Monday, March 2, 2015

Breathing

Excerpt from an as-of-yet named essay about asthma & trauma: 


Me at 9

Last weekend, I saw a doctor for allergies for the first time in my life. For two hours, he quizzed me about my symptoms, gave me supremely uncomfortable allergen tests which resulted in an eruption of red, itchy bumps along my arm, and interrogated me about my asthma. How often do you use the emergency inhaler? He asked me. He tsked when I told him the answer: every day. Your asthma isn't under control, he said. We need to be more aggressive. He gave me a steroid inhaler, a prescription for anti-inflammatory medication, and told me sternly to follow his directions. 

For years, I've resisted asthma treatments that could have helped me without fulling registering what I was doing or why. I would start a prescription and take it intermittently before stopping altogether. Sometimes I said it was because of the cost. Sometimes I said it didn't work, so I stopped taking it. But really, I never tried. I see now that I resisted these things because deep down, I believed that I should be able to breathe normally, that my asthma was something that I should be able to control myself, and that it wasn't real in the way that other illnesses were. No, scratch that: it wasn't real in the way that other people's illnesses were. 

I can't remember when I first noticed tightness in my chest or when I got my first Primatene Mist inhaler. My asthma is a constant in my memory. I can viscerally remember the feel of the beige Primatene Mist bottle nestled in my palm, that pliable plastic coating covering a class bottle that might shatter if I dropped it on the pavement.  I had dropped mine a couple of times, which was always a small tragedy: it wasn't likely I'd be getting another one any time soon. That inhaler was precious: just seeing released the tightness a notch. 

Not only could my parents not often afford the inhaler, but my mother did not believe that my asthma was real. She had the idea that I was pretending to get attention and to "get high," something I tried to explain was not the case (if anything, the inhaler made me feel awful: my heart beat quickly and I shook, often violently). She was not convinced. She made me drink tea when I struggled to breathe (she was, and is, convinced that all "alternative" treatments are superior to Western medical treatments) and blamed me for not giving it enough time when it didn't work. Sometimes it takes days for these things to work, she told me. You are impatient. 

My breathing only got worse. I remember gym classes, in particular, as a constant struggle. Not only did I struggle to breathe, but I felt awkward performing physically in front of my peers. As I struggled to get my next breath after initial warm-ups, I waited in line to, inevitably, be called last for teams, occasionally with the unlucky team captain showing visible disappointment that they were saddled with me. I couldn't serve a volleyball. I couldn't keep track of the ball in soccer. I never hit a single ball in baseball. Dodgeball was a terrifying exercise in controlled bullying--where else were you allowed to hit whoever you wanted to over and over again? I don't know if my asthma was the reason for my hesitance and timidity in sports or if that developed after, but before long, I started to passively resist gym class. I refused to participate and read novels in the bleachers. 

I have asthma, I told the gym teacher. She asked for a doctor's note. I didn't have one. I'd never seen a doctor before. I just knew I couldn't breathe. 

When I was fifteen, I got pneumonia over the summer. How I got pneumonia in the summer, I will never know, but after two weeks of no medical care, I struggled constantly. The muscles in my stomach and chest ached from the work it took to breathe. I could barely walk. I stayed in bed in my pajamas, unable to get dressed. I had nothing for treatment: my inhaler had run out and my mother was taking one of her sporadic stands against my Primatene Mist use. 

Take Benadryl instead, she told me. It's just your allergies. Just calm down. It's all in your head. I took the Benadryl, which made me sleepy and did nothing for my breathing. 

I can't sleep, I told her. I'm afraid I'll stop breathing. 

You'll feel better when you wake up, she told me. 

I got the feeling that my illness annoyed her. When I was eleven, I'd had a long bout of bronchitis that kept me out of school for two weeks and culminated with me camped out in a sleeping bag on the floor next to the iron woodstove, coughing blood into unmatched socks (we had run out of toilet paper) and shivering violently. 

Get off the floor, she told me. You aren't that sick. 

I couldn't get up, though. I have another memory from this time, though, one of the sweetest memories I have of my mother. I remember her coming in from a drive into town. I opened my eyes at the sound of her voice saying my name. Beyond her shoulder, the television was on, showing footage of the Branch Davidian standoff, before the flames began. Shhh, she told me, her voice soft. She was holding a glass of orange juice. 

She believes me, I thought. She believes I'm sick. I felt a physical wave of relief: her belief was like a drug, it soothed me. After a while, even I had started to doubt myself (and how could I not? The person who had once arranged my entire experience did not believe me.). 

I still felt a shadow of doubt at fifteen, even as I curled up on a couch and struggled to stay awake because I was afraid of dying. 

But my pneumonia did not clear up. My breathing became so labored that I could not stand without assistance. 

I have to go to the emergency room, I told her. She helped me put on my clothes and brought me to the car, where we drove thirty minutes to Wilburton, the closest hospital, and I was admitted for two days. They put me in a children's room. The walls were painted with clowns, balloons, and zoo scenes. What I remember most about that hospital was a great feeling of relief: they believed me enough to put oxygen through my nose and antibiotics in my veins. I had feared that I would get there and they would say, like my mother, that I was exaggerating. I spent my days in bed, mostly alone, reading magazine after magazine. I loved it. 

I don't write about this simply to make an account of parental bad behavior. I'm realizing more and more how aspects of my experience that I've considered "normal" are unnecessarily saddled with shame and self-doubt. When I get sick, I feel not only physically awful, but also ashamed. There's a relief in realizing this and knowing I don't have to feel that way anymore. But still, there's that voice, always. It says doubt. I am trying not to listen to it. 

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