Thursday, December 8, 2011

Uncle Michael's Lesson to Me

My late uncle Michael had very high blood pressure. Dangerously high.

Lest you jump to conclusions, Uncle M. was neither fat nor did he eat junk food. Throughout his life, he was extremely slim. Born in Poland at the turn of the 20th century, junk food did not exist. Even though he lived in Canada from the end of the 1960s to his death in 2006, he never changed his spartan eating habits: he ate no junk food (I don't think he even knew what the term meant) and subsisted on extremely plain, sometime bordering on horribly bland, food.

Uncle Michael did not drive and until he became too weak to walk at the end of his life, he took public transit or walked everywhere.

In many ways, Uncle Michael was a paragon of "healthy living" and indeed, he lived to a venerable age, dying just short of his 93rd birthday.

Yet, Uncle Michael had high blood pressure. Why?

Years before his death, this is what Uncle Michael told me:

"I realized," said he, "that if I didn't calm down, I would die."

Uncle Michael did not live an easy life. He was born in a small village in Poland just before World War 1. There was a great deal of upheaval during his first years of life. In fact, the family almost ended up in Siberia due to the political activities of the oldest son (there were 8 children in the family and Michael was the youngest).

Michael was also severely short-sighted but no one thought to fit him with glasses. He actually had a terrible run-in with a barbed wire fence as a child since he didn't see it early enough to avoid running into it.

A quiet, artistic soul, he nevertheless followed his family's wishes and went to study engineering in France in 1939. He did not speak a word of French, but learned the language through dogged determination and did become an engineer. Of course, his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. As a Jew, he spent the war years travelling around France, sleeping in different rooming houses almost every night and often less than one step ahead of the Gestapo and certain death. He owed his life to several righteous Gentiles he met along the way.

After the war, Michael continued to live and work in France. He thought he had lost his entire family during the Holocaust. My father found him in the late sixties and they were re-united in Canada. Two other sisters (one who had come to Canada, the other in Israel) also survived.

Despite his education and professional qualifications, Michael never managed to find work as an engineer in Canada. He did various things to earn a living and finally went back to his true love, art, in his retirement. He painted, drew and sculpted for many years. He also went back to learning Russian when already in his seventies. In all, he spoke six languages. I always spoke to him in French.

So, in sum, Uncle Michael did not have an easy life. He had good reason to suffer from the anxiety that was no doubt at the root of his high blood pressure. He needed outside help (aka medication) to deal with his blood pressure, but he also realized that he had to work with himself to keep his mind from killing his body. This is the lesson Uncle Michael taught me, although I have only come to realize it all too recently.

Over the past few weeks, I have come to understand the power of the mind-body connection and its relationship to my thyroid issues.

First, please be disabused of the idea that the thyroid is a benign little gland usually blamed for difficulties in losing weight. No! It's a powerhouse and when it goes out of balance (in my case, making me hyper) it can wreak havoc and sometimes kill.

There are a host of symptoms associated with being hyperthyroid (Graves disease) but the one that I did not know about threw my whole life into turmoil: extreme anxiety. Like Uncle Michael and like my older son (who has an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Michael), I have a strong tendency to catastrophize. I think back on things I have done (or not done) and go into paroxysms of regret. I think ahead to potential disasters and fixate on them, whether or not there is any possibility that they may occur and whether or not I have any control over whether they come to pass. Put this aspect of my character together with a thyroid that is hereditarily prone to becoming hyper and you have a recipe for disaster.

In short, I worried my thyroid over the edge, catastrophizing events that had occurred and events that I feared would occur, and then I became psychologically unhinged. All the comments I made on my work and my colleagues were true. It is a difficult environment and many of the people I work with are divas who fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. However, my generally anxious nature, which helped to bring on the relapse of Graves disease and which then fed the flames of the Graves disease to the nth degree led me to the brink of a professional crisis that did not have to happen.

Recently, Uncle Michael's words about calming down suddenly resounded again in my brain.

Yes, I most certainly did need medication (and I'm still on it, BTW). I was physically in a dangerous situation. But I also realized that it was time to go within and confront my anxious mind and my catastrophizing ways. That is what I have started doing.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of the saga!

BIG P.S. I have heard from two readers who can't leave comments on this blog. If this is the case for you too, please leave me a message at ima.canuck at hotmail dot com. I'm looking into the problem.


  1. This man's life story sound absolutely remarkable. Not many people have stories like this that they can hear first or second hand. Very uplifting; very sad. But it sounds like he was such a wise soul and lived his life to the best of his ability.
    You know I've written umpteen times about my anxiety and how I must gain control over it. This is another great lesson as to why I am trying to head in that direction on the straight and narrow path. It's the only way. Thank you for sharing this story.

  2. This is so insightful of you. I can't tell you how important it is to target those feelings of anxiety and stress which surround your diagnosis. Its intersting to know that just calming down, and confronting it from a different angle can actually manage it. Just like your wise uncle said. Great lesson learned here. thanks so much

  3. The link between anxiety, stress and our physical health is one major reason why I am cutting down on my work as a pharmacist - and trying to work as a hypnotherapist and reiki practitioner because both as so good at helping people deal better with stress and anxiety. Drugs DO have a place - and you are so right to realise you need whatever you are on to slow down your thryoid. But you are also right to look at how you can better deal with stress and anxiety. Antidepressanst and tranquillisers are NOT the answer!

  4. I've been away awhile. Dropping in.

    Wow. Sounds like you are approaching this bear with wisdom and caution. Uncle Michael is a good model and metaphor, but you have a slog ahead. Prayers with you, friend.