I Guess I Can Do It With a Literal Broken Heart

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The other week, I felt like Taylor Swift.

No, I haven’t been in the recording studio writing an album, touring the globe, or raking in dough. I wasn’t shimmering in a body suit or performing to millions of fans. I didn’t break Spotify records with The Tortured Poets Department. Instead, I filled the holes in my busy week by listening and dancing to “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” over and over again, claiming the track as my own.

Whenever I’m in a rotten head space, I lose myself to the music. Whether there are people around or not, I dream of flouncing around a dance floor on my wedding day or performing in front of a stadium to thousands of fans. It’s therapy, the light at the end of my day, and often, what I look forward to the most: a 10 P.M. dance break.

This past December, when I was in Los Angeles for our annual Women in Hollywood event, I ended one particularly stressful day with a tango. I strutted through my hotel room in my black, tiny underwear and took a few minutes to perform my greatest living room hits, culminating with “Breathless,” by the Corrs.

I started dancing, hitting each body roll and ass shake, giving the performance of a lifetime. Then, at the end of the song, I pumped my hand into the sky like I was holding a microphone. A sharp pain shot across my chest and body. Within a matter of seconds, my tour came to an end. I was on my bed, almost immobile and worried about what I had just done. The pain slowly subsided. I drifted off to sleep and hoped the next day would bring healing.

The following morning, I thought all was fixed. I went to a boxing class, hit a punch, and the pain came right back. I convinced myself I was having a heart attack. I looked up the symptoms on WebMD, talked with some coworkers, and then thought it was all over. I tracked down the nearest hospital, called my family, and tried to talk it through with a provider on the phone. After my anxiety came down, and I got some professional advice, I realized it was most likely a pull. I decided to power through. I could still move.

I went through the rest of that week in Los Angeles assisting with our event with a dull pain in my chest. When I got back to New York, my primary care provider confirmed my suspicions: I had pulled a muscle. It would take some time to heal. He still wanted to run an electrocardiogram (EKG) to be safe.

After being hooked up to the machine as if I were a science experiment, my doctor came back. He recommended I see a cardiologist as soon as possible. I had pulled my chest, but something else was, in fact, wrong.

Six doctor’s appointments, two weeks on a heart monitor, and an ultrasound later, I was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW). Essentially, I have an extra pathway in my heart where signals sometimes travel. My resting heart rate can skyrocket to 200 beats per minute. When not treated properly, WPW can lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death in children and young adults.

I’d feel a heftier heart rate when I had anxiety or was listening to fast-paced music. … I had convinced myself that was something everyone experienced. They told me it was not.”

Every doctor I saw asked if I felt this high heart rate. I commented that I did, but I thought it was normal. I’d feel a heftier heart rate when I had anxiety or was listening to fast-paced music. I’d quickly lose my breath while running or feel pressure in my chest at my weekly Barry’s classes. I had convinced myself that was something everyone experienced. They told me it was not. Some patients don’t catch this condition until they’re elderly; apparently I was lucky I caught it now. We could fix it with a simple surgery, an ablation, which had a 96 percent success rate. I said yes to the procedure, and we got a date on the calendar.

The night before the surgery, I couldn’t help but play a mental supercut of the moments in my life that had made me pause, moments that made me, in reference to the song that caused me to catch the problem, breathless. I thought about the gorgeous weddings I’d attended. I thought about hearing the overture of Merrily We Roll Along played by a full orchestra for the first time. I thought about kissing a beautiful boy with cherry lips under a disco ball. I thought about the devastating end of The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and when Parvati, Cirie, Amanda, and Natalie convinced Erik to give up individual immunity on Survivor. I thought about a recent meet cute and my first bite of the crab rangoon pizza at Fong’s in Des Moines, Iowa. I thought about my night at MetLife Stadium at Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. I thought about seeing my dad cry when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl. I thought about my mom caucusing in 2016 to support her politically active son and the year I won my family’s annual Christmas board game competition. I thought about the first time seeing my name on the masthead or in a byline in ELLE Magazine. I thought about my roommate Alex, who helped me through every doctor’s appointment and was slated to go with me to the surgery the following day. I thought about my other friends who offered to take care of me, too. I thought about every single person I loved.

And then, I had the surgery. It seemed to go well. I scheduled a follow-up.

Just a few days before The Tortured Poets Department dropped, I went into my doctor for the final A-OK. I had felt better, and I was convinced the surgery worked. He told me it did not. It would take a second surgery to fix. I was in the 4 percent.

When Taylor dropped “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” just days after I received the news I would once again have to go under the knife, I felt like she was speaking directly to me. “Lights, camera, bitch, smile!” became my mantra; I so often hide my personal struggles, in this case, a literal broken heart, and move along with my day. Just in the last three weeks I have attended the WNBA draft, written many stories (including a print feature on Normani), seen 15 Broadway shows, and gone to the gym nearly every day with a smile. However, inside, I’m worrying about health.

I may not be performing in front of millions of fans, but Taylor’s ability to create music that’s relatable while speaking about her extraordinary situations is unmatched. To learn that even the world’s biggest pop star has powered through her own private battles made me feel more connected to her. Many of my colleagues and friends, each carrying on with their own silent struggles, have commented how this song has been their recent anthem, and it’s become a standout topic on social media.

To learn that even the world’s biggest pop star has powered through her own private battles made me feel more connected to her.”

We shuffle along to the beats of many drums. We are sometimes asked for more and we do it, all while haunted by paralyzing thoughts, yearning for a break and sleep. Internally we are miserable, but we peddle forward. It’s a side effect of the human condition. Of course, we need to take time for ourselves too, but I have gotten through my most challenging moments, terrifying times, and biggest heartbreaks by picking myself up and forcing myself to get back out there. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

I have to remind myself often that little Sam would be in awe of me right now. He would be astounded by all I’m accomplishing and the shows I’ve attended. Little Sam would love my unabashed queerness and my recent body confidence. But he wouldn’t be able to handle my very full plate: health complications, boy problems, and a sometimes challenging (but also rewarding) career. I’m sure little Taylor would feel the same way about big Taylor right now too.

So yes, I guess I can really do it with a literal broken heart. Taylor and I have that in common. I have my second surgery in late May. Hopefully, in June, Taylor’s song will remind me of a time when I was stronger than I had ever been before.

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