Personal Essays

Never Take A Single Breath for Granted


It began with a strange smell or scent in the air. A sixth sense I have. Then  some sneezing and wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe in). Eventually my  lungs start itching. It escalates quickly….far too quickly. It’s an itch I can’t scratch. My fingernails want to claw deep inside my chest cavity and break open my ribs, when in fact my lungs aren’t itching at all. It’s my body. My body warning me that I am not getting any oxygen to my lungs and into my blood stream.  A wimpy cough comes out. It’s not deep, it’s a not cough from deep down inside my gut. It isn’t wet with phlegm or even dry and hacking. It’s shallow…it’s breathy. Oh geez. It’s my asthma. Shit.

In situations like this, the first thing you think is, “Don’t panic.” And you actually don’t panic. You have been trained to go through a series of steps during times like these. Your body allows your brain to go through these steps, to take in the damage. To protect yourself.

First, stop everything you are doing and be still.

I set the crowbar down. I drop my hands to my side. And I try to take a breath in. “Hiiiiissssss….” a high pitched wheeze barely makes it’s way out. Another couple of breaths. The wheeze intensifies and grows louder. It feels as though it is bouncing among the large stones in the foundation wall.


Second, control the breaths to the best of your ability.

I pucker my lips together, making the ubiquitous “duck face” so mocked on the internet. It’s something I have done since I was a little, during my first bought with asthmatic problems. For some reason, it either intensifies your breathes or tricks your mind into thinking your are breathing more deeply. Whichever it is, it works for me.

Third, assess movement.

I take a couple of steps and then stand still again. Although my body is in a hyperactive state, I can breathe fine if I keep controlled, slow movement. I drop down to my knees on the hard, cold, cement floor and lower my head between my knees. It’s false security, but it makes me feel as though I have given myself a few extra minutes to figure out the fourth step. That stupid fourth step.


Fourth, locate your inhaler.

My mind races. Did I leave it outside in the car? Or did I bring it in the house with me? No, it’s definitely in the house. But where? I think back to packing my bag in the morning, while still bent on my knees and making a dumb duck face and breathing. I bet it’s in my coat pocket. What if it’s not? Is Tyler still at the house? Can he hear me if I shout? Will he have any medicine left in his inhaler?

Fifth, move your butt and find the inhaler…but do it calmly!

I stand up and move up the stairs of the basement, entering the cold air of the main floor of the house. My coat is sitting in the bay window. I quickly move to the window and sit down right on top of the pile of screws and nails as, in one swift move, I reach into first one and the other pocket of my winter coat. My hand wraps around the red plastic case of my rescue inhaler and I feel myself relaxing already.

I shake the inhaler and take a practice breathe in. It does no good if you can’t get the medicine into your lungs. I pull off the cap, put my lips on the cold mouthpiece. I breathe in again, shallowly and puff out my air into the inhaler-as strong as possible. On the next inhale, I push down the canister and the medicine is propelled into my mouth. I breathe as deeply as possible and against all nature, hold that breath in as long as my body will allow.

Now I wait.

A minute goes by. Still wheezing. Still making a duck-face. I repeat the process with the inhaler again. And wait again.

The wheezing stops. Then my blood starts racing. My hands start shaking. I collapse my head between my knees and rub the back of my neck. The medicine in my rescue inhaler has quickened my pulse (as it is suppose to)….tripling the rate of blood flow through my body as if I had just sprinted a 500 meter race. It’s a necessary side effect of the drug, but also a dangerous one. I breathe slow and deep. Slow and deep. Slow and deep. I start inhaling with my nose and exhaling with my mouth, trying to slow down the racing blood. My whole body is exhausted.

Throughout the rest of the day and into the wee hours of the next morning, I have to be “rescued” by my inhaler seven more times. Each time, the blood screams through my veins, causing me to stop what I’m doing and shake. It’s the Catch-22 of being an asthmatic, you can possibly die of suffocation if you don’t take your medicine…or take your medicine and possibly die of a heart attack. The adrenaline keeps me awake and wears me out simultaneously.

I believe it was a mold in the basement, uncovered when I tore apart an old shelving unit. Tyler believes it could have been the cement dust from cutting the siding the floor above me, swirling around. I was wearing a mask. It made no difference. Whatever it was, it attacked me. It attacked quickly and with fierceness.


I should have gone to the hospital for a nebulizer treatment. But the last thing I need is an ER bill for a thousand bucks and a lecture from another ER doctor about how asthma is a serious illness. Man, I know it’s a serious illness and it is seriously something I will continue to deal with for the rest of my life….sometimes knowing where the danger lies and sometimes having it sprung upon me without more than a few minutes of warning-like the day in the basement.

So please excuse me if I don’t come to your house because you have cats, or rabbits, or smoke, or if I don’t sit outside and watch a sporting event that takes place in a field full of grass covered in chemicals or am weary of painkillers because they might contain codeine or cover my mouth in scarves and material when the air temperature is below freezing, or don’t take a hayride, or don’t drink a milkshake.

Because all of these things…all of these things and other things that I don’t even know about yet, all of them have lead me down this path. This path of not panicking. This path of duck-faced breathing while locating my inhaler. This path that sends the blood racing through my body as if it’s on fire. This path that causes doctors I’ve never met tell me I don’t understand my body and am not taking care of it because I had the misfortunate of finding a NEW trigger for an asthma attack.

Never take one single breath for granted.



2 thoughts on “Never Take A Single Breath for Granted”

  1. Been there, too. No fun at all! Tell Tyler that I read somewhere that you can cut that siding by scoring and snapping it instead of sawing to minimize the silica dust. Might help?

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