For the first couple of years of school I didn’t go out to play at recess. Instead I went and sat in the sick bay and breathed deeply into a face mask. Every day my mum would drive to school and sit with me. There was this little machine which I’m fairly sure is called a Ventilator. You feed it little vials of liquid and it produces thick, moist air which gushes into your lungs.
I always thought my asthma was mild. Other kids seemed to have it a lot worse. It wasn’t long before recesses were my own (I never actually minded missing them, but that’s another story). Other kids talked about it more. About the attacks they’d had and what they had to take. Most people didn’t even know I had it. Upon first seeing me bent double during sport, most people would (and sometimes still do) put it down to other things.
I always secretly dreamed that I would grow out of asthma, like so many children do. That one day I could be an adult who didn’t need to inhale steroids twice a day just to function. I’m slowly accepting that probably isn’t going to happen.
Despite what anti-smoking ads will have you believe, it is impossible to imagine what it is like being unable to breathe. Breathing is such a fundamentally involuntary action, like blinking or sweating. We take it for granted. We have to.
I can remember all the times it’s been really bad. When it feels as if there’s a tiny wall at the entrance to your wind-pipe which none of your desperate racking breaths can penetrate. Your brain starts to scream in panic and, as a result, you start to cry. Which makes breathing harder. And in those awful, horrible moments you know nothing except the fact that you can’t breathe.
Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.
Seretide is the particularly wonderful breed of steroid I propel into my lungs twice a day. The great thing is that the drug sort of builds up in your system; this means that, when I need to, I can go a few days without taking it. Late last year I was so busy I didn’t notice I was running low until the cannister was well and truly empty. Then I realised I didn’t have a repeat prescription. When a particularly potent flu hit me full in the face, it had been two weeks since I’d had drugs.
I have been to the university doctor twice. On neither occasion did I make an appointment. The first time I had cut myself opening a can and was bleeding liberally from a gash in my finger. The second time I walked in, leant heavily on the desk and, upon being asked if I’d make an appointment, gasped “No, but I can’t really breathe.”
They let me in right away. Both times.
The doctor told me, in no uncertain terms to go home and stay there.
I remember lying in bed, curled into a foetal ball and sobbing quietly. I was just whispering, over and over, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” For days, that was all I knew.
Can’t breathe. Can’t breathe.
I have a fairly functioning sense of self-worth. I’m sure enough in who I am that it takes a lot to trip up my self-confidence. Asthma is kind of the loophole clause.
When my lungs tell me I can’t run around the field at Quidditch training, that humiliation burns. No one is judging me. The scorn is entirely self-inflicted. I feel so useless. So pitiful. So pathetic.
The hardest thing, I think, is that this is not a weakness I can overcome. That is how I deal with challenges; I face them down and work out a solution. I can’t do that with my lungs. We simply have to co-exist in the best way we can.
My asthma isn’t that bad. “Moderate but well controlled” my doctor once said. And I know there are much worse things in the world, all sorts of far more terrible ills.
But in those moments when breathing isn’t something you take for granted anymore, it’s hard to imagine what those are.