It’s been a year and four months since I went to the hospital with a life-threatening asthma attack. That day was a turning point for me. My life has changed since then and I’d like to talk about that. Not because I particularly enjoy talking about it (it’s pretty hard actually and I’ve been putting it off for a year) but because maybe, this can be helpful to someone who is going through similar things.
For me, this is probably the worst thing in regards to asthma: Feeling misunderstood.
A few months ago, after a hopeful summer without needing any medication, autumn and the flu brought back severe symptoms, the worst of them not being able to breathe when laying down (which has a scary Greek name and is mainly associated with heart failure or in some cases, asthma). A week of heavy medication later, I was back to a normal level of breathing. One of those days, I walked to school with a colleague I had met at the train station. Since the air was cold that day and cold is one of my triggers, I was coughing from time to time. “Having a cold?“ he asked. “It’s asthma actually.“ His thoughtless reply blew my mind: “Oh yeah for a few days I’ve had a cough in the mornings, too. Sounds even worse than yours!“
It’s moments like that (and they frequently happen) that I realize how alone I’m in this because people who haven’t suffered from asthma will simply never understand. I myself never understood until I had it, and even then, I went through the first several attacks without understanding what they were. Even when I was at the hospital with my lungs barely functioning anymore and the pulmonary specialist asked me whether I had asthma, I firmly said no, definitely not. It’s a medical condition that somehow is really hard to wrap your mind around.
If you’re healthy, breathing is the most normal thing in the world to you. That something is as easy as breathing is even a common saying. But, once you experience what it’s like not to be able to breathe anymore, your whole world changes. At least it did for me.
What I struggled with for months in the beginning was severe anxiety and the fear for my symptoms to suddenly deteriorate and not being able to get help in time. Living alone resulted in sleepless night after sleepless night, fearfully listening to the wheezing sounds coming from my chest, wondering if they were staying the same or getting worse.
At the same time, my self-confidence plummeted into unknown depths. I felt damaged, worthless, unlovable. I told my mum about it and she said to me that that was nonsense, that a medical condition didn’t define me, but all the wonderful attributes that I had. Her words were kind but I had a hard time believing them. I was so angry with myself for being this broken person that needed medication to function.
It was all so unfair: That so many healthy people walked the earth but I was the one with a problem. That I spent (and still do) a ridiculous amount of money on medication when other people get to spend their money on nice, fun, or lasting things. I was jealous and bitter for a long time (and resenting myself for it).
How am I doing now, one year and four months in?
I still have the occasional moment of self-pity when I wish I could be “normal“ like everyone else. I still cringe every time I pay a lot of money at the pharmacy. I still get slightly offended when a colleague at the lunch table moves away from me when I cough because they think I’m spreading some kind of germs. But believe it or not, there are good things too that asthma has taught me.
Asthma has taught me to listen to my body. I used to be a workaholic and still am sometimes. What has changed is that I very well know now when enough is really enough. I don’t push myself over the edge anymore, instead I’ve learnt to hit the brakes. When I have any kind of respiratory infection, I know exactly what the doctor is going to say and what he’s going to prescribe. I have also developed the superpower to feel the common cold about three days before the actual symptoms start. Long story short: I’ve learnt to hear what my body has to say and (most of the time) I react accordingly.
Secondly, asthma has taught me empathy. A friend recently said to me: “You were a pretty empathetic person even before this happened to you“, which I hope is true, but I feel it has changed still. I know now what it’s like to be giving 200%, trying your hardest having your shit together health wise and work wise, but to a healthy person you’ll still just look lazy or weak. And sadly most healthy people will let you know that, through mindless comments or rolled eyes. Healthy people don’t know their privilege. They also don’t know how much they are hurting people struggling with their health when they are giving them the feeling that they aren’t trying hard enough.
Lastly and most importantly, asthma has taught me gratitude. This one is hard to explain, but I’lt try it with this example: When I open my eyes in the morning, it’s not that I have to go to work, but I am able go to work. That’s a big difference. I leave the house in the morning because I’m able to. I still pull off a crazy full-time job because I’m able to. I go hiking in the mountains because I am able to. I sing karaoke for six hours straight because I’m able to.
Asthma has had me make a hard and fast decision: I had the choice between continuously hating myself for not being perfect, or being goddamn grateful for breathing, every day.
I chose the latter.