Most people are very understanding of asthma, but I have been told certain things in passing, by friends, educators, and strangers alike – “Asthma is just coughing.” “Stop overreacting.” “You obviously don’t exercise enough.” “It’s not a real illness.” “Just get over it.”
It’s November 8th, the cold has creeped in across the country. I’m sitting down on my sofa, my legs intertwined with my partner’s as he is on his laptop and I doze. As I breathe, I can hear the slight squeaks of asthma. My partner and I laugh, it makes me sound like an angry mouse. It’ll go away in a minute, it normally does. Ten minutes goes by, and the wheezing gets louder. In breath, out breath, in breath, out breath. I wait it out. I don’t feel tight chested. I don’t want to take my inhaler unless I really need to. Just practice the breathing exercise; ‘in through your nose, out through your mouth’. It doesn’t work. I take a deep breath to say ‘I need to get my inhaler’ and it starts. The breath catches in my chest, I start to cough, and I can’t stop. With each cough comes a ragged breath and what feels like a hand around my lungs. The wheezing is echoing in my ears and I’m not getting enough air. I bolt off the sofa and stumble to my bag on the dining table. The pounding has begun in my head, the alarm that I’m not getting enough oxygen. In what seems to be in the distance, I can hear my partner saying ‘get your inhaler!’ My shaking hands plunge into the bag, searching. Thud, thud, thud, the blood pumps violently in my brain. I’m gasping for air but everything is getting tighter and tighter in my chest. The panic is setting in. ‘Don’t let it in, it’ll only make it worse’. The black dots begin to appear in front of my eyes. Shit, shit, shit. I grasp the inhaler, bring it to my lips and try as hard as I possibly can to breathe in. Hold it in, 1, 2, 3, 4. I don’t make it to 10 seconds, I splutter, searching for air. There’s no such thing as immediate relief. I breathe in the white smoke for a second time. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Better than last time. I stand, shaking hands clutching a chair and my inhaler, wheezing and gasping, waiting for the medication to hit my system.
I think back to when I was a child. I see my dad holding me up to a mirror to we can see my blue lips. The flickers of the blue lights outside of the house. The paramedics put an oxygen mask on my teddy bear so I don’t feel so scared of mine. My parents bundling me in blankets and coats as we rush to Out of Hours. My purple and white finger nails. Balloons and teddy bears. Starchy hospital linen. Chest x-ray cages. Panic attacks. Missing school.
Within 30 seconds, the medication begins to take effect. Amongst the wheezing and cough, I begin to take in air. My chest slowly untightens like a fist unfurling. Minutes pass and I am stood there, knuckles white from clutching the chair, my system quietening down, apart from an unpleasant rattle in the bottom of my chest. ‘I think I’m going to go to bed’.
I try to sleep, but the rattle happens every time I breathe. It sounds and feels like there is a marble in my chest that moves around manically every time I breathe. Rattle. Breathe out. Rattle. Breathe out. Rattle. Breathe out. I feel lucky tonight, at least I can breathe. At least I can breathe. I eventually doze off but it’s never for long. Every time I slip below the covers and I wake up breathless and panicking. The November cold settles in at 6am, and I wake up, gasping and wheezing, a replay of last night all over again.
Today, I am left wrapped up on the sofa in duvets, hoodies and scarves. For most people, that sounds like a dream. I hate it. I can’t go in to work. I can barely walk to the bathroom without wheezing, how can I possibly walk 30 minutes across Winchester in the 4 degree cold? Even if I survive the walk across the city, if an asthma attack happens at work, there’s no place for me to settle and be warm; off to hospital I go. I can’t treat this as a day off either. I can’t clean around the house; dust sets off asthma. I can’t have a bath; heat change sets off asthma. I definitely can’t go to the gym; I need my inhaler there on a good day. So, I am sat here, regulating my temperature, sitting still, trying not to laugh or cough in case that sets it off.
This time, no-one has criticised my inability to leave the house. Mainly because I haven’t told anyone. I mean, I have criticised myself, but that is more of a mental thing. I haven’t been challenged over my asthma this time around. But, as I was trying to sleep last night, those thoughts crept back into my head. Not the tens of times I have been on an oxygen mask, not the viable doctor’s notes, not the hospital visits, not the lifelong prescriptions of Ventolin and Seretide. The negative, passing words from friends, educators, and strangers crept into my mind and made me angry. I wasn’t angry for me, I was angry for other people who might have heard those comments or had similar comments said their way. People who are now ashamed to have asthma, who downplay it because they are not seen as serious enough.
“Asthma is just coughing.” “Stop overreacting.” “You obviously don’t exercise enough.” “It’s not a real illness”. “Just get over it.”
Just get over it.
If only getting over a long-term inflammatory disease was simple.
This is not a sympathy piece. This is written to draw attention to the seriousness of asthma.