Day 84: But I Can't Breathe
I have a lot of problems with breathing. I have strange, and serious allergies. I have asthma. I experience spasms of the muscles between my ribs that feel like a knife is stabbing me. I sometimes just have a heaviness to my chest that feels like it's too difficult to do the work of breathing.
Sometimes I actually can't breathe. There are certain substances that close my airway. Also, cold air and exercise can induce my asthma. I was diagnosed with allergies and asthma when I was in my early 30s because my youngest child was diagnosed. We had visited the emergency department three times in a matter of weeks. Colleagues at work were convinced my son had asthma and that I did as well. But, it took a snide, condescending comment from an ER nurse to get me to seriously consider the possibility.
It was the third 3 am (on a Sunday) visit to the hospital. Our son had that barking cough (like a seal), along with a runny nose, that describes croup. At 3 am when your child is fighting for air you go to the hospital. I know well enough that I can't treat a breathing emergency at home. So, on this third visit the nurse says to me, "you must be a new mom."
She patted my arm as she said it.
I think I might have held my tongue if she hadn't touched me. But, her overly-familiar manner and her condescending tone (combined with my physical exhaustion) sparked my ferocity. I yelled at her she had no idea what she was talking about. I had an older child whom we had never taken to the emergency room. I said she must expect a parent facing a child's breathing emergency at 3 in the morning to just wait until the peds clinic opened and hope for the best until then. She must expect that we parents have the knowledge and tools of emergency room personnel, in which case, "why the hell should there even be emergency departments?!" I screamed at her to get out of the room and that I didn't want to so much as lay eyes on her again.
Yeah, I over reacted. For sure.
I am realizing that a big part of my pattern is having a store of rage consequent to the abuses I experienced at the hands of health care providers, as well as the shame I carried for so long about health care in general.
The only time I feel my emotions is when they combust unexpectedly in situations that spark anger.
The day after this very loud ER visit I was thinking about how angry I was at that nurse. (I know my fury with the nurse was anger at my mom that exploded full force.) I realized I needed to take my son to a pulmonologist. For his sake I was not going to ignore his cough, or let that nurse belittle us. We had the appointment not long after that and, looking at the information we put on the family history the doctor said, "Oh, you have asthma too."
This was the last thing I expected to hear. We were there about my son. But, he explained that it is often hereditary. He scheduled me for an appointment as well. Sure enough, both my son and I have asthma. And, I have a slew of allergies. All of the years that I have coughed and felt my chest become a vice, I have been struggling to breathe. I wasn't just afraid to compete, afraid to lose. I wasn't able to breathe!
I know deep down I feel a great deal of anger about this toward my mom.
I can't access those feelings until something accidently pokes through my armor (like that stupid nurse).
There is another aspect to this story that I am thinking about tonight. It's my personal associations with breathing. I'm sure I would have allergies and asthma regardless, because my parents were heavy smokers. Breathing problems were pretty much guaranteed. But, a fair number of my sensitivities are related to child abuse, neglect, CSA and SA.
From the neglect standpoint, there was my mom's willful disregard of my symptoms. For example, I was a healthy kid who ran and played and spent endless hours outside. But, one summer when I was on the swim team I couldn't finish my first (and it turned out last) race. I got part way through the second lap and my lungs felt like they caught fire. My chest felt like a vice. It felt like I was choking on the water. I stopped on the side of the pool and climbed out, terrified. My mom came and quickly grabbed me, embarrassed for it to be her child who didn't finish the race. She said, "you just started coughing because you were losing."
I was nine years old.
I didn't know there was something that could cause someone to have trouble breathing. And, I was well aware that I was losing. I could not swim anywhere near as fast as other kids. I couldn't run as far, either. So, I absorbed the shame she gave me and believed my coughing wasn't real. (To this day my mom doesn't believe I have asthma or that asthma is a legitimate diagnosis . . . unless one of her friends has it.)
Breathing has not only been physically inhibited for me, but also emotionally hazardous.
- Cigarette smoke breath
- Red wine breath
- Perfume mixed with cigarette smoke
- Coffee breath
- Bubble gum
- Hospital rooms
A few months ago I got in a fight with a woman on an airplane. I could have avoided the fight if I had felt the slightest compassion for the women. I knew she was mentally unhealthy. I read it on her instantaneously. But, I was geared up for a fight because she smelled of alcohol, perfume, and cigarette smoke. I was instantly angry just because of her smell. I didn't start anything with her, but when she did (as I knew she would) I was more than happy to engage in her craziness, and to humiliate her.
So, my lesson today:
In addition to needing safe touch, I also need to be able to breathe, and to be able to care for my symptoms without shame. I need to be able to avoid the asthma triggers without feeling guilty or embarrassed.