I was an asthmatic kid. I’m also an asthmatic adult. And — don’t get me wrong, asthma sucks, but — I think it has made me a better person over time. You know that old saw about adversity building character? Asthma is a disease that robs you the ability to breathe. You have to learn to deal with it.
Unlike many diseases, asthma is fundamentally honest. It does what it does in a relatively predictable way, and it doesn’t usually try to trick you in to thinking it’s something else. The symptoms aren’t “flu-like”: you know exactly what’s happening.
I clearly remember, as a child, running after the soccer ball on a sunny afternoon until my lungs started closing and my head got light. My mother with an inhaler. You won’t be surprised I never scored a goal.
So, Coach figured, if the kid can’t run for sustained periods (an ability considered desirable in a soccer player), maybe he can be a goalkeeper. Those guys just stand around, right? Yeah, no. The goal remained fairly unkept.
It was the same with lacrosse and basically any other team sport I played except softball. Softball seemed to involve a lot of standing around and waiting in line, both of which I’m good at.
Individual activities were a different matter. I could ride a bike. I could swim. I wasn’t so much with the jogging, but hey, better than nothing. I learned to compete against myself. Also, reading did not cause asthma attacks. I read massively. I probably would have done so anyway, but I think I did it more than I otherwise might have, and if anything expands your horizons as a young teenager, it’s reading a lot.
When I was a boy in the 60s and 70s, the wonderful relief medications that have made life so much easier for asthmatics in the last 40 years were only starting to arrive on the market, and the amazing preventive meds that started arriving around the same time and feel like magic to me didn’t really become available until the late 1990s. Back then, my doctor’s consistent advice was: if something gives you an an asthma attack, don’t do that! And lots of things gave me asthma attacks. Walking into barns. Playing with kittens.
Now, the point is not “woe is me, I couldn’t play sports.” And of course, lots of people have it way worse, and yes, there are lots of elite athletes with asthma. Maybe we can really only learn the lessons of our own lives.
So here’s the thing: if you are having an asthma attack, you can’t breathe, and you can’t panic. Panic makes it worse. You have to accept what’s happening, and acknowledge that it’s beyond your immediate control. Then you have to slow down and calm your mind. It helps to turn away from the problem and move your mind over to other things.
TV works. So does reading and writing (if you can concentrate). Listen to the birds. Watch the clouds scud by. But also: find a way to be productive that respects your limits. So you can’t run around? Fine. Do some math.
Ok, I don’t do math. But neither, as far as I know, did Che Guevara or Dylan Thomas (neither of whom dealt well with his asthma, by the way. I have also succumbed to the temptation over time to just act as though I didn’t have it at all.)
Asthma throws you back on yourself. You can’t hide from yourself during an asthma attack. You’ve lost control over something fundamental. You want to take it back, but the way to do that is partly by not doing it.
You have to take your body seriously, but it really helps if you don’t take yourself too seriously. You can’t get angry or allow frustration to take over, since strong emotion can make it worse. You have to learn to relinquish control and just wait for your body to right itself. So I follow my old doctor’s orders — I get away from whatever is causing the attack; I slow down; and I wait.
The waiting can can take days, and unless they know you very well, other people can’t see it. So if you’re someone who feels like a shirker when others are running around and you’re not because you can’t but they can’t see that, well, at some point it’s not the audience that counts.
Even if you’re Dylan Thomas.