When I was growing up, my relationship to my asthma entirely shaped my relationship to my body. My body was something that had to be constantly monitored for any sign of symptoms. It had to be regulated and controlled. My body wasn’t a part of me, it was a setting–it was a dangerous situation that I had been placed in for unknown reasons; a house in the path of a hurricane.
My asthma has always been primarily triggered by animals–dogs in particular–and my grandmother used to have a little pug named Sandy. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I would go with my siblings to my grandmother’s house every other weekend to visit my dad there. These visits were a source of constant dread to me. At six years old, I would clutch tight my zip-lock baggie filled with prescription pills, my Advair discus, liquid and aerosol albuterol, the long plastic tubes attached to the soft plastic mask that I would put on my face every four hours, plugged into that loud, humming nebulizer that pumped the clouds of vaporized medicine into my mouth.No one ever commented on my mechanical monstrousness as I sat attached to that machine. No one said a word as I sat uncomfortably close to the TV so that the nebulizer’s plug would reach, drowning out the songs of the Disney musicals with its incessant, droning hum. But I felt the silence. I felt the inconvenience of my presence. When I was older, I would shut myself in a bedroom to avoid that inconvenience; to avoid imposing my treatment on my family. I learned early on that my asthma was my problem. Dad would sporadically ask me if I’d taken my inhaler, but I don’t think that he even knew half the medications I was on. I was the one entrusted with the long note from my doctor, telling me what to do if X, Y or Z happened:
•2 puffs of albuterol every 4 hours
•If peak flow drops below 100, go on neb
•If neb doesn’t work, 1 tablet prednisone with every meal
•If all else fails, call this number
If, if, if. It’s amazing how loaded a little two-letter conjunction can be. The unspoken implication: these medications might not work. The idea that not only my body might fail me, but that medicine might fail me as well was a lot to handle at 6 years old. I remember keenly the sense of isolation I felt. I felt stranded and alone in my body; I felt incapable of protecting myself from it. Asthma is so common that it has become very normalized in public discourse, but I don’t know if most people know exactly how scary it is–that stony panic that I would feel when my throat would slowly begin to close off. It’s painful. It feels as though your lungs have been wrapped tightly with wool–with each inhale, the resistant fibers cut into your expanding lungs as they are forced to stretch. Breathing gets exhausting. You have to move with the rhythm of your breath to try to maximize each inhale. My back will be sore for days after an attack because of the way I have to contort my body–the way I have to pull my shoulders forward and arch my back to make room for my lungs to expand.
But, at least when I was growing up, my instinctual fear of asthma was always competing with my fear of being a bother. That is why, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I allowed my mom to put me to bed even when I knew that I was in bad shape. That is why I laid there and waited as my asthma grew steadily worse (even after using my inhaler), waking my sister only at the point when I could barely get the words “I… Can’t… Breathe” out in short little pants. Only when my mom had to rush me to the hospital. While it may seem silly that I ever let it get to that point, it did not seem silly then. Although people were always kind and sympathetic about my asthma, it felt shameful to me. It was a weakness. And in succumbing to that weakness, I felt that I was letting the people around me down. I was an imposition on my mother and siblings who had to worry about me and help me when things got bad; on my friends, who felt guilty when their pets made me sick. I even felt like a burden to my doctors–like I was letting them down every time something went wrong.
While I won’t paint some rosy picture for you here and pretend that I have come to embrace my asthma as an integral part of me, it has made me a stronger and more self-reliant person. But it has also given me a strange perspective on my body. I feel both keenly in tune with it, and irreconcilably separate from it. I have learned to listen closely to my body, to notice when things are wrong, and to pay attention to what it is telling me. But I have learned to do that with a sort of analytic detachment. I have come to see my body as separate from myself–as a machine that is constantly on the verge of breaking down. But, while this interpretation was certainly an important coping mechanism for me when I was a child, I’m finding that this mode of thinking is no longer useful to me. I’m tired of feeling like a victim of the circumstance that is my body. So, although unlearning a lifetime of bodily dissociation techniques may well be a daunting task, it’s one that I’ll be working at every day. Because this is my body. And sure, it may be flawed–it may ache, and wheeze, and moan–but it is also capable of doing some pretty amazing things. So why not enjoy it while it lasts?