The Panic of Asthma Attacks

After 21 years of (moderately) succeeding at keeping myself alive, I have been slammed with a new challenge: asthma.

I assumed this was a nasty side effect of my recent bout with pneumonia and would go away on its own without having to pay much attention to it.

And then I stopped breathing while attempting to cross a busy intersection. I don’t know what set it off. The exertion of running back and forth between my job on the fifth floor of a law firm and the court house across the street? Or maybe it was the bitter cold that made it difficult to move. These were factors, surely, but there was only one reason: My lungs had given up on me.

I’ve never experienced this type of limitation before. My body has never really worked properly for me, but it rarely has been an impediment. It has rarely been the source of my problems.

“Your lungs are terrible,” my doctor told me. “Between your chronic bronchitis and the pneumonia, they just aren’t working the way they should anymore. You don’t smoke, do you?”

What a loaded question. I don’t smoke. Never have, never will. But my mother does, and has for my entire life. I told my doctor this.

“Well, I have to be honest, it looks like you have a severe allergy to smoke. Stay away from it and keep an inhaler on you at all times.”

Easier said than done. In order to keep myself breathing, I had to spend the duration of my winter break hiding from my mother. I had three separate asthma attacks on Christmas day alone. Despite her efforts to not smoke around me, it didn’t matter. I still had to isolate myself.

I rang in the new year outside on my deck with an asthma attack wrapped up in a panic attack as I tearfully insisted to my boyfriend that I was dying and about to stop breathing. My inability to chase after my dog or go a full day without fear of my lungs closing kept me in a perpetual nervous, tense state.

I walk slowly now, and according to my roommate, my breathing sounds terrifying while I sleep. If I get flustered or panicked I have to reach for my inhaler. If I laugh too hard, I have to reach for my inhaler. My previously quirky social anxiety has turned into a full-blown anxiety. Talking to new people or being put in uncomfortable situations makes me nervous, as always, but now I have the fear that if I panic too much, I’ll have an asthma attack. I’ll cough and make terrible rattling noises. I’ll probably cry. Everyone will stare. And then the panic closes in and my throat closes, and there it is. The asthma and the panic are tied together: The panic brings on the asthma, and the asthma brings on the panic.

I have always been a person who pushes through until the job is done. If my head hurts, I work through it. If I have pneumonia, I go to class until I physically can’t get out of bed. I don’t believe in “don’ts” and I would rather die than be complacent. If I decided I could do something, I could do it.

And now I find myself a person who has to leave an extra 15-minute buffer so I can get to class without walking too quickly. I have to turn the car around and go home to get my inhaler. I’m chained down, and no breathing exercises will keep back the voice in the back of my head.

“You’re failing,” it says.

“You’re so pathetic that you can’t even breath properly.”

“How are you going to handle your life when you can’t even manage to get through the grocery store without having an asthma attack?”

Rationally, I know that my asthma is probably not life-threatening. I’ve held it off without an inhaler before, and I have survived. But when my throat begins to close and I start to wheeze, it doesn’t seem survivable. My head splits with the lack of oxygen. My mind races ahead of me.

Each day is literally a challenge to keep breathing. Stay calm. Don’t panic. Each day I remind myself that I have not died. If the inhaler is in the car, I will survive. I can become independent again. I can become unchained. I don’t have to isolate myself.

It’s just one day at a time.

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