Telling the Story of My Heart.
I was born with a heart condition, and for years I was ashamed of this fact.
In fact, I spent most of my life trying to conceal it.
What is it like to keep a secret like this? For me, it looked something like being at camp, taking a swim class, and trying to keep my head above water. I wasn’t unhealthy, but I didn’t quite have the capabilities the others did. I couldn’t tread water for minutes at a time. I had difficulty keeping up.
I remember feeling exhausted, feeling ashamed.
When I was 20 years old, I got a pacemaker. This was a good thing. It made me stronger, more capable. And while it was a hard thing to accept (who wants a piece of metal in their chest and wires in their heart?) I was grateful for the strong and steady heartbeat it provided.
Still, the pacemaker didn’t make the shame go away. It was an electronic emblem of the thing that always made me feel different, or awkward, or not enough.
The fact is, even though I was willing to be a grown-up and get the surgery and move on with life, I still had some beliefs hanging around.
Deep down, I still believed I was weak. Deep down, I believed I was physically limited. Deep down, I still believed mine was a private, kind-of-shameful story. For the most part, I kept it to myself.
And then, one day, I was offered a chance to tell my story at a local speaking event. And I took it.
I got on stage and told the hundred-plus people in the audience the story of my heart. How it felt growing up. How it felt to get a pacemaker. How it felt to keep my story inside. And this honest truth: that sometimes it’s easy to love my heart, and sometimes it’s not.
Two amazing things happened after that.
The first: a sense of freedom. A wall, that had seemed to exist between the world and me, came down. I emailed the host the next day, and told him that I felt lighter and joyful. I could tell that something important had happened.
That in itself was pretty awesome, but what happened next, over the coming years, was even more amazing. It was something that I never expected.
Those long-held beliefs of weakness and shame stopped being truth, and started being stories. And as a writer, editor and lifelong storyteller, this I know: any story can be rewritten.
I realized: maybe I could rewrite these stories just like I could rewrite any other rough draft.
With this in mind, I started to do things a little bit differently. That’s why I wound up wandering into an old school gym and starting to train with a coach and personal trainer named Stephanie.
I never considered myself athletic. Sure, I ran, hiked and enjoyed the outdoors, but I tended to think of myself like that little girl treading water. I thought there was lots I couldn’t do. I thought I was limited.
I never questioned these beliefs until working with my coach. Shortly into our work together, Stephanie — not knowing the significance of the words she was about to say — told me, “You’re an athlete now, and I want you to start thinking like an athlete.”
For years I’d held on to the story that I wasn’t an athlete, but in that moment, I realized this was a story I could rewrite.
I could test new waters, so to speak.
Steph introduced me to weightlifting, and with my new mindset, I didn’t say No. But I remembered another story: a doctor had once mentioned, in an offhand sort of way, that people with pacemakers can’t lift heavy weights.
For over a decade I had accepted this story without a second thought. But now, I was becoming an athlete. So I decided to look again.
I went to a different cardiologist and told him the things that I wanted to do. Boxing, powerlifting, Olympic-tyle weightlifting… I wanted to work hard and lift heavy.
I asked him, “Is all of that okay?”
The doctor looked at me and said, “Camille, there are no ‘don’ts’.”
The next day, I prepared to do a front squat for the first time, with the bar across my chest, sitting on my clavicle. The bar pushed against my pacemaker, just enough to remind me it was there.
I realized the bar was rubbing up against this old story about what I could and couldn’t do. I could feel the echo of that little girl, struggling to tread water. And I could feel the pacemaker. But I didn’t feel any pain and, for once, I didn’t feel any limits.
I let go of that old story then and there.
I did the squat. Put the bar back in the rack. I played it cool — a little smile across my face. But back in the dressing room, when training was done for the day, I rejoiced.
I did a ridiculous, full-on happy dance.
As if I was eight years old again. As if I was free.
Camille DePutter is an author, speaker, and advocate for everyone who has a story inside them. Camille runs Storytelling with Heart, a communications business that helps people share their stories with the world. Her book, Share Your Story, is a workbook designed to help people practice personal storytelling for self-empowerment.