear as his huge hands clasped my throat and begin ruthlessly choking me. Powerful electrical energy surges through his hands into my neck. I feel I am losing consciousness. If I could only wake-up I might escape death at the hands of this monster. I struggle to open my eyes, to awaken from the surging, electrical strangulation. But as the images of airplane give way to bedroom ceiling it becomes immediately apparent that this faceless enemy has followed me here and is intent on finishing the job he had started in the dream. I cry out, “God help me!” and the choking stops.*
*By the way, the first time I had this dream I was 19, a freshman at the University of Utah and living at home. I walked out out of my bedroom and found my mom still awake at her sewing machine at 2:00 am (she would often function on less than 4 hours sleep a night). I told her the dream verbatim and the first words out of her mouth were: “Are you on drugs, Santo?!” I told her no, although during the previous two years since my father’s death when I was a junior in high school (after three years in a catatonic state in a Veterans hospital; during which time she went to the hospital everyday to visit and feed him dinner accompanied by one of her three oldest children – usually me) I had been using a lot of hallucinogenics. But this felt totally different; this felt so much bigger than me. It felt huge, catastrophic – even demonic. I told her I needed to take a break from everything including college and she told me, “You are going to be a bum!” I dropped out of college the next day and left home (hitchhiked to Spokane) the next week.
Eleven years later, after I first had the dream, here I was reading aloud the account in my dream journal to my therapist and when I finished he asked, “Have you ever considered that the faceless man is your father?”
Eleven years after that first dream night when I told my mom I was going to drop out and leave home and she had told me that I wouldn’t amount to anything… Eleven years after hitchhiking north to be with my best friend who was attending Gonzaga (the recurring dream following me there) and both of us leaving Spokane in search of life’s meaning… Eleven years after I had finally given up running from the dream and had embraced the age old explanation on a beach in Oregon that the faceless man was actually Satan and that Jesus was the answer…
Here I was being asked by my therapist to consider whether the faceless man was my father. For the past eleven years I had built my life around the narrative that the faceless man was Satan and that God had saved me from him and now my therapist was asking me to consider the possibility that my father was the faceless man of my dreams.
I called my brother that afternoon and told him about my sessions and how the therapist thought my faceless man dream had something to do with our father, he told me what he believed I already knew. He said that when I was around 12 our father had tried to strangle me to death. He said that my siblings had to pull him away from me or he would have killed me. This was complete news to me; I had absolutely no recollection of that experience. Apparently I had totally erased it from my memory. The revelation that the faceless man of my dreams was not Satan but my father, living deep in my psyche and returning at will to finish me off, was extremely unsettling. I felt like the entire foundation of meaning upon which I had built my life had collapsed.
The cornerstone of my life (the notion of a great struggle between Satan and God for my soul) had been removed. Unfortunately, the therapy sessions came to an unsatisfactory end as well. Both my wife and I began to question the ability of our respective therapists to understand our unique situation and bring us safely through. At about this time my wife got into a terrible automobile accident that almost took her life. However horrible the accident was (she broke her leg and fractured her jaw), it served as a powerful reminder to us that the love we had for each other and for our two beautiful children was enough of a foundation upon which to build the rest of our lives (I also felt a tremendous amount of guilt for ever contemplating divorce). So therapy was abandoned in 1981 as we created for ourselves a ten-year plan in which each of us would earn a college degree, get good jobs, and try to live happily-ever-after as a family.
About ten years later, our college/job goals achieved and normal life completely underway, the panic attacks began and bouts with depression. I decided to return to therapy when I realized that living with two middle school children and teaching at a middle school (in Denver) with students from seriously at risk families was triggering my own psyche’s memory of preadolescent trauma. I was experiencing classic post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms caused by experiences thirty years prior. My therapist put me on anti-depressants and we began the arduous task of deconstructing not just my meaning-making system but my very soul in an effort to find the core self, the inner-child, still hiding, still surviving as if my father’s hand prints were freshly imprinted upon his neck. Much work was done during those sessions in the 90’s and the endless moments in between that I will not describe here. ‘Little Santo’ found his voice and there was resolution and an experience of wholeness.
During the twenty or so years that have now past since the difficult work of deconstruction, I have experienced amazing moments of life and love. I have also made many mistakes and have hurt the people I have loved and who have loved me. The middle school I have helped create in Tucson with JoAnn has been a daily source of hope and joy. Preadolescence is a wonder and I have always been truly grateful to be able to work with them, to create a safe environment for them to learn and grow, and to unleash their amazing potential. And I have always thought in my heart that Paulo Freire was my way of reversing what had been done to me by giving this gift to other children.
But what I did not realize until now was that being with these children, the children of Paulo Freire Freedom School these last eleven years, was part of my healing. The school was not just a gift to others. The school community, so full of kindness and support and love, was a gift to me. I thought a long time about whether or not it was appropriate for me to share with everyone in this venue my story of recovery from child abuse. I decided to share because there might be even just one person out there who reads this and realizes that their inner turmoil has a source and (however arduous) healing and recovery is possible.
Thank you to all of the Paulo Freire community and to my friends and family. Your love and support has made all the difference between this heart attack thing being a huge bummer and it being a life transforming experience. You are in my heart!